Meat processing bottleneck, but no closures for now in NC

FILE -This July 21, 2017 file photo shows young hogs at Everette Murphrey Farm in Farmville, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

RALEIGH — With large meat processing facilities closing in the Midwest, concerns have been raised over meat supply chain disruptions in North Carolina, a major supplier of pork and other meat products.

Smithfield’s facility in Tar Heel is the largest pork processing plant in the world, and after reports of COVID-19 outbreaks affecting workers, concerns only increased. The Tar Heel facility, which processes around 35,000 hogs per day, has had to reduce their hours and put in place extra precautions such as plexiglass barriers between workers, facemasks and temperature tests. A Tyson’s plant in Wilkesboro also grabbed headlines after an outbreak among their more than 1,000 workers.

Despite the fear of these plants closing, no meat processing facilities have closed in the state as of May 5.

“Our North Carolina facilities remain operational,” Smithfield Foods representative Leah Weightman told North State Journal.

Andy Curliss, CEO of the NC Pork Council, which represents the state’s hog farmers, told NSJ, “I’m not aware of any closures. We haven’t had here what has happened in the Midwest. But we do have reduced capacity.”

The reduced hours and increased absences by spooked workers mean there is a “bottleneck” in the food supply chain that farmers can’t ignore. But according to Curliss, the state’s hog farmers have been able to adapt to this reduced capacity as meat processing plants are fighting to stay open.

“We’ve been managing through the reduced capacity of the plants,” Curliss said. He named a few strategies they are implementing, including slowing feedings and breeding, rationing feed, and finding and managing empty spaces. “We’ve dealt with closures and slowdowns in North Carolina, and certainly the Mid-Atlantic, before with hurricanes and ice storms. So I’d say we’re managing through that.”

N.C. commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler and N.C. Farm Bureau President Shawn Harding recently held a joint media event where they discussed President Donald Trump’s executive order of the Defense Production Act for meat processors, the food supply and the important role North Carolina plays in meeting consumer demand.

“This is unusual and unprecedented times,” said Harding at the meeting. “We appreciate our farmers, plant workers and grocery store workers for continuing to do their job. We also appreciate President Donald Trump’s executive order of the Defense Production Act for meat processors.”

Key takeaways from Troxler and Harding’s discussion included messages that there is no food shortage, the food supply is safe and the critical nature of meat-processing facilities.

Troxler told NSJ he didn’t know if more funding or actions might be needed from state legislators at this time.

“We have requested $20 million from the legislature for euthanasia and disposal should that be needed, and it is included in both the House and Senate’s proposals,” Troxler said. “We want to be prepared, but we remain hopeful that it won’t be needed.”

Curliss said right now, euthanizing healthy hogs to relieve overcrowding is not one of their strategies for dealing with the bottleneck.

Curliss and other agriculture leaders cite the Midwest as the location where meat processing is seeing bigger hurdles after the region had three of the largest plants, which collectively supplied 15% of the nation’s pork supply, close. Farmers have had to euthanize hundreds of thousands of hogs that had nowhere to be processed to enter the food supply.

While President Trump’s executive order will not necessarily directly help plants that are struggling to stay operational, many observers say it removes a liability issue where some companies were unsure if staying open put them in legal danger of worker lawsuits.

“With what has been done at the national level with the Defense Production Act and working with our public health partners and the companies, I think we probably will be able to handle the situation as it is right now,” Troxler told NSJ. “But that doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be temporary disruptions down the road.”

Curliss added: “Obviously the effort of the executive order is to ensure that the processing facilities operate as critical essential infrastructure that they are while ensuring the health and safety of the workforce.”

Not every North Carolina leader, however, favored the president’s executive order.

“Where’s the beef? President Trump’s executive order does nothing to protect workers,” U.S. Congresswoman Alma Adams (D-NC12) said in a statement. “Sending employees back to work with no mandatory protections in place to protect them from being exposed to COVID-19 and no recourse to address unsafe work environments threatens the lives of meat processing plant workers, as well as the long-term viability of the food supply chain.”

Curliss agrees that the health and safety of meat processors are vital but says the goal should be both keeping those workers safe and keeping their facilities operational.

“There’s a lot of attention on nurses and doctors and assisted living assistants, and rightfully so; they’re saving lives,” Curliss said. “But I have to say, right next on my list is farmers and processors and grocers and all those working in our food supply, because they sustain lives. So they’re all heroes.”

For now, meat processors are making adjustments. The current situation can be sustained for a time, as it has during past hurricanes and floods, but Curliss says many of his members see what’s happening in the Midwest and are worried things could get worse.

“We, like so many others, have seen impacts from the virus on our industry,” he said. “And we are certainly planning for further impacts across that supply chain.”