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Pork Processing Slowed, But For Now Farmers Largely Spared From Euthanizing Their Pigs

Amy Mayer
IPR file
Hog diets can be altered to prevent them from bulking up too much if they have to stay in barns longer than planned.

Pork processing fell nearly 40 percent following temporary closures at meatpacking plants across the Midwest last month. That’s created a backlog of market-ready hogs, though the scope of the problem isn’t as dramatic as some had feared.

Many observers, making back-of-the-envelope style calculations, have tried to estimate how many pigs might be euthanized during processing slowdowns. 

The numbers can seem staggering. At full capacity, as many as a half-million pigs can be slaughtered daily in the United States. Cut that by 40 percent, and in a week you could have a million market-ready hogs with nowhere to go. 

But after weeks of closures, and some re-openings, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said Iowa’s tally is nowhere near that level.

“We have less than 5,000 head of market-ready hogs that have been euthanized and disposed of in the state of Iowa,” he said Thursday. 

To be sure, that’s more than anybody wants to lose. But Iowa produces about a third of all U.S. pork and several of the plant closures have been there or in neighboring states including Minnesota, South Dakota and Illinois. (Additional beef and poultry plants in other states have also closed or reduced capacity due to COVID-19 outbreaks.) Naig cautions the number of euthanized hogs could still go up, but with pressure to keep plants running, the worst-case scenarios may have been avoided.

Credit Amy Mayer / IPR file
IPR file
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig speaks with reporters in October 2019 during a simulation exercise as part of preparing for a possible African swine fever outbreak in the United States.

Still, the situation weighs on pork producers. 

“This is a concern,” said Gregg Hora of Fort Dodge, Iowa. “We do not want to put down pigs, we don’t want to euthanize or take food out of the food supply chain.”

But it’s expensive to continue feeding pigs that should already be moving out of the barn, he said, though the nutritional content of the diet can be adjusted to keep them healthy without bulking them up. If the pigs get too much bigger than the size the processing plants anticipate, that could present another problem even if the plants reopen.

For now, timing is on Hora’s side: he took a barn’s worth of hogs to market in February and his current batch won’t be full grown for a while. For those who aren’t as lucky, a bipartisan group of mostly Midwest senators is urging Congressional leaders to provide additional money for producers who have to dispose of hogs.

Previous preparations

But in some ways, the pork industry was prepared for a situation like this. Long before the novel coronavirus began infecting humans, they were deep into pandemic preparations. Their boogeyman: African swine fever.

If that foreign animal disease got to North America, farmers would potentially have to euthanize and dispose of all their hogs on site. The current situation strips away one important factor.

“With foreign animal diseases, we’re very concerned about the movement of pathogens from dead carcasses that were known to be infected into places in the environment,” said Daniel Andersen, a professor of agriculture and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University, “and the persistence [of the pathogen] in the environment.”

Without the fear of spreading infection, a farmer who has to euthanize and dispose of animals today has more options—composting, deep burial, shallow burial, even rendering. More than 275 people logged into a webinar last month with researchers who detailed these options. Andersen said the major unanswered question is the potential volume. Farmers have to deal with carcasses from time to time when an animal dies, but that’s a single or small number of pigs at once.

“How do we handle things that happen at a larger scale, all at one facility, and how do we manage that in an environmentally sound way?”

A charitable solution

The Iowa Pork Producers Association is doing what it can to prevent large-scale disposal. Working with the state and other partners, it’s started “Pass the Pork,” a program that invites farmers to donate hogs for processing at local meat lockers. 

Joyce Hoppes, director of promotion and consumer information at Iowa Pork, recognizes the farmers still lose money.

“But it helps them know they’re helping others and hopefully we will help some of those people who are having some challenging times,” she said. 

The ground pork made from the donated hogs goes to area food banks. Hoppes said the program is counting on financial donations to defray the costs of transportation and processing. But another hurdle is finding room at the state-certified meat lockers.

“We have found out that most of our lockers are very busy, too,” she said. 

Several lockers contacted for this story either did not return phone calls or declined to be interviewed but confirmed their business is brisk. Already many smaller farmers who normally schedule animals for slaughter at these lockers were planning months in advance. Some of the lockers that agreed to participate in Pass the Pork had to extend their hours and Hoppes said the aim is to bring in 20-30 hogs at a time.

Naig, Iowa’s agriculture secretary, said the state has tried to make it easy for lockers to participate by providing inspection services and waiving some fees. He’s looking forward to when the pandemic is over. One thing he’ll do is start asking questions about the gaps and pinch points in the whole food supply chain, including slaughter and processing.

“I do think we need to take a hard look at meat processing and how plants operate and how they’re designed,” he said. “I think those’ll all be things we’ll want to look at.”

He said expanding small, local processing options will be part of that discussion. 

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on the federal government to investigate whether the big meat companies, which operate most of the idled plants, have engaged in unfair business practices.

Follow Amy on Twitter: @AgAmyinAmes

Credit Amy Mayer / IPR file
IPR file
In 2016, JBS invited media into its Marshalltown, Iowa, pork plant for a tour. It is one of several major meatpacking companies that has had outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames