• Katie Fountain

The Food Chain is Breaking

I recently met with a group of beef producers to discuss food insecurity and complications in the meat production and processing industry.

The USDA says “Food insecurity is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” You may have noticed hamburger meat suddenly costing around $9/lb at the grocery store. You may have also noticed the quality of meat you are purchasing at exorbitant prices is of much lower quality than what you are accustomed to. That’s because right now demand outweighs supply. John Tyson published a letter in the NY Times, WaPo, and Arkansas Democratic Gazette stating “The food chain is breaking”. What caused this break in our food chain? Is there a way to resolve this issue?

On March 31st the “big four” (Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef) began shutting down packaging plants due to COVID-19 outbreaks within their facilities. Local USDA certified butcher houses were instantly swamped with more business than their small facilities could handle (the butcher houses in our area are booked into ‘21 and have closed scheduling until further notice). When meat can’t be processed, cattle remain at feedlots. These cattle are still eating feed, still drinking water, and still taking up valuable space, yet, the beef is not getting killed and thus not able to be eaten. This is what is breaking our food chain.

During this crisis, the FDA announced on March 10th it would temporarily discontinue inspections of foreign meat packaging facilities in order to bring plant inspectors home where they could have access to US medical treatment, should they develop COVID-19 symptoms. This was a necessary decision, however, local American owned and operated non-USDA approved (or “Custom Exempt”) butcher houses were NOT free to sell to consumers. It’s a complete double standard for foreign versus American owned processors. Why would we end inspections for foreign owned meat processing plants in countries that, in many cases, don’t share our respect for quality control, ethics, and environmental protection; yet not show those same graces to our own local butcher houses. My home state raises enough beef to keep our citizens fed at reasonable costs and we should be allowed to do just that. It’s only fair. In addition to being the fair way, it’s also a better option. There is enormous value to be gained in food knowability. When food is produced locally, you have the ability to know the farmer and processor and be aware and comfortable with their production and processing practices.

During the second quarter of 2020, foreign owned packers made up to 500 million dollars in additional profits. Meanwhile, cattle producers and cattle feeders financed price decreases industry wide. Because of the uncertainty of processing ability, American cattle producers were unable to secure fair prices for their stock, and in some cases, they could not even sell their fat steers for any price! Beef producers continue to struggle as they remain unable to get cattle harvested in the large Midwest facilities who continue to face production issues. This continues to cause back log in the supply chain and the discounts are still being passed back to the cattle feeder and to the consumer. Pushing money out of the hands of our own citizens and into the pockets of foreign entities is not good business.

All of this is a culmination of unintended consequences that arise when the federal government takes on too much responsibility in regulation. We want food safety! We want quality inspections! The federal government is not equipped to maintain and guarantee safety while simultaneously preventing huge expansions of food insecurity. If we want food on our tables in these uncertain times, we should all be advocating for state controlled inspections for instate meat sales. We can do it on our own and we can do it better.

Article by Katie Fountain

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