Meat and shopping: One more impact of the coronavirus on ordinary life

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This story originally appeared on the website for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, and can be viewed here.

Waterloo, Ill. – Wyatt Drews grudgingly begins his April 29th shift, pulling into the parking lot at 7 a.m., scanning the parking lot to once again see hundreds of people in their cars waiting for him to open the doors to the local Walmart store. 

“Working at Walmart right now is like Black Friday that will never end,” said Drews.

Fear of missing out, known as FOMO for years to kids on the internet, has now invaded the world of their parents.

It began in mid-March when the new coronavirus became part of ordinary American life with shortages of household products like hand sanitizer, toilet paper and paper towels. Now, as May has turned to June, scarcity – and the fear of it — is all about the meat. 

The shortages and the fear of shortages spurred President Donald Trump on April 28 to sign an executive order under the Defense Production Act requiring meat processing plants to remain open during the Coronavirus pandemic. 

But consumer anxiety, and thus changes to purchasing behavior, remains rampant.

Jason and Rhonda Buser live in Waterloo and shop at the local Walmart. Rhonda Buser said: “My grocery bill is now doubled because we are buying things in bulk, especially meat because of the news about packing plants closing.”

Rhonda and Jason Buser family at their home in Waterloo, IL on May 2, 2020. Photo by Joey Birrittier/For Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Many of the nation’s largest meat processing companies — Tyson Foods, Smithfield, JBS, and Cargill have halted production because of outbreaks on the production floor over the past two months, according to reporting by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.  

Since then, plants opening back up have been a mixed bag. Some plants have resorted to trying limited production numbers to reduce exposure of the coronavirus to their employees.

As of June 6, there have been at least 20,400 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities in at least 216 plants in 33 states, and at least 74 reported worker deaths, according to a Midwest Center analysis

“There is a kink in the supply chain,” said Bryan Endres, a food law professor at the University of Illinois. “these processing plants that are closing have the potential to create a crisis in the heartland.”

“There is a kink in the supply chain,” said Bryan Endres, a food law professor at the University of Illinois. “These processing plants that are closing have the potential to create a crisis in the heartland.”

Although the food supply news has been heavily focused on the processing plants, Endres cautions focusing the issue on one part of the agriculture industry. He said: “This virus won’t just affect the plant workers, but American farmers, retailers, and the rest of the supply chain.”

Endres, a researcher in European food markets, said that the potential for a food crisis has not been seen in Europe because of their economic system. “Europe is a very open market,” said Endres, “suppliers can pick and choose what country they want to buy livestock from and therefore the shortage has not been felt there.”

Butcher shops shift gears

Gerhard Wanninger runs a retail butcher shop in St. Louis, Missouri and has felt the effects of the processors closing. Wanninger’s store, G and W Meats, is supplied by Cargill, one of the major United States processors that is experiencing outbreaks at its plants in the Midwest.

“The suppliers for retail businesses, like me, were simply not prepared for this,” said Wanninger. “We are scrambling to meet the needs of our customers because of it.”

As a result of the scrambling, Wanninger has had to make changes to his business to stay afloat.

One of these major changes for Wanninger is the shift of employee hours. “While we are doing our best to keep all of our employees, we are only processing meat from Cargill two days a week as opposed to four before this virus started which has resulted in me cutting hours,” Wanninger said.

A changing business model has been another downfall for Wanninger due to the pandemic. 

“Our retail business has completely changed,” said Wanninger, “we only allow four customers in our stores at a time and can provide curbside services.” 

Wanninger has emphasized that employee safety is his most important job. 

“If a customer wants to walk into the store, he or she must wear a mask or simply wait for curbside service. I will not risk the safety of my employees over someone not taking the proper precautions,” he said.

Problems with the meat supply will lead to higher prices for Wanninger’s business, which in turn is passed on to his customers. “Normally I buy 6,000 to 8,000 pounds of meat per week at a rate of 60 cents per pound,” said Wanninger, “because of this virus I am buying meat over 300% that price at $2 a pound.”

This could be a major problem for Wanninger because his business casts a wide net in the St. Louis area.  “This increased price will hurt our wholesale business,” said Wanninger, “many of these customers are restaurant owners and they are barely making through it as it is.”

The failure of preparation was a sentiment shared by employees of major retailers like Walmart. “I think this virus has changed how Walmart operates as a retailer,” said Drews, “because we were not prepared for a disaster on this scale.” 

For many Walmart associates the days are hectic while they struggle to maintain supply on their shelves. “We have new grocery supplies that come in every day now,” said Drews, “but in many cases our meat wall and fresh produce get knocked out within the hour.” 

Drews said that the store is struggling to keep up with the demands of anxious customers.

These customers have created a different experience for Drews and other employees at Walmart. “People are now scared to ask me questions while shopping in the store,” he said, “one of my favorite parts about this job is interacting with people that I know. Now they act as if I have the plague.”

Along with the livestock industry, corn and soybean growers have begun to feel the negative effects of this virus. 

Kurt Poetkker at his cattle farm in Columbia, Illinois.

For many American farmers, this virus has led to unprecedented changes to their livelihoods. Cattle farmer Kurt Poetkker said, “My family has been farming in Columbia, Illinois since 1954 and this is the worst thing ever.”

“The suffering is universal,” said Kenny Hartman, a corn and soybean grower from Waterloo, Illinois.

Along with his farming operation, Hartman serves on the National Board of Directors for the Corn Growers Association. 

“My job is to represent 42,000 corn growers across the nation,” he said, “we lead lobbying efforts, marketing, and educating government officials about corn and ethanol.” Hartman said corn farmers across the nation are dealing with a wide assortment of issues during the Coronavirus. 

“Corn farmers are having issues with getting USDA loans, export numbers are going down, and corn market prices have decreased exponentially,” he said.

According to Hartman; “USDA exports, in April, fell by 9.6%, total U.S export plunged 6.2%, and the trade deficit grew by four billion.” Hartman said that in response to the markets, the USDA is purchasing $470 million of surplus food to go towards local food pantries and shelters.

Another response by the federal government has been President Trump invoking the Defense Production Act, mandating meat processing plants to remain open during the Coronavirus. 

In response to this action by the President, Endres said “It’s fascinating to see how this law is being used in the meat industry during this unprecedented time of closure.”

 Now that the plants are required to remain open, the issue in play is how they will legally manage employee hours. 

“The interesting thing from a legal perspective,” said Endres, “is how do these employers mandate their employees to come to work? You can’t physically make someone come to work.”

In the past, unions have played a role in preventing employees being forced to work, but Endres does not believe that precedent will hold in this case. 

“Lawsuits have been filed by workers in Missouri and other states, but if unions decide to strike against employers because of the Defense Production Act, employees risk losing all bargaining protections and will be fired,” he said.

Poetkker thinks closing the processing plants could have the potential to overhaul the entire supply chain. 

He said, “I believe that meat carries everything in the agriculture economy; with this pandemic it changes everything.”

With the processing plants closing, farmers are running out of options with their market-ready livestock. Poetkker said “I have friends in the hog business that are having to make some difficult financial decisions on whether it’s worth keeping the animals alive or if they should start euthanizing.”

Euthanization is becoming an unfortunate reality for many American growers. According to the StarTribune, a newspaper based in Minneapolis: “With COVID-19 battering food supply chains, 10,000 hogs are being euthanized daily in Minnesota.” 

“Euthanizing hogs is not the solution,” said Wanninger, “I depend on Cargill and people depend on me to put meat on their tables.” 

Wanninger sees the solution to this problem is the plants reopening because retail stores rely on the flow of livestock from suppliers like Cargill.

Along with the livestock industry, dairy farmers are struggling during this pandemic. According to Poetkker, some dairy farmers have resorted to dumping their milk in the fields because of the low market prices and suppliers afraid of being exposed to the virus on the farm

“This virus could not have come at a worse time for farmers,” said Poetkker, “after dealing with two years of volatility with the trade deals we need stability in the meat and grain business.” 

Poetkker believes that the volatility experienced on Wall Street during this pandemic has a direct correlation with the crisis for corn and soybean growers.

Hartman thinks the USDA’s plan to buy 470 million dollars of surplus food to support American farmers and stabilize the commodity markets is not enough; the damage has already been done. 

“There are around five to six billion bushels of corn used in the livestock industry each year, with a market drop of 70 cents the money being lost is in the billions easily,” said Hartman.

The National Corn Growers Association thinks the sooner the processing plants reopen, the better it will be for American consumers. 

“Our organization has established the safety of plant workers to be most important,” said Hartman, “but to support the nation’s economy and food chain we believe the processing plants need to remain open.”   

Along with these shortfalls, many farmers are dealing with stresses that come with the start of the planting season. 

“Farmers are working through new and unique challenges,” said Jake Schlitt, Product Marketing Manager for Bayer Crop Science, “but they understand the importance their jobs play in the nation’s economy and are planting their crops just as they have done for generations.”

Schlitt’s role with Bayer Crop Science is focused on planning for the future and managing the Regional Brand Corn portfolio. “Our plan of action for our farming customers is always focused on the customer’s success,” he said. “And we are certainly working to understand the impacts this virus is having on the ag economy.”

Schlitt said one of the challenges he and Bayer are facing with this virus is the new methods of communicating with farmers.

“Our industry is built on the handshake,” Schlitt said. “In-person interactions have been central to how we do business and we are working to understand how we can better utilize all the digital tools and platforms to connect with our customers.”

Retail stores have also increased their dependence with online platforms to connect with customers. Drews said the virus has changed the shopping experience and employee roles at Wal. “Online shopping has grown exponentially and corporate has mandated all stores to increase the number of online associates; our number has doubled from 10 to 20 online associates,” he said.

Jason and Rhonda Buser are just one of many that have utilized online shopping instead of going into the store.  Jason said that many people are using the shopping application online because it is easier. 

“Why would I go to the grocery store,” said Jason Buser, “if I can simply shop online and have the food delivered to me?”

Customers, like Jason and Rhonda Buser, have led to an increase in the total number of items being purchased online instead of in-store. 

“Before this virus, the average online basket order was $50,” said Drews, “now we take 100 to 130 orders a day and the average basket ranges from $99 to $150.”

Since the onset of the virus, online retail and grocery shopping has increased in popularity because of people concerned about the risk of infection. 

According to Adobe Analytics, an online marketing and web analytics company, “U.S. ecommerce sales increased 49% for daily average online sales March 12-April 11.”

Drews is concerned that this new type of buying, that has become popularized because of the virus, will create an even greater food shortage. 

“I believe that people buying online are paranoid and, because of that, are buying more food than they actually need,” said Drews. He believes that this extra food being bought by paranoid consumers should be sent to local food pantries for people that need it.

Jason and Rhonda Buser did not share this concern and think it is okay for families to be worried and buy more than normal.

“Many people are just like us and are concerned about putting food on the table for our kids, it’s hard to figure out what’s available so we have to get it while we can,” said Rhonda Buser.

As economic and supply chain concerns linger because of the Coronavirus, Schlitt explains why agriculture will always remain.  “Agriculture is an essential part of the global economy,” he said, “even with meat and grain plants closing and declining farm prices, people need to eat.”

After finishing his 10-hour shift at Walmart, Drews goes home to prepare for what events lie before him the next day.  

When asked how he prepares, Drews said: “Every day is a new experience during this virus, the food crises might not be a threat to our supply chain but it’s possibility has created paranoia for people, I expect another 200 cars to be there tomorrow morning waiting for me to open the store once again.”

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