Whether of the COVID or computer variety, viruses’ impact on large-scale meatpacking plants has led to a new wave of demand for local beef – and the sector is scrambling to meet it.
When a cyberattack shut down 20% of U.S. beef processing capacity at the beginning of this month, it was only the latest in a series of upsets to the industry dating back to the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last April and May, COVID outbreaks in some of the nation’s largest meatpacking plants led several to close. Since just over 50 of the nation’s 800-some federally-inspected plants handle up to 98% of the country’s total capacity, those closures caused a sharp drop in the number of cattle slaughtered. At the worst point, in May, the weekly number of cattle slaughtered was barely more than half that from the year before.
Plants running at reduced capacity caused backups in feedlots, which rapidly spilled over to the cow-calf operations that supply them. Ranchers unable to market animals through the usual channels started looking for alternate outlets. Meanwhile, downstream, grocery store meat shoppers faced rising prices and even local shortages, and began to cast about for other sources.
Both producers and customers soon turned to local meat processing plants – and a new bottleneck quickly developed. Across the nation, small-scale slaughterhouses soon found themselves booked out a year or more in advance.
As the pandemic dragged on, the meat industry soon managed to recover its balance. Slaughter capacity returned to normal levels by early summer, and feedlot numbers by early fall. By spring of this year, cancellations of panic bookings were starting to open up local slaughter plants’ schedules, although prices for live cattle remain well below average.
Still, the entire situation highlighted a major structural vulnerability in the nation’s meat supply chain, caused by the concentration of capacity in the hands of a few large meatpacking corporations. Last year’s rush to local alternatives showed that – unlike a disease outbreak or a ransomware attack – the necessary infrastructure can’t be built out overnight.
For those looking ahead to mitigating the *next* crisis, there are plenty of quality resources on local meat processing available from Oklahoma’s land-grant university system. The Food and Agriculture Products Center (FAPC) at OSU offers a variety of free materials to smooth out the learning curve.
The bulk of the information is targeted at those looking to set up a new processing facility, and it is extensive, with feasibility templates, construction standards, sample facility layouts, position descriptions, and more. However, there is also basic information for those who are interested in both buying and selling through direct marketing arrangements, as well.