How COVID-19 is Changing the Balance of the Texas Meat Industry

cattle at Hat Country Farms

Many Americans probably prefer not to think about where their meat comes from. Meat processing can be a grim and unsavory process — and even more so now, especially for industry workers who are at greater risk because of the coronavirus pandemic. In April, many plants closed due to COVID-19, and lawsuits and Presidential mandates made sausage-making headlines. The news often focused on behemoth meat processing corporations: Tyson, JBS, Cargill and National Beef — four of the largest meat producing companies in the United States. They have achieved this market dominance in part by buying medium-sized processors, closing down those plants and moving production to larger facilities.

Grass-Fed Steaks from Hat Brand Country Meats. photo by Anthony Thomas.

According to Christopher Leonard, author of The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business, “Ramping up line speeds is the holy grail of meat companies”.  The goal is to process more animals in fewer buildings every year. In the ’80s, big producers processed around 500 hogs an hour. Today, it’s closer 1,200 an hour. The cheapest way to increase production in a plant is not by adding new equipment and buildings, but by adding people and increasing the speed at which animals are processed. For consumers, this has led to inexpensive, readily available meat in a variety of types, cuts and grades. For employees in the meat industry, it has meant standing shoulder to shoulder in a cold environment; conditions that make it easy for viruses such as SARS CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, to spread and that is exactly what happened. 

By April, 25,000 meat-packing employees tested positive for the virus, prompting many plants to close. Since then, a great deal has changed. Under pressure from unions, local health departments and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), plants started testing employees en masse and erecting Plexiglass barriers between the fabricators that cut meat into smaller portions. Workers are still getting sick though. By early July, 35,000 meat packing employees tested positive and 144 died from COVID-19 despite the precautionary measures. The ongoing closings of meatpacking facilities are being tracked online and a New York Times graphic shows changes made to how meat processing works.

All of this has exposed major shortcomings in the meat supply chain. Wendy’s ran out of hamburger meat in several of its stores in May, yet, in a sad and wasteful turn of events, farmers and ranchers had to slaughter millions of animals that had become too big to process. (In larger facilities, animals must be within specific weight ranges in order to be processed.) These problems have led restaurateurs and consumers to endure both higher prices and a smaller selection of meat cuts to buy.

Scott Moore, Jr. co-founder of Tejas Chocolate and BBQ in Tomball, had to change the type of ribs he served. Plus, he said, “I had to go without pork bellies, short ribs and butts for about a month.” Luckily, he’d already bought several weeks’ worth of brisket as the pandemic started. 

Owner Ashok Rao of Songkran Thai Kitchen in Houston has had similar issues getting products, but mostly frets about the rising price of meat. “I’ve had to raise the prices, but I’m not sure I raised them enough to cover the gap.” he says. With all of the problems restaurants are having, no one wants to scare people away with high prices. So far, at least, he says he’s lucky enough that his “the customers haven’t noticed the increases yet.”

With the big four corporations hitting a bottleneck, smaller ranchers, butchers and restaurants have gained an opportunity. Many concerned consumers are flocking to local producers. Medium and small companies are having a much more welcome problem: keeping up with demand.  

A spokesperson for J and J’s Meatpacking in Brookshire said smaller processors employ fewer people and thus have more room between workers. J and J’s processes about 800 to 1,000 animals a day. That’s the same amount that some big factories do in an hour. J and J’s spokesperson also stressed its strict compliance with CDC guidelines, including the use of frequent testing, masks and adhering to strict sanitation protocols. 

Medium-sized meat processors typically process for ranchers and farmers who sell to small vendors, such as restaurants and specialty grocery stores. Lately, these processors are also taking on smaller operators like Alan Harrison of Harrison Hog Farms. Harrison, who sells his product at Urban Harvest Farmers Market, says, “Four pigs used to last me four or five markets. Now, they last me two.” He is swamped with customer orders for his house-cured bacon and fresh sausage, yet he’s losing money. He can’t get his hogs processed fast enough. Harrison used to slaughter his hogs at Willie Joe’s, a small processor that butchers around 28 hogs a week. However, it is already booked through the end of the year. 

Hat Brand Country Meats is run by former rodeo cowboy Anthony Thomas. It sells locally raised, grass-fed, hormone-free beef at the Woodlands Farmer’s Market. The ranch also sells half- and quarter- sides of beef directly to consumers. Stocking up on meat has become so popular since the pandemic started that customers are having difficulty finding freezers to buy for home, according to Thomas. A long-standing relationship with his local butcher has kept his business moving. Thomas was apprehensive about divulging the name of his butcher (ostensibly so new customers won’t create a backlog by booking far into the future).

Like Thomas, Camille Kenney of Renaissance Chicken, who sells eggs at the Urban Harvest Farmers Market as well as chicken and eggs to local restaurants, has been able to keep her processors. She says butchers are quick to drop old customers for newer, bigger ones. However, her eight-year relationship with a small farm and processor has carried her through the pandemic — but she is well aware of the butcher shortage. 

A larger yet still local operation, 44 Farms receives cattle from local ranchers who raise their specific genetic strain of cattle. Then, 44 Farms sells the meat to various restaurants in the Houston area. Restaurants represented 95% of sales until March when restaurants had to close dining rooms due to COVID-19. Since then, 44 Farms had to pivot its business model to sell directly to consumers, which has been challenging. Among other changes, it’s had to refocus its online presence to capture more household clients. Restaurant chefs frequently order larger quantities and bigger sections of beef that they break down into smaller cuts themselves in order to save money. Households want smaller quantities and more specific cuts. BJ McElroy, CFO of 44 Farms said, “It’s been an interesting ride”. 

Since social distancing in public spaces slows the spread of COVID-19, then it’s quite possible that having more meat processors, especially smaller ones, that allow more distance between employees would create healthier environments. It is not uncommon for plants to employ up to 100,000 employees in one location, which increases the likelihood of infection — not just for meat-packing employees but for their families and communities. It would also strengthen the supply chain as a whole, though consumers may end up paying more for their meat — something they are not use to thanks to a long history with cheap, factory-processed meat.  

As local meat buyer Lisa Moon put it, “Since prices are high at the supermarket, I may as well give the same amount of money for better, more local meat”.

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