beef

Allison Herrera

When I visited Quapaw Nation's beef processing plant in 2018, it was less than a year old. The building was still pretty shiny and cattle and bison grazed on a vast field. They had a dozen or so employees and were in the process of getting one of the first Native Americans ⁠— a young Quapaw man ⁠— to be trained as a USDA meat inspector. Today, a lot has changed.

Chelsea Stanfield

A growing demand for more locally-sourced food options has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on large meat processing hubs throughout the country. Oklahoma ranchers want to increase the state’s cattle processing and packing capacity to provide more local beef options for Oklahoma consumers. 

Thousands of meatpacking workers across the country were recently ordered back to work in plants that have seen massive outbreaks of COVID-19. According to recent CDC data reflecting some states' outbreaks through the end of April, at least 5,000 workers have contracted the virus and 20 have died. Other nonprofit organizations have reported many more.

Chelsea Stanfield / KOSU

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.

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Updated May 6 at 4:32 p.m.
In a Wednesday news conference, Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Blayne Arthur said the positive COVID-19 cases at the plant have no risen from 116 on Monday to 151. That accounts for more than half of Texas County's positive cases.

151 workers at a meat processing plant in Guymon are infected with COVID-19.

Seaboard Foods says it is continuing to ensure the facility is safe, while employees sat they are working in crowded conditions amid unenforced screening and improper cleaning.

NICK TORKELSON

As meatpacking plants across the country have temporarily closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks, consumers might be seeing less meat on the shelves at the grocery, but farmers are dealing with animals they can’t sell.

Meatpacking plants slaughter livestock and send packaged meat into wholesale and retail channels. Companies spent the better part of the 20th century mechanizing every possible aspect of the process, to maximize efficiency.

Updated at 8:45 p.m. ET

President Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday aimed at addressing concerns about meat shortages.

The order invokes the Defense Production Act to ensure beef, pork, poultry and egg plants keep running.

Updated at 2:25 p.m. ET

One of the country's largest pork-producing plants closed indefinitely after nearly 300 of its employees tested positive for COVID-19. And the company's CEO warned that the coronavirus pandemic is pushing the nation's meat supply "perilously close" to the edge.

Chelsea Stanfield / KOSU

Due to market volatility and social distancing driven by COVID-19, ranchers are holding on to cattle longer than usual, which means less cattle are heading to market.

Auction yards around Oklahoma are already seeing effects, but Oklahoma State University Extension livestock marketing specialist Derrell Peel says auctions are doing their best to continue amid the crisis.

 

Several meat processing plants around the U.S. are sitting idle this week because workers have been infected with the coronavirus. Tyson Foods, one of the country's biggest meat processors, says it suspended operations at its pork plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, after more than two dozen workers got sick with COVID-19. National Beef Packing stopped slaughtering cattle at another Iowa plant, and JBS USA shut down work at a beef plant in Pennsylvania.