Fred Linz, CEO of Linz Heritage Angus, is very concerned about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the meat industry. Staff photo by 
John J. Watkins
Fred Linz, CEO of Linz Heritage Angus, is very concerned about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the meat industry. Staff photo by John J. Watkins
Lee Enterprises Midwest Reporters

It's a living, breathing bottleneck of livestock, choking the Midwest's meat industry.

The food is there -- but frustratingly out of reach in some cases — as COVID-19 has closed or slowed production at Midwest meat processing plants, confounding farmers, retail operators and consumers.

A traffic jam of livestock is stalled on farms and ranches as major processing plants spanning Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Indiana struggle to react to the impact of the virus on its workforce.

As farmers are faced with what once would have seemed an unthinkable scenario -- having to kill and dispose of otherwise healthy livestock that can't get to market -- they're also being hit with devastating financial losses.

Farming losses translate into losses for all.

Consumers in those states are staring at higher grocery bills and, in some cases, dwindling supplies on grocery store shelves.

Meanwhile, meat processing plants have scrambled to meet CDC-issued guidance in an attempt to stem the COVID-19 tide hitting workers.

Weeks after President Donald Trump deemed the meatpacking industry essential, allowing facilities to reopen, employers in the Midwest remain challenged in safely bringing back operations at full capacity.

In a special report this week, reporters at Lee Enterprises newspaper and online media outlets take you inside the major industry that is meat production and processing in the Midwest, retracing the cause and varied and real impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on everyone living within the greater region.

From the meat ranches and farms to the grocery store shelves and consumer wallets, here is how the COVID-19 impact on Midwest meat processing facilities is impacting nearly everyone:

'Just makes you sick'

As COVID-19 has sickened the workforce of various major meat production plants, grinding the industry to a crawl or halt, a different, less clinical sickness is setting in with the farmers who feed the nation's meat supply chain.

For Mike Paustian, whose 1,400-acre Paustian Enterprises farm in Walcott, Iowa, sees about 600 pigs born weekly, it's a sickness of the stomach regarding what he and other livestock producers might have to do to respond to the crisis.

As of May 2, the U.S. had lost nearly 45% of its pork processing capacity over two months and about 38% of its cattle processing, according to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.

Pork processing facilities in Iowa on average can handle about 150,000 hogs per day.

The impact of COVID-19 on meat processing plants has reduced that to 40,000 or 50,000 per day in recent weeks, said Mike Naig, secretary for the Iowa Department of Agriculture.

That reality has led to a sea of livestock on farms and ranches that has nowhere to go.

"It's going to take months to get through this backlog, and that's where it's going to come down to each individual farm on how much wiggle room they can find and how long they can hold off having to do something drastic, such as euthanizing pigs," Paustian said.

"All producers are trying to delay until the last possible minute of the last possible hour of the last possible day, because that just makes you sick to your stomach to have to think about having to do that...

"The whole goal is to get that pig into the food supply, and for that not to happen is heartbreaking."

Midwestern agricultural officials aren't reporting widespread euthanizing of livestock yet, but the possibility looms.

A butchered industry

Meanwhile, many working to feed the food supply chain are witnessing the entire industry on the butcher's block.

Fred Linz owns Meats by Linz, a Calumet City, Illinois-based supplier to many of the nation's finest white-tablecloth steakhouses.

Just across the south-suburban Chicago border, Linz also runs the Linz Heritage Angus Cattle Farm in Crown Point, Indiana.

He's watching a COVID-19 cleaver cut 40 percent to 60 percent of the capacity at meat harvesting facilities.

"Labor is not showing up to the harvesting facilities for a few reasons: They have COVID-19, they're scared to get COVID-19 or they're collecting $600 a week in unemployment," Linz said.

Meat-processing plants that used to run 650,000 heads of cattle a week nationwide are down to 450,000 a week, he added.

"Retailers are seeing all-time high prices, but poor cattle producers are seeing the lowest prices on live cattle since 2008," Linz said.

Without the vital connection of processing plants at full capacity, meat suppliers aren't making any money, and their customers -- grocers, restaurants and consumers -- are paying a lot more.

The epicenter

The epicenter of the well-documented epicenter of COVID-19's impact on the Midwest meat supply chain are the large processing plants, at which social distancing is difficult and the disease has inflicted numerous workers and led to plant shutdowns.

With cramped conditions, the CDC said meatpacking plants are inherently more susceptible to the spread of COVID-19, with shoulder-to-shoulder work spaces, fast-paced production lines and difficulty adhering to strict disinfectant guidelines.

At the heart of this corner of the pandemic are the processing workers, whose importance to the nation's food supply chain put them in harm's way to begin with.

"My 5-year-old wants me to hug him, and I can't," said Raqul Sanchez Alvarado, a worker at the American Foods Groups plant near Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Alvarado survived COVID-19, and is quick to note, "It was not my choice to get sick."

"We heard people were sick, but we weren't informed," another American Foods Groups worker, Filiberto Reyes Martinez, said during a press conference last month as he described conditions on the work floor during the pandemic. "The line was moving so fast. We were sweating heavily. Our masks were slipping and wouldn't stick to our faces."

In Wisconsin alone, more than 600 workers in meat plants have contracted COVID-19, according to industry estimates. But the number could be much higher, under the haze of incomplete reporting.

Green Bay-based JBS Packerland plant is the site of Wisconsin's worst known outbreak, with 255 confirmed cases as of April 28, according to CDC records.

JBS spokeswoman Nikki Richardson noted in an email, "What I can share is we are doing everything we can to provide a safe working environment for our team members who are producing food for the country during these unprecedented times."

As of May 1, 115 meat and poultry processing facilities had reported COVID-19 cases across 19 states, according to the CDC. Among the 130,000 workers at the facilities, more than 4,900 cases and 20 deaths have been reported.

The Midwestern states of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio submitted data to the CDC. Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan did not.

Nearly 380 — or 18.2% of workers — at Iowa’s two meatpacking plants tested positive for the disease in late April, according to CDC figures. For comparison, about 112 — or 1.7% — of workers in Illinois’ five plants tested positive last month.

Seven major meat packing plants in Illinois have reported coronavirus cases, with one reported employee death with Smithfield Foods in St. Charles, Illinois, and two employee deaths with Tyson Fresh Meats I Joslin in Hillsdale, Illinois.

Rantoul Foods in Rantoul, Illinois., partially shut down its facility on Monday for sanitation after 83 employees tested positive for the virus. More than 200 employees were tested May 8 through 9 through an on-site testing facility at the packing plant.

“It ain’t pretty making sausage,” said Dr. David Fletcher of SafeWorks Illinois, an occupational health services organization overseeing the testing. “It’s highly repetitive, in close quarters — an animal after it’s killed going down a line, cutting the hog up and getting the pieces of meat.”

It’s an industry assembled around efficiency, scale and a complex network of transportation and distribution systems. A change in one area can trigger a series of issues up and down the chain states away.

In Minnesota, the JBS meatpacking plant — one of the state’s largest pork processing plants — shuttered April 20 at a time when only a handful of its workers tested positive for COVID-19.

It’s since reopened in a limited capacity earlier this month despite 622 of its workers recently testing positive for the disease.

The JBS plant is by far the city of Worthington’s biggest employers, with about 2,200 workers. Some live in the small city; others commute an hour’s drive every day for work, Worthington city administrator Steve Robinson said.

In conversations with JBS’s general manager this week, Robinson said he learned the plant was still short about 500 employees, preventing them from returning to full capacity.

JBS typically produces about 20,000 hogs a day, but daily production is down to about 14,000, he said.

Overall, 944 meatpacking plant employees have tested positive at eight different Minnesota plants, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

In Indiana, about 900 employees, or 40% of the workforce, at the Tyson Foods plant in Logansport tested positive for coronavirus, leading to an April 25 closure. That was right before the Tyson Foods chairman warned the "U.S. food supply chain is breaking" in a full-age ad in The New York Times.

Survival mode

The challenges facing the meat-processing facilities have meant some jigs and jags by livestock producers trying to weather the COVID-19 storm.

Driving down the road to Macon County, Illinois, with a truck full of pigs, Thomas Titus considers himself lucky.

“We’re in survival mode,” he said of his Central Illinois hog farming operation. “Every time we’re able to put a pig on a truck it’s a great feeling.”

A farmer in Elkhart, Illinois, Titus was heading to a small, family-owned meat processor last week after selling his first truck of pigs in more than three weeks.

His farm, Tri Pork Inc., was forced to develop partnerships with small-scale meat processing facilities since the COVID-19 outbreak forced several major slaughterhouses to close across the Midwest and nation.

Still, some cattle producers are getting hit by the COVID-19 onslaught on multiple fronts. Not only is their market drying up, but they are experiencing a shortage of affordable feed.

"For fat cattle and feeder calves, the market has gone south," said Teresa Steckler, a University of Illinois beef educator. "Then you have the issue with commodities becoming hard to come by as well -- because not as much ethanol is being produced."

A byproduct of ethanol production is dried distillers grains, which are a low-cost source of high-protein food for livestock.

In an attempt to adjust, some farmers are changing the way they market their goods, selling directly to retail establishments and consumers instead of through the normal supply chain, Steckler said.

Steckler noted an independent hog producer in Southern Illinois was able to sell all but 10 of his 250 fat hogs locally.

"There is a lot more direct sales," she said. "There has been quite a bit of cattle going through some of the local meat processors."

In Davenport, Iowa, Bam Bam, a 2,000-pound bull, gulped down an apple fed to it by Dale Scherer on a recent windy day.

Bam Bam is among the 80 head of cattle on Scherer's 58-acres of land in the Quad-Cities.

Scherer said he so far weathered the industry storm because of a pivot he made years ago.

A meat processing facility where he formerly processed his cows was purchased by a corporation, and he shifted gears, ultimately beginning to use farmers markets instead of relaying on contracts with large meat operators.

Sales were up 60% compared to this week a year ago for Scherer Custom Meats as a result, Scherer said.

But uncertainty lingers for the greater industry.

"There are so many unknown and uncontrollable things right now," said Leon Adams, who farms near Bonnie, in Southern Illinois' Jefferson County. "All you can do is stick to your plan, put your crop in and hope this thing levels itself out by mid-summer."

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