Even though President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act last week to keep meat processing facilities open, the backlog of animals created by temporary shutdowns may affect the industry and the country’s food supply for months to come.
A study released in early April by Oklahoma State University estimates the U.S. beef cattle industry has lost $13.6 billion so far due to COVID-19.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, cattle markets have experienced unprecedented market volatility. Additionally, in the last several weeks, numerous meat processing facilities have halted production due to COVD-19 illness among employees.
Derrell Peel, an Oklahoma State University professor and livestock marketing specialist, said if this situation continues to deteriorate, consumers are likely to see a temporary shortage of beef in the coming weeks.
“We have seen a little bit over (a) 300 million pound reduction in total beef produced,” said Peel. “That of course is translating into some very real temporary shortages of fresh beef available to consumers in the grocery store.”
The situation is creating a bottleneck of cattle moving though production lines. If feedlot cattle ready for processing don’t make it to processing plants soon, producers may begin to euthanize cattle. This is something that is already happening in the pork and poultry industries.
The study was commissioned by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and led by Peel. The results were based on data gathered as of April 8.
The President’s Executive Order under the Defense Production Act of 1950 requires the continued processing of beef, pork and poultry. The order states, “Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency.”
However, Peel said the executive order doesn’t alleviate the bottleneck of cattle waiting for slaughter.
“I don’t really think this changes things very much because the plants weren’t trying to close,” Peel said. “It’s just a matter of getting the workers healthy, getting the plants back online as best we can, and trying to catch up on this backlog of animals.”