Rethinking meat — from farm to table

https://www.adirondackdailyenterprise.com/opinion/columns/field-and-forest-by-richard-gast/2020/06/rethinking-meat-from-farm-to-table/?fbclid=IwAR06tYGCKzST3OCU2s2nfzZ3mVFhJof3oPGUzDYGxu0fGOcY82ZOIYyWn74

Kate Mountain Farm is one of many Adirondack Harvest-associated local farms offering CSA meats and vegetables. Find local producers at adirondackharvest.com/browse. (Photo provided)

The food supply chain system is vulnerable. America’s meatpacking plants endure some of the highest rates of workplace injury of any U.S. job sector, and COVID-19 has introduced yet another occupational hazard. These crowded facilities have become frighteningly successful vectors for COVID-19 contagion.

On Sunday April 26, a news release entitled, “A Delicate Balance: Feeding the Nation and Keeping Our Employees Healthy” appeared as a full-page ad in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It was also widely posted on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Written by John H. Tyson, chairman of the Board of Tyson Foods, the statement declared, “In small communities around the country, where we employ over 100,000 hard-working men and women, we’re being forced to shutter our doors. This means one thing — the food supply chain is vulnerable. As pork, beef, and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain. … Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation. Millions of animals — chickens, pigs and cattle — will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities. The food supply chain is breaking.”

And with that, Southern and Midwestern farmers began euthanizing livestock.

Two days after the publication of Tyson’s letter, President Trump declared that meatpacking plants were “critical infrastructure” under the Defense Production Act of 1950 and prohibited their closure.

While this was happening, vegetable farmers were forced to let their crops rot in the fields or plow otherwise harvestable food into the ground. Dairy farmers, already grappling with low prices, found themselves dumping more than 3.5 million gallons of milk every day (estimate from Dairy Farmers of America). And everywhere, food pantries, facing unprecedented demand, were running out of food. This clearly reveals just how vulnerable, and how unjust, our food supply system can be. It also emphasizes the need to fix it.

Zoonosis: diseases transmitted to humans from animals

Lots of diseases, including most pandemics (e.g. H1N1 [swine flu], H5N1 [bird flu], Ebola, Lyme disease, malaria, rabies, ringworm, West Nile virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome [SARS], HIV/AIDS), originated in animals.

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which infected roughly one-third of the world’s population of 500 million people, killing an estimated 50 million including 675,000 Americans, is believed to have originated on a pig farm. That was long before CAFO factory farms existed.

CAFOs: confined animal feeding operations

CAFO farms can generate a myriad of environmental and public health problems. CAFO manure contains potential contaminants including plant nutrients (e.g. nitrogen, phosphorus) and pathogens (e.g., E. coli, growth hormones, antibiotics, animal blood, silage leachate). The volume of waste produced depends on the type and number of animals farmed. A feeding operation with 800,000 pigs can produce over 1.6 million tons of waste a year. That amount is one-and-a-half times more than the annual sanitary waste produced by the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (GAO, 2008).

The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2000 National Water Quality Inventory found that 29 states specifically identified animal feeding operations (AFOs), not just CAFOs, as contributing to water quality impairment (Congressional Research Service, 2008).

In order to protect their livestock from diseases that might kill entire populations, resulting in huge profit losses, CAFO farmers commonly treat their animals with antibiotics. And poultry fed antibiotic feed show significantly higher weight gain than those fed non-antibiotic feed (Settle et al. 2014). Animals growing at a greater rate than they would otherwise reduces operating costs and increases profit.

But use of antibiotic feed is threatening human health. Every year 2 million people experience serious illness due to untreatable bacterial infection and 23,000 die because the bacteria that made them sick is antibiotic-resistant (Young 2013). When antibiotic-resistant bacteria spreads to a large group of people and cannot be treated, we have what is known as a superbug. And many scientists believe that superbugs are the inevitable consequence we will face if CAFOs continue to use antibiotics indiscriminately in the feed of the nation’s largest source of meats.

Then there’s the animal cruelty issue, which I won’t get into here, other than to say that 9 billion animals, including 8.8 billion chickens, are raised and killed on large, overcrowded U.S. CAFO farms every year (source: Humane Society of the United States).

 

Locally sourced meat: a better alternative

There’s a better way to keep your freezer full: meat CSAs. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm programs directly connect farmers to consumers. You know right where your food is coming from. You’re supporting local farming families that raise top-quality pastured and grass-fed livestock — working with nature rather than against it. Pasture-based farming improves animal health, maximizes cost-efficiency and minimizes farm pollution. You reap the rewards by purchasing affordable, quality meats (and eggs) produced using sustainable farming practices.

You buy a share, and you pick it up when it’s ready. It’s that simple. And most farms offer share sizes to fit everyone’s needs. You can receive meat on a regularly scheduled timetable or one time only.

To learn more or find pretty much every type of locally grown and/or prepared food imaginable (and more), visit adirondackharvest.com/browse or contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office.

State Program to Help Hog Producers Dispose of Animals They Can’t Sell

The Iowa Department of Agriculture has launched a program to help pork producers deal with hogs they can’t take to market after coronavirus shut downs at packing plants. Ag Secretary Mike Naig says it’s something no producer wants to deal with.

“Farmers are doing everything they can to avoid having to take the step of euthanizing and disposing of animals,” Naig says. “They are finding alternate ways to market, they are selling direct to consumers, they’re changing their feed ration to slow down the rate of gain — they are doing everything they can. This truly is an action, a decision of last resort.”

The Ag Department is offering producers 40 dollars for each animal to help cover some of the disposal costs for market-ready hogs.

“It won’t cover all costs, but it is a part of the cost that they’ll incur to euthanize and dispose of animals,” he says.

Naig says they are still hoping for federal help to cover the loss of revenue from the hogs. Iowa State University estimates that by mid-May there were approximately 600-thousand pigs in Iowa that were unable to go to the packing plants. Iowa producers were faced with killing thousands of chickens and turkeys during the bird flu outbreak five years ago — and Naig says they learned some things then.

“One of the key learnings from that was to really empower producers to make decisions and to take control of the situation,” according to Naig. “They know their operations better than anyone else. And they also know the resources at their disposal better than anyone else. We learned that back in 2015.”

He says they will hand out the funding in at least three rounds.

“The first round closes Friday of this week, and farmers will need to reach out to our office. They can call the main number or they can go to IowaAgriculture.gov and there is a way to apply there. And then we will subsequently roll out rounds two and three,” Naig says.

Naig says this will help producers deal with the short-term problem. In the long-term, he says they need to continue to get making the packing plants safe for workers.

He says that it will allow the employees to confidently show up and know that they can work safely. “That’s ultimately what it takes to return to full processing capacity. Today in Iowa we are running at about 75 percent of our normal processing capacity — an again that number steadily improves each day.” Naig says.

He says this could continue to be a problem throughout the summer. Each applicant who is approved will receive funding for at least one-thousand animals and up to 30-thousand each round, depending on the number of applicants. The money comes from federal coronavirus relief funding.

State Program to Help Hog Producers Dispose of Animals They Can’t Sell

Wildlife markets are the tip of the iceberg and not just in China

For our free coronavirus pandemic coverage, learn more here.

In the heart of central Jakarta, about 20 minutes from Joko Widodo’s Presidential Palace, the Pramuka Bird Market is open for business.

The aisles throng with people, few wearing masks, and hum with the din of humans, birds, reptiles and mammals all mixed together. It stinks too.

A live lizard is displayed for sale in a cage at the Satria market in Bali, Indonesia.
A live lizard is displayed for sale in a cage at the Satria market in Bali, Indonesia.CREDIT:AMILIA ROSA

Today, Vonis, a local trader who uses just the one name, is holding forth about the origins of the coronavirus that has infected nearly 6 million people, killed more than 360,000, up-ended the global economy and more. It is thought to have passed from bats, via an unidentified animal, to humans at a wet market in Wuhan, China.

“It’s hoax. It is not true that bats caused COVID-19. I’ve been selling this [bats] for many years, nobody gets sick here. No one. Also, many Indonesians eat bat meat and nobody is sick. I myself healed my asthma after consuming bat. It happened when I was around 25 years old. I’m a bit over 40, I am healthy now,” he says.

Vonis sells birds, mostly, as pets, but he also has bats (about $25), civets (about $40) and squirrels. It’s for traditional medicine, he hastens to add. He sells about 30 bats a week and is happy to offer cooking tips.

“Just fry it, don’t put too many spices in like the Manado dish. Just a little salt. For chronic asthma you have to consume it twice a week. If it is only for keeping you healthy, eat it once a month.”

A man feeds bats for sale at the Satria market in Bali.
A man feeds bats for sale at the Satria market in Bali.CREDIT:AMILIA ROSA

If you want a pangolin – thought to be the potential “bridge animal” between bats and humans in Wuhan – he can get you one of those, too.

“Nobody has it here [at the market]. But if you want, we can look for it. I have someone who can do it.”

The small, scaly mammal cost between $250 and $300 to source, and you have to pay half in advance.

Civet cats for sale at a market in Bali.
Civet cats for sale at a market in Bali.CREDIT:AMILIA ROSA

Vonis is far from the only person in the Pramuka market selling exotic animals for consumption. Indonesia is home to some large wildlife wet markets, such as the Beriman Tomohon in North Sulawesi, the Satria in Bali, Hewan Pasty in Yogyakarta, Depok in Solo and Jatinegara, also in Jakarta. There also smaller markets – up to 1000, according to the Jakarta Animal Aid Network.

At the Satria, pet shop owner Nengah Wita sells bats, rabbit, chickens, song birds and geckos. He’s at pains to stress he sells very few bats (they retail for about $120 each) and says they are only sold to help with asthma in traditional medicine.

He says people have “exaggerated” the part played by bats in the origin of the coronavirus.

“I would’ve fallen sick weeks ago if it was true. But I am fine, I sleep in the shop, I care for them every day, I even got bitten last week but you can see, I am not sick. Just like the last time, the bird flu, I sell birds too, but I was fine then too.”

These market traders are just the tip of the iceberg. Civets are widely available for sale on Tokopedia, Indonesia’s answer to eBay (some listings describe them as pets, others note they are very tasty). It isn’t hard to find pangolin scales for sale, either.

While experts such as Professor Wiku Adisasmito, who is part of the Indonesian government’s national COVID-19 taskforce, have warned that wild animal markets are an “animal cafeteria for pathogens” that could lead to the next coronavirus, the national government has shown little appetite for tackling the problem. Instead, it has suggested that it the responsibility of provincial governments.

It’s a similar story throughout the region where bats, pangolins, civets, rats, rare birds, dogs, and parts of rhinos, elephants and tigers are regularly traded.

China has, since the emergence SARS-CoV-2, flagged plans to ban the trade of live animals for food – but left exceptions for traditional medicine and fur. That’s more than most countries. A Vietnamese plan to ban the trade and consumption of wild animals seems to have stalled.

The illegal trade in wild animals for food, medicine, fur and as pets is big business worth an estimated $7 billion to $23 billion annually. The legal trade – loosely regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [CITES] of Wild Fauna and Flora – is worth perhaps 10 times as much and, until the new coronavirus was unleashed, it was booming.

Play Video

What is a wet market?

What is a wet market?

Protests sweep across the US

What is a wet market?

Play video

3:25

What is a wet market?

The reopening of China’s wet markets has sparked global debate and prompted calls to close them entirely. But with confusion around the definition of the term ‘wet market’, we take a look at exactly what it means, and how their permanent c…

Scott Roberton, the Bangkok-based director for Counter-Wildlife trafficking for the Wildlife Conservation Society, praises China for its post-COVID-19 plans to curtail the wildlife trade, though he admits it could go further.

“It’s a much bigger problem than a single market in Wuhan. We really need to break this idea that it’s only about markets. They are an important location, but huge volumes of the trade in wild animals in the region takes place outside of markets and poses similar risks of virus emergence,” he says.

“Wildlife is moved over provincial and international boundaries, stored in houses, warehouses, refrigerated storerooms, restaurants, shops and farms.”

Roberton, who was based in Vietnam for more than a decade, describes China as less of a “source” country now and as more of a destination for wildlife consumption, as well as a transit country for animals coming from places such as Cambodia and Laos. Indonesia, too, “is a source, destination and transit country”.

Live turtles for sale at the Xihua Farmers' Market in Guangzhou, China.
Live turtles for sale at the Xihua Farmers’ Market in Guangzhou, China.CREDIT:EPA/AP

Laos and Cambodia, some of the poorest countries in south-east Asia, operate as a source for both farmed and illegally caught wildlife. There is a domestic market, too, for consumption by tourists, as is the case with Thailand.

“This is one of the most valuable illicit trades, up there with drugs, weapons, human trafficking and counterfeit goods; it’s worth billions of dollars annually,” Roberton says.

“One reaction from some governments is that they don’t have the trade of wildlife for meat like in China, yet they do have trade for wildlife as pets and traditional medicine. The fact is that the conditions that lead to the emergence of zoonotic pathogens like COVID-19 and SARS occur in the wild animal trade whether they are being sold for meat, fur or medicine, so policies focused on only wildlife meat won’t significantly reduce the future threat of pathogen emergence.”

Australia has backed an international review of wildlife markets in the wake of the virus, which it has labelled a “big risk” to human health and food production.

Leanne Wicker, a senior vet at Healesville Sanctuary who worked in Vietnam for years and is an expert on species threatened by the wildlife trade, says such infectious organisms are “no risk to people when wild animals are left in the wild”.

The problem is that human behaviour, such as habitat destruction, ecotourism, hunting, the trade and consumption of wild animals and the farming of wild animals brings “people and wildlife into unnaturally proximity enabling the spillover of disease between species”.

Aside from COVID-19, she reels off rabies, Ebola, Hendra virus, henipavirus, the first SARS coronavirus, monkey pox, HIV, leptospirosis and rat lung worm, salmonella and toxoplasmosis as examples.

“The SARS-CoV-2 virus is not the first significant pathogen to arise from the wildlife trade and it most certainly won’t be the last.”

She’s also frustrated by the focus on wildlife or wet markets, arguing that restaurants, for example, can also pose a significant risk in spreading new and exotic viruses.

Australia’s Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said markets that exist across Africa and north and south-east Asia and sell animals for traditional medicine and food consumption are a “particular concern”.

“Even before COVID-19, we knew these sorts of markets posed a serious potential risk to human health and, if we obtain the scientific backing, we would like to see these markets phased out to ensure public health,” he says.

As Wicker says, the impact of the global wildlife trade is “devastating”.

“While I am acutely aware that the public health risks are significant, it is very hard to ignore the fact that this is a problem caused entirely by human greed. For me, the real tragedy lies in considering the fear, pain and discomfort felt by every single one of the many millions of individual animals who find themselves unlucky participants in this human atrocity.”

– with Amilia Rosa

Crab blood to remain big pharma’s standard as industry group rejects substitute

Animal rights groups have been pushing a synthetic alternative to horseshoe crab blood in drug safety testing

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/31/crab-blood-to-remain-big-pharmas-standard-as-industry-group-rejects-substitute

An Atlantic horseshoe crab on a beach

The copper-rich blue blood of the horseshoe crab has long been used to detect contaminants in pharmaceuticals. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

Reuters
Published onSat 30 May 2020 22.53 EDT

Horseshoe crabs’ icy-blue blood will remain the drug industry’s standard for safety tests after a powerful US group ditched a plan to give equal status to a synthetic substitute pushed by Swiss biotech Lonza and animal welfare groups.

The crabs’ copper-rich blood clots in the presence of bacterial endotoxins and has long been used in tests to detect contamination in shots and infusions.

More recently, man-made versions called recombinant Factor C (rFC) from Basel-based Lonza and others have emerged.

An industry battle has been brewing, as another testing giant, Lonza’s US-based rival Charles River Laboratories, has criticised the synthetic option on safety grounds.

Maryland-based US Pharmacopeia (USP), whose influential publications guide the drug industry, had initially proposed adding rFC to the existing chapter governing international endotoxin testing standards.

USP has now abandoned that, it announced late on Friday, opting instead to put rFC in a new stand-alone chapter. This means drug companies seeking to use it must continue to do extra validation work, to guarantee their methods of using rFC tests match those of tests made from crab blood.

The decision gives the drug industry fewer incentives to end its reliance on animal-based tests, even as companies like Lonza and France’s bioMerieux promote man-made alternatives and wildlife advocates worry about crab bleeding’s effect on the coastal ecosystem.

USP told Reuters on Sunday its experts concluded there was too little practical experience with drug products tested with rFC to put the synthetic tests on equal footing with crab blood tests, which have been widely used for decades.

Horseshoe crabs being bled at Charles River Laboratory

Horseshoe crabs being bled at Charles River Laboratory. Photograph: Timothy Fadek/Corbis via Getty Images

“Given the importance of endotoxin testing in protecting patients … the committee ultimately decided more real-world data [was needed],” USP said in a statement, adding this approach will give the US Food and Drug Administration flexibility to work with drugmakers on rFC validation requirements.

USP did say it supports efforts to shift to rFC tests, including for potential testing of Covid-19 medicines or vaccines, where it is offering technical assistance.

Endotoxin tests number 70 million annually and estimates put the relevant market at $1bn annually by 2024.

Eli Lilly, one drugmaker that has shifted to synthetic tests for drugs like its migraine treatment Emgality, has said rFC is safe and that the extra validation requirements have been a hurdle to adoption by more companies.

Conservationists, including advocates for migratory birds that dine on horseshoe crab eggs on the US east coast, have also been pushing for rFC’s increased use to take pressure off crabs, some of which die after being returned to the Atlantic Ocean following bleeding.

Lonza did not immediately comment on USP’s move. Charles River also did not return a request for comment.

The New Jersey Audubon Society and Delaware-based Ecological Research & Development Group, a crab conservation group, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Animal activist group secretly tapes euthanization of pigs, alleges they were ‘roasted alive’

Iowa’s agriculture secretary says the animal activist group is ‘kicking farmers when they’re down.” Des Moines Register

A national swine veterinarians group says shutting down a confinement’s ventilation is an acceptable form of euthanasia in “constrained circumstances” such as the COVID-19 meatpacking disruption.

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A California animal rights group says an Iowa pork producer “roasted pigs alive” when it euthanized thousands of hogs it was unable to send to Midwest meatpacking plants that had slowed or halted production as workers fell ill with COVID-19.

Direct Action Everywhere describes the pigs as “shrieking in agony” after Iowa Select Farms, a large pork producer, shut down the ventilation in a rural confinement facility near Aplington in Grundy County to euthanize them.

Jeff Hansen, the company’s CEO, said it “exhausted every possible option,” from finding more barn space to donating pork to food banks and employees, before deciding to euthanize the animals.

Employees are in “tremendous pain knowing that this awful decision had to be made,” Hansen said.

Direct Action Everywhere said it worked with Iowa Select whistleblowers to secretly film company employees destroying the animals.

► PreviouslyIowa livestock producers may have to euthanize pigs as packing plants struggle

The company confirmed the video was taken at the Grundy Center facility where Iowa Select pigs were taken to be destroyed.

“This group illegally infiltrated our facility and installed cameras to record video of the euthanasia process and our team members,” Hansen said in a statement, adding that the group’s actions “only reinforce the hurt” felt by employees.

The video, which the group said was taken with a hidden camera last week, opens with a shot of pigs milling in a large, enclosed space. In another scene shot through a fog that the group says was steam, the barely visible pigs can be heard squealing. In a third scene, two men carrying what the group says are bolt guns walk among the apparently dead pigs, nudging them with their feet. In a final scene, a front-end loader scoops up the carcasses.

The state estimates that 600,000 pigs in Iowa could be destroyed as they back up on farms and cannot be processed into food. Iowa, the nation’s largest pork producer, raises about 50 million pigs a year.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig called the activists’ tactics “disgusting.”

“No producer wants to be faced with this decision. It goes against everything they stand for and do on a daily basis,” caring for the animals and raising them to feed families, Naig said Thursday when asked about the video during a press conference with Gov. Kim Reynolds about the coronavirus’ impact.

“We have folks with a clear agenda who are kicking our farmers when they’re down,” he said, adding that the producers are working with veterinarians who follow national guidelines when euthanizing animals.

► More: Iowa farm forced to euthanize pigs was ‘infiltrated’ by animal activists

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The American Association of Swine Veterinarians says shutting down a confinement’s ventilation — which raises the herd’s temperature and causes animals to die of hyperthermia — is an acceptable form of euthanasia in “constrained circumstances.”

The group’s board this month identified the COVID-19 meatpacking disruption as one of those situations. But the board said priority should be given to eight other preferred methods, including shooting, electrocution, gassing with carbon dioxide and manual blunt force, which is used primarily on small pigs.

Chris Rademacher, an Iowa State University Extension swine veterinarian, said shutting down ventilation is likely the best approach to euthanizing a large number of pigs. It’s safer for farmers than shooting, electrocution or using other preferred methods, which are more appropriate options when euthanizing a small number of animals, he said.

Rademacher also said mass depopulation takes less toll on farmers emotionally. “I can’t tell you how many producers get choked up” talking about euthanizing animals, he said.

Matt Johnson, the Direct Action Everywhere investigator, filed a complaint last week with the Grundy County Sheriff’s Office, alleging Iowa Select committed criminal animal neglect.

Grundy County Sheriff Rick Penning said he talked with state veterinarian Jeff Kaisand, who indicated that Iowa Select followed proper procedures in euthanizing the animals. Penning said he would not take further action on the group’s complaint.

However, after filing their complaint last week, Johnson of Berkeley, California, and coworker Linda Cridge of Fishers, Indiana, were charged with trespass, a simple misdemeanor.

A veterinarian who works with Direct Action Everywhere and reviewed the group’s video said shutting down the ventilation “resulted in extreme, prolonged and unnecessary suffering.”

The group said that pigs are “blasted with steam and heat exceeding 140 degrees in a barn.” Two or three hours into the process, the group said, Iowa Select workers walk through the barn, “shooting pigs exhibiting obvious signs of life” with bolt guns.

The American Veterinary Medical Association states that additional action may be needed to ensure pigs succumb after shutting down ventilation systems, such as adding heat and humidity to the confined space. Rademacher said the pigs should quickly lose consciousness with the increased heat and humidity before dying.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture sent a letter to the state’s county attorneys this week, saying that “it is not uncommon for people to question the methods employed” in the challenging situation. It said the swine veterinarians association “recognizes the dire situation” producers face.

Johnson said an Iowa Select whistleblower contacted Direct Action Everywhere because he was concerned about animal welfare.

“When we have a system that is fundamentally broken — with government reinforcing, rather than regulating, an abusive industry which only serves those at the very top — it’s left to ordinary people to take action ourselves and hold our elected officials accountable to the will of the people,” Johnson said in a statement.

He and Direct Action Everywhere targeted state Sen. Ken Rozenboom’s family pig facility for an undercover investigation a year ago, releasing photos and video from the Oskaloosa farm in January.

The group said it sought to expose inhumane treatment of animals at the facility, which was leased to another farmer, because of Rozenboom’s support for the state’s so-called “ag-gag” law. The statute makes it a crime for animal welfare activists, journalists and others to go undercover at meatpacking plants and livestock facilities to document conditions.

Rozenboom called the action a “professional hit job.” State and local investigators said a complaint Johnson filed against Rozenboom, alleging animal abuse, was unfounded.

‘Something isn’t right’: U.S. probes soaring beef prices

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/25/meatpackers-prices-coronavirus-antitrust-275093

One hundred years ago, U.S. antitrust prosecutors broke down monopolies in meatpacking. But can they do it again?

Meat for sale in a Miami supermarket

Supermarket customers are paying more for beef than they have in decades during the coronavirus pandemic. But at the same time, the companies that process the meat for sale are paying farmers and ranchers staggeringly low prices for cattle.

Now, the Agriculture Department and prosecutors are investigating whether the meatpacking industry is fixing or manipulating prices.

The Department of Justice is looking at the four largest U.S. meatpackers — Tyson Foods, JBS, National Beef and Cargill — which collectively control about 85 percent of the U.S. market for the slaughter and packaging of beef, according to a person with knowledge of the probe. The USDA is also investigating the beef price fluctuations, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has confirmed.

Meatpackers say beef prices have spiked during the pandemic because plants are running at lower capacity as workers fall ill, so less meat is making its way to shelves. The four companies didn’t respond to requests for comment about the probes.

But the coronavirus crisis is highlighting how the American system of getting meat to the table favors a handful of giant companies despite a century of government efforts to decentralize it. And it’s sparking new calls for changes in meatpacking.

“It’s evidence that something isn’t right in the industry,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has spoken out against mergers in the agriculture industry. In April, Grassley requested federal investigations into market manipulation and unfair practices within the cattle industry. So have 19 other senators and 11 state attorneys general.

The average retail price for fresh beef in April was $6.22 per pound — 26 cents higher per pound than it was the month before, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, at the end of April, the average price for a steer was below $100 per hundred pounds; the five-year average for that same week was about $135 per hundred pounds, according to USDA’s weekly summary.

Ed Greiman, general manager of Upper Iowa Beef who formerly headed the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, attributed the consumer price increase to plants running at lower capacity. At the same time, farmers and ranchers desperate to offload their cattle as they reach optimal weight for slaughter are cutting prices so they won’t have to kill the animals without selling them.

“I’m running at half speed,” Greiman said at an event hosted by the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association. “Cattle are backing up because we can’t run our plants fast enough. Nothing is functioning properly. We need to be careful not to put blame on any one thing or part of the industry because we can’t get these plants going.”

The industry has long been a focus for government antitrust enforcement.

Exactly 100 years ago, after years of litigation, the five biggest U.S. meatpackers — which were responsible for 82 percent of the beef market — agreed to an antitrust settlement with the Justice Department that helped break their control over the industry.

The Justice Department’s efforts to reduce concentration in meatpacking led to decades of competition. By 1980, the top four firms controlled only 36 percent of cattle slaughters in the U.S., according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

But during the next 10 years, meatpacking experienced a huge wave of deals, enough that the USDA dubbed the time “merger mania.” By 1988, the new four biggest companies again controlled 70 percent of the beef meatpacking market.

“There’s greater concentration in meatpacking now” than in 1921, said Thomas Horton, an antitrust professor at the University of South Dakota, who previously worked at the Justice Department. The first antitrust laws were “passed to take care of the Big Five. Now we have the Big Four. We’re going backwards.”

Unlike poultry and pork, which take weeks or months to raise, cattle can take as long as two years from birth to butcher. That lifecycle makes it much more difficult to adjust supply. Once cattle reaches its optimal weight, they need to be sold within two weeks, said Peter Carstensen, an antitrust professor at the University of Wisconsin. And realistically, a farmer can only transport cattle about 150 miles to a slaughterhouse.

“You’ve got at most four bidders, but the reality is there are often fewer,” said Carstensen, noting that in some states, there are only one or two meatpackers with plants.

While the structure of the industry has remained stable since 2009, changes in how the meatpackers buy cattle have also had an impact. Before 2015, about half of all cattle was purchased via direct negotiation between a rancher and meatpacker, known as the negotiated cash market. Today, about 70 percent are purchased through contracts where farmers agree to deliver cattle once they reach a certain weight with the price to be determined later — usually a formula that takes into account how much cattle sell for in the cash market.

The increase in these contracts has some advantages for ranchers, because they know they have a buyer and don’t have to spend time on negotiations, said Ted Schroeder, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University. But fewer cash trades have made it harder to figure out the right price for cattle, he said.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, more than 14,271 meatpacking workers have been sick as of May 15, according to the nonprofit Food and Environment Reporting Network. Worker illnesses and temporary plant closures have led plants to operate at about 50 percent capacity, said Schroeder.

Schroeder, who has focused on cattle prices for more than three decades, said the rising consumer prices and falling cattle prices are consistent with normal supply and demand.

“It’s economics 101. There’s less meat around, but demand is still pretty strong,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of cattle but can’t get it through the system. We are pretty close to what I would expect to happen to wholesale and farm prices given the bottleneck.”

Not everyone is persuaded. Last year, ranchers filed an antitrust suit against the four meatpackers for colluding to depress cattle prices. The suit, pending in Minneapolis federal court, alleges that Tyson, JBS, Cargill and National Beef began coordinating in 2015 to reduce the number of cattle slaughtered while also limiting how many they bought in the cash market. Ranchers with excess animals on their hands were forced to sell for less or enter into long-term contracts beneficial to meatpackers.

“The Big Four simultaneously withdrew from the cash market with intent to reduce prices across the board,” said Bill Bullard, CEO of Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, one of the lead plaintiffs in the suit, in an interview.

The companies were able to coordinate by communicating through trade associations, said Bullard. The lawsuit is based in part on information provided by a confidential witness who worked for one of the meatpackers for a decade. The conspiracy drove prices down at least 8 percent, said Bullard.

If the meatpackers were communicating about prices, that would clearly violate criminal antitrust laws, said Carstensen. But if a company observes what a rival does and matches that behavior — sometimes called “tacit collusion”— that may not violate the law, he said.

“Coordination is not the same thing as collusion,” said Carstensen.

The Justice Department could, however, try to make a case that the meatpackers have monopolized the beef market. They could argue that the companies have engaged in “an anticompetitive set of industry practices, which taken together, violate antitrust law and require a broader restructuring,” he said.

The anti-monopoly Open Markets Institute has outlined a similar theory and pushed for breaking up the Big Four so no company controls more than 10 percent of the market. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also advocated for breaking up meatpackers as part of her presidential campaign.

Grassley, meanwhile, said he’s not ready to call for the breakup of major meatpackers, but he has “a great deal of questions about whether they’re operating within the law.”

Bullard’s group is also pushing for broader changes to the industry, such as requiring packers to buy at least half of their cattle from the cash market or prohibiting contracts that don’t include prices.

Kansas’ Schroeder, though, warned against moving the industry backwards. Breaking up the meatpackers would likely lead to higher consumer prices, he said, and insisting on cash sales would eliminate some of the advantages, like stable supply, that contracts offer.

“Too often, we try to stop things from progressing. We want things to be the way they used to be. But the way they used to be wasn’t that great,” he said. “We should be cautious how we approach regulation, so we don’t turn the apple cart upside down.”

Loggerhead sea turtle run over by vehicle while laying eggs at Cape Hatteras National Seashore beach

NORTH CAROLINA

CAPE HATTERAS, N.C. (WAVY) — A loggerhead sea turtle was believed to have been run over by a vehicle early Monday morning at Cape Hatteras National Seashore beach while it was nesting. The incident happened at a time when the beach is closed to vehicles.

Staff found the dead sea turtle on the beach around 5:30 a.m., about 0.10 miles south of Ramp 49 in Frisco.

Officials believe the female sea turtle came onto the beach to lay a nest in the sand. Then, they say a vehicle struck and ran over the turtle as she was laying her eggs.

Eggs, which were still intact, were discovered near the turtle.

The seashore is seeking information about a vehicle driving on the beach at Ramps 49 or 48 in Frisco between 9 p.m. on May 24 and 5:30 a.m. Monday, May 25.

Anyone with information that may help determine the circumstances and events that led to the death of this sea turtle is asked to contact the Dare County Community Crime Line or the National Park Service’s Investigative Services Branch (ISB)

National Park Service ISB Tip Line:

  • Call or text the ISB Tip Line at 888-653-0009
  • Online at www.nps.gov/isb and click “Submit a Tip”

“At this time of year, ocean-facing off road vehicle ramps are closed between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. for an important reason – to protect nesting sea turtles. It is very unfortunate that a vehicle appears to have disregarded the Seashore’s regulations which has resulted in this turtle death,” stated Superintendent David Hallac.

Ramp 49, along with other priority off-road vehicle ramps (ramps 2, 4, 25, 27, 43, 44, 48, 49, 70, and 72), are closed to vehicles nightly from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

All other ocean-facing off-road vehicle ramps are closed to vehicles from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. Visitors are reminded that sea turtles, while predominately nesting during nighttime hours, may be present on seashore beaches at any hour of the day.

Suffocating Healthy Farmed Animals During Pandemic Is Not “Euthanasia”

Using the term “euthanasia,” which literally means “a good death,” to describe the mass killing of overpopulated farmed animals is a misnomer. They suffer horrific deaths.

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Now that the COVID-19 outbreak has shut down, at least temporarily, an estimated 20 major slaughterhouses and processing plants in North America, millions of farm animals are left in limbo with nowhere to go.

In Iowa, the nation’s biggest pork-producing state, farmers are reportedly giving pregnant sows abortions by injection and composting dead baby pigs to be used for fertilizer. Amid supply chain bottlenecks, local political leaders warn that producers might be forced to “euthanize” around 70,000 pigs a day.

In Minnesota, JBS, the world’s largest slaughter operation, reopened its Worthington plant last month for the sole purpose of killing and dumping excess pigs. The meat processing plant partially reopened for business last week. Roughly one-quarter of the facility’s 2,000 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus.

And in Delaware and Maryland, Allen Harim Foods depopulated 2 million chickens last month, citing a 50 percent decline in its workforce.

Using the terms “slaughter” or “euthanasia” to describe the rapid destruction of farm animals is a misnomer. Slaughter is killing for human consumption; to ensure meat quality, the animal typically dies from blood loss. Under the federal humane slaughter law, animals (except birds) are first stunned, which means they are rendered insensible to pain.

Euthanasia literally means “a good death.” It involves ending an animal’s life in a way that minimizes or eliminates pain and distress, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

The AVMA defines the term “depopulation” as “the rapid destruction of a population of animals in response to urgent circumstances with as much consideration given to the welfare of the animals as practicable.”

Among the depopulation methods deemed acceptable is using a layer of water-based foam to drown and suffocate birds. During ventilation shutdown, operators flip a switch to turn off the airflow in a barn and ratchet up the heat to as high as 120 degrees, leaving trapped birds and pigs to die from a combination of heat stress and suffocation. The process can take hours and likely results in severe suffering. In fact, other than burning animals to death or burying them alive, it is difficult to imagine a more horrific end.

The last time such gruesome depopulation methods were widely used was in 2015 in response to highly pathogenic bird flu—the worst animal disease outbreak in U.S. history—which killed nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys. In that case, birds were sick and suffering, and the justification given for the extreme step of depopulation was that it would slow the spread of the disease in the shortest time possible.

During the current pandemic, however, animals are not suffering from disease and they are not at risk of transmitting disease to other animals or to humans. Instead, they are being killed, and their bodies disposed of because meat companies failed to properly protect their workers from exposure to COVID-19.

The meat industry is using depopulation as a quick fix for its lack of emergency preparedness. The conventional animal agriculture industry operates a highly consolidated system that has a hard time adjusting in response to a crisis. It routinely runs slaughter lines at dizzying speeds, provides the lowest level of care to animals crammed in stressful, unsanitary environments, and extends minimal health and safety protections to its workers (to date, thousands have become ill or been exposed to the coronavirus and some have died). This intensive, high-production system leaves no room for error, yet giant corporations give little consideration to how animals will fare in emergency situations—from disease outbreaks to natural disasters to devastating barn fires.

That hasn’t stopped industrial agriculture from begging for federal assistance—warning of meat shortages and skyrocketing prices. Farmers are also asking the federal government to bankroll depopulation efforts, along with compensating them for their losses.

Already, the USDA has pledged that government officials and veterinarians will step in, if necessary, to “advise and assist on depopulation and disposal methods.” Because there are no federal or state regulations governing farm animal euthanasia or depopulation, more than 20 members of Congress sent a letter last week to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue urging his department to curb extreme measures, including ventilation shutdown and water-based foam methods.

We simply cannot trust powerful industry players and federal regulators to safeguard animal welfare. According to a recent report by the Animal Welfare Institute, JBS’ Worthington plant, a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa, were the top three worst large livestock slaughter plants in the country for animal welfare violations from 2016 to 2018. These three facilities account for 12 percent of all U.S. hog production. Violations included multiple incidents of failing to stun animals before shackling and hanging them to be dismembered, likely causing the animals excruciating pain.

Depopulation during the current pandemic is being pursued solely as a consequence of the meat industry’s failure to protect its workers, not because the animals present any real risk to human or animal health. These blatantly inhumane killing methods are completely unjustifiable.

Because these animals cannot be brought to market, millions of animal lives will be wasted. At the very least, we should spare them a cruel death.

Goldman Sachs says the only other commodity ‘looking as precarious as oil’ is livestock

KEY POINTS
  • Jeff Currie, head of commodities research at Goldman Sachs, believes the two big commodity stories looking ahead to 2021 and beyond will concern oil and livestock.
  • Confinement measures have been implemented in 187 countries or territories over recent weeks and months, in an effort to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
  • It has wreaked havoc in the food industry, with farmers now facing a pronounced market imbalance.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will establish a "coordination center" to help livestock and poultry producers hurt by coronavirus-induced meatpacking plant closures.
Dairy cows stand in a pen at a cattle farm in West Canaan, Ohio on Thursday, April 30, 2020.
Dane Rhys | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The head of commodities research at Goldman Sachs believes the two big commodity stories looking ahead to 2021 and beyond will concern oil and livestock.

The forecast comes at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has prompted many countries across the globe to effectively shut down.

It has created an unprecedented demand shock in energy markets, with U.S. oil prices tumbling into negative territory for the first time ever last month.

Both major oil benchmarks have registered modest gains in recent weeks. However, Brent crude futures and U.S. West Texas Intermediate futures are still down more than 50% on the start of 2020.

“Investors don’t want to hear anything about oil. They have been beaten up, they are done with this space (and) it is going to take a lot to get them to come back,” Jeff Currie, head of commodities research at Goldman Sachs, said during a video call with reporters last week.

The coronavirus outbreak has also wreaked havoc in the food industry, with farmers now facing a pronounced market imbalance.

As a result, Currie said that he believes the only other commodity market “looking as precarious as oil” was livestock.

“They both share something in common: You do damage to the supply, it takes a while to bring it back online again,” he said.

“We had a problem with livestock going into this … We now have a very serious problem,” Currie added.

Food insecurity

Confinement measures have been implemented in 187 countries or territories over recent weeks and months, in an effort to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The restrictions, which vary but broadly include school closures, bans on public gatherings and social distancing, have forced many restaurants to close their doors.

This collapse in demand from the hospitality industry has reportedly forced some U.S. farmers to let fresh fruit and vegetables perish, while dairy farmers have had to pour excess milk away.

coronavirus spreads to meat processing plants, the United States faces a major meat shortages.
Packages of various meats are seen in a supermarket refrigerator in New York City. As the coronavirus spreads to meat processing plants, the United States faces a major meat shortages.
John Lamparski | SOPA Images }| Getty Images

Meanwhile, an uptick of Covid-19 cases in meat processing plants has led to some closures and a slowdown in production. As a result, there are growing concerns about whether the industry can meet demand for pork, beef and chicken.

At the same time, food banks have reported massive shortages. Feeding America, the largest network of food banks in the U.S., has warned that the number of “food insecure children” in the world’s largest economy could hit 18 million as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is higher than the record 17.2 million recorded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) at the height of the recession in 2009.

What do oil and meat have in common?

Analysts at Bank of America Securities said in a research note published late last month that livestock farmers in the U.S. meat industry were likely “to suffer tremendous financial burdens” as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

Pork processors were expected to bear the brunt of plant closures, the analysts said, while beef processing was thought to be in a better position.

The analysts at Bank of America Securities stopped short of warning about the prospect of empty meat cases at the grocery store anytime soon.

But, they did stress those concerns “could become greater” if plants were unable to re-open.

A farmer checks on young female pigs at a hog farm in Smithville, Ohio, U.S., on Thursday, April 30, 2020.
A farmer checks on young female pigs at a hog farm in Smithville, Ohio, U.S., on Thursday, April 30, 2020.
Dane Rhys | Bloomberg | Getty Images

President Donald Trump said via Twitter on Saturday that the U.S. government would start to purchase $3 billion in agricultural products from American farmers over the coming days.

He referenced the USDA program, “Farmers to Families Food Box,” that aligns with the department’s $19 billion relief plan announced last month.

Goldman’s Currie said herds had been “tremendously reduced” on both cattle and hogs in recent weeks.

“And what do oil and meats have in common? They are big inputs into inflation in the emerging markets,” he continued. “These are going to be the two big commodity stories I think are going to be important as we look out into 2021 and beyond.”

58 percent of workers at Tyson meat factory in Iowa test positive for coronavirus

More than 700 employees at a Tyson Foods meat factory in Perry, Iowa, have tested positive for coronavirus as the nation braces for a possible meat shortage due to the pandemic.

An Iowa Department of Public Health report released Tuesday showed that 58 percent of the factory’s workforce had tested positive for the virus, according to NBC affiliate WHO. The news comes just days after nearly 900 workers were confirmed to have the virus at a Tyson Foods plant in Indiana.

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Tyson Foods said in a statement that the pandemic has forced the company to slow production and close plants in Dakota City, Nebraska, and Pasco, Washington, and the Perry plant as well.

“We have and expect to continue to face slowdowns and temporary idling of production facilities from team member shortages or choices we make to ensure operational safety,” the statement said.

John Tyson, board chairman of Tyson Foods, warned that the food-supply chain is breaking in a full-page advertisement published last month in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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Tyson Foods is not the only meat company facing worker infections. A Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, closed in April after two workers died and 783 others tested positive for the virus.

The pandemic’s impact on meat plant workers has caused serious concerns about the supply chain in the U.S. and fears that the country could experience a meat shortage.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order to compel meat processing plants to stay open last week using the Defense Production Act. Trump said he will also provide liability protection.

“We have had some difficulty where they are having a liability where it’s really unfair to them,” Trump said at a small-business event at the White House last week. “I fully understand that it’s not their fault.”

Joe Biden, the apparent Democratic presidential nominee, said Monday that he feared for those meatpacking workers. He said that such plants, along with nursing homes, have become “the most dangerous places there are right now.”

“They designate them as essential workers and then treat them as disposable,” Biden said of the meatpackers.