Tuesday May 18th, 2021 10:03AM

Meatpacking rebounds but high prices and backlogs to persist

By The Associated Press
Related Articles
  Contact Editor

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Meat production has rebounded from its low point during the coronavirus pandemic when dozens of plants were closed, but experts say consumer prices are likely to remain high and it will take months to work through a backlog of millions of pigs and cattle, creating headaches for producers.

Earlier this week, beef, pork and poultry plants were operating at more than 95% of last year’s levels, which was up from about 60% in April at the height of plant closures and slowdowns, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. That increased production came as companies took steps to protect workers, such as adding plastic partitions between work stations and staggering shifts, that are essential but could slow down the work. The safety measures and bonuses to incentivize workers have increased costs.

And while worker advocates stress that companies must be vigilant to avoid more coronavirus infections, those steps will likely mean higher prices at grocery stores. Even if plants became more efficient, there is a lag of several weeks between when wholesale prices drop and when consumers start to see the change.

Grocery stores, which absorbed some of the meat price increases this spring, also may not pass along all the price cuts as they try to restore their profit margins.

“Don’t expect prices to fall in half just because wholesale prices have declined dramatically,” said Lee Schulz, a livestock economist at Iowa State University.

Besides adopting measures to keep workers healthy, Kansas State University agricultural economist Glynn Tonsor said meat processors have also boosted production by operating plants more on Saturdays, rather than just weekdays, and by saving time by producing larger cuts of meat. That means grocery stores or consumers may have to cut a pork loin down into pork chops instead of that work being done at meat plants, for example.

But to work through the beef and pork backlogs quickly, meat processors may have to find ways to boost production higher than last year’s levels, said Will Sawyer, a protein economist at Cobank, an agribusiness bank. Before the pandemic, meatpacking plants had been expected to produce more than they did last year.

Even as production levels climb, it will likely take all summer and maybe into the fall to work through the backlog of more than 1 million cattle and more than 2 million pigs that was created this spring when dozens of plants were closed. That will continue to create problems for farmers and ranchers who are struggling to find space for all those animals and face low prices because of the supply glut.

Mike Drinnin, who owns feedlots in Nebraska, said everyone involved in raising and feeding cattle felt the squeeze when so many beef and pork processing plants were idled, because fewer cattle were being bought by processors. More cattle are remaining in pastures and feedlots longer than normal while ranchers try to slow their growth rate to give themselves more flexibility.

“It’s been a long, long, hard haul here since March and all this kind of started,” said Drinnin, who serves on the board of the Nebraska Cattlemen trade group. “It’s just been quite the struggle for everybody.”

Pig farmers have been hit especially hard by the backlog because of the tight capacity on their farms. It has led some to euthanize pigs to create space in their barns.

“As farmers we’re always trying to plan for the future, and it’s just impossible right now,” said Mike Paustian, the president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association. “The only thing that’s certain is that this problem is not going to go away anytime soon.”

Largely because poultry plants are more automated, they didn't see as many virus outbreaks and closures, with production only falling about 5%, Sawyer said. The plants that did close temporarily were also smaller than some of the beef and pork plants that closed.

As meat plants scale up to full capacity, companies still must ensure that plants don't again become hotbeds of infections, said Mark Lauritsen, director of the food processing and meatpacking division for the United Food and Commercial Workers International union. The union represents roughly 80% of the country’s beef and pork workers and 33% of its poultry workers.

“We’re still seeing outbreaks,” Lauritsen said. “It’s a strange virus because it’s hard to say where it will pop up next.”

Lauritsen said many plants where hundreds of employees became infected have reopened since implementing safety measures. But other plants, like a JBS beef plant in Hyrum, Utah, are just now seeing outbreaks. The plant, where mass testing revealed that 287 employees had COVID-19 this week, has had to slow some of its operations, but it remains open.

The union estimates that 13,150 U.S. meatpacking plant workers been infected or exposed to the coronavirus and 57 have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

As plants scale up to full capacity, Lauritsen said he’s concerned they will ease up on safety measures.

Worker shortages also still seem be a problem at some plants, with many employees cautiously returning to work. One labor staffing company in Arkansas, TEC Staffing Services, has held “drive thru hiring events” for poultry plants, seeking to fill hundreds of open positions.

Marisol Avelar, who works at a JBS pork plant in Worthington, Minnesota, said dozens of people are missing every day from her shift on the production line. When she was called back to work last month after the plant temporarily closed, her fears were somewhat assuaged by the safety measures the company had taken. She's still nervous, though, because of talk about infected workers.

“The company has done a lot of work trying to keep everyone safe, but people have continued getting infected,” she said.


Associated Press writer Stephen Groves contributed to this story from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • Associated Categories: U.S. News, Associated Press (AP), AP National News, Top U.S. News short headlines, AP Business, AP Business - Corporate News, AP Business - Economy, AP Business - Industries, AP Business - Agriculture, AP Business - Poultry & Egg
© Copyright 2021
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
Coronavirus survivor in US receives double lung transplant
Surgeons in Chicago have given a new set of lungs to a young woman with severe lung damage from the coronavirus
3:12PM ( 6 minutes ago )
Alarming rise in virus cases as states roll back lockdowns
Coronavirus cases are rising in nearly half the U.S. states
3:07PM ( 11 minutes ago )
Protesters topple Jefferson Davis statue in Virginia capital
Protesters have pulled down a century-old statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the former capital of the Confederacy, adding it to the list of Old South monuments removed or damaged around the U.S. in the wake of George Floyd’s death
3:05PM ( 13 minutes ago )
U.S. News
Dow sinks 1,600 as virus cases rise, deflating optimism
Stocks are falling sharply on Wall Street as coronavirus cases increase again, deflating recent optimism that the economy could recover quickly as lockdowns ease
2:54PM ( 24 minutes ago )
Senate panel advances Mississippi appeals court nominee
The Senate Judiciary Committee has advanced a federal appeals court nominee from Mississippi, despite Democratic objections over derisive comments he made about former President Barack Obama and his signature health care legislation
2:44PM ( 34 minutes ago )
NFL extends virtual offseason until June 26
The NFL has extended virtual offseason programs for teams through June 26
2:43PM ( 35 minutes ago )
Associated Press (AP)
White nationalist's lawyer wants out of rally violence case
A leading white nationalist figure in the U.S. blames his notoriety for his failure to pay a lawyer to defend him against a lawsuit over violence that erupted at a Virginia rally that he helped organize
2:06PM ( 1 hour ago )
Stocks sink, reversing recent gains, as virus cases spike
Stocks are falling sharply on Wall Street, pulling the Dow more than 1,500 points lower and placing the S&P 500 on track for its worst day in nearly three months
1:58PM ( 1 hour ago )
Milley says he was wrong to accompany Trump on church walk
The nation's top military officer says it was a mistake for him to cross Lafayette Square with President Donald Trump last week after the park was forcefully cleared of protesters
1:49PM ( 1 hour ago )
AP National News
The Latest: Miami-Dade police to stop using chokeholds
The head of Florida’s largest police department says his agency will stop using chokeholds
12:08PM ( 3 hours ago )
Long seen as radical, Black Lives Matter goes mainstream
For much of its seven-year existence, the Black Lives Matter movement has been seen by many Americans as a divisive, even radical force
9:53AM ( 5 hours ago )
Jefferson Davis statue torn down in Richmond, Virginia
Protesters have torn down a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis along Richmond, Virginia’s famed Monument Avenue
9:18AM ( 6 hours ago )
Top U.S. News short headlines
Trump OKs sanctions against international tribunal employees
President Donald Trump has leveled a broadside against the International Criminal Court
2:03PM ( 1 hour ago )
The Latest: US vice president scolded over packed meeting
A U.S. lawmaker who represents northern Virginia suburbs is criticizing Vice President Mike Pence for meeting with dozens of Trump campaign staff packed into an Arlington office without social distancing or masks
1:58PM ( 1 hour ago )
Comcast, Byron Allen end racial discrimination dispute
Comcast and Byron Allen have settled a long-running a long-running racial discrimination dispute, and the cable giant will add three of the black media mogul’s channels to its cable packages
1:13PM ( 2 hours ago )
AP Business
5 Things to Know for Today
Here are a few things to know about the day’s news from The Associated Press
6:12AM ( 9 hours ago )
China auto sales up 14.5% in May, recovering after pandemic
An industry group reports that China’s auto sales surged 14.5% in May as the global industry’s biggest market gradually recovers from the coronavirus pandemic
5:50AM ( 9 hours ago )
Asian shares slide as rising virus cases haunt reopenings
Asian shares have tumbled as reports of rising numbers of coronavirus infections in many countries raised fears over risks from reopenings from pandemic shutdowns
3:25AM ( 11 hours ago )
AP Business - Corporate News
The Latest: Less-hit, poorer nations want access to EU aid
The prime ministers of four central European countries have welcomed a European Union n EU plan to create a 750 billion-euro ($825 billion) recovery fund to help countries weather a recession triggered by the coronavirus pandemic
11:01AM ( 4 hours ago )
1.5 million more laid-off workers seek unemployment benefits
About 1.5 million laid-off workers applied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week, evidence that many Americans are still losing their jobs even as the economy appears to be slowly recovering with more businesses partially reopening
10:03AM ( 5 hours ago )
Stocks open lower on Wall Street as investors turn jittery
Stocks are opening sharply lower on Wall Street as investors turn jittery once again in the face of rising numbers of coronavirus infections in many U.S. states and countries
9:43AM ( 5 hours ago )
AP Business - Economy
Global shares slide as rising virus cases haunt reopenings
Global shares are tumbling as reports of rising numbers of coronavirus infections in many countries raise fears over risks of a resurgence in outbreaks
5:48AM ( 9 hours ago )
Asian shares slide after Wall Street retreat
Asian shares are mostly lower, with Tokyo dropping 1% as the Japanese yen gained after the Federal Reserve said it would keep interest rates low through 2022
11:57PM ( 15 hours ago )
Trump administration cuts oil, gas fees in hundreds of cases
Government data show the Trump administration has awarded energy companies hundreds of breaks on payments for oil and gas extraction from U.S. lands and the Gulf of Mexico during the coronavirus pandemic
7:34PM ( 19 hours ago )
AP Business - Industries
EU urged to act against pesticides to fight insect decline
Environmental groups are urging the European Union to take drastic action to protect insects against heavy pesticide use
9:47AM ( 2 days ago )
Watery end for statue of slave trader in UK city of Bristol
Anti-racism protesters in southwestern England have pulled down the statue of a slave trader and then dumped it into a harbor
4:09PM ( 3 days ago )
Trump allows commercial fishing in marine conservation area
President Donald Trump has rolled back protections at a marine conservation area off the New England coast
7:19PM ( 5 days ago )
AP Business - Agriculture
The Latest: U.N. chief warns of historic levels of famine
The United Nations chief is warning world leaders that the COVID-19 pandemic will cause “unimaginable devastation and suffering around the world,” with historic levels of hunger and famine and up to 1.6 billion people unable to earn a living unless action is taken now
1:40PM ( 2 weeks ago )
Worker shortage concerns loom in immigrant-heavy meatpacking
The meat and poultry industry has historically relied on immigrant labor to do some of the most dangerous jobs in America, from employing refugees to a notorious record of hiring immigrants in the U.S. illegally
7:06AM ( 2 weeks ago )
The Latest: Scotland leader gives ‘map’ for easing lockdown
Scotland’s leader has presented a “map” for easing coronavirus restrictions in the months ahead while observing social distancing guidelines
10:18AM ( 3 weeks ago )
AP Business - Poultry & Egg
Coronavirus survivor in US receives double lung transplant
Surgeons in Chicago have given a new set of lungs to a young woman with severe lung damage from the coronavirus
3:12PM ( 6 minutes ago )
Alarming rise in virus cases as states roll back lockdowns
Coronavirus cases are rising in nearly half the U.S. states
3:07PM ( 12 minutes ago )
Protesters topple Jefferson Davis statue in Virginia capital
Protesters have pulled down a century-old statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the former capital of the Confederacy, adding it to the list of Old South monuments removed or damaged around the U.S. in the wake of George Floyd’s death
3:05PM ( 13 minutes ago )
Trump fumes as protesters stake out festive zone in Seattle
Following days of violent confrontations with protesters, police in Seattle have largely withdrawn from a neighborhood that protesters have transformed into a festival-like scene that has President Donald Trump fuming
3:04PM ( 14 minutes ago )
Final tests of some COVID-19 vaccines to start next month
A U.S. company says it's on track to begin a huge study next month to prove if its COVID-19 vaccine candidate really works, while Brazil will help with final testing of a different shot from China
2:16PM ( 1 hour ago )