Covid Almost Caused a Meat Crisis
America’s food supply chains came close to the breaking point last April. It shouldn’t happen again.
February 12, 2021, 6:00 AM PST
Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty
Last April, as the pandemic got underway, it was easy to laugh off the absurdity of toilet-paper shortages. But when supermarket meat cases emptied out at the end of the month, nobody was laughing. The shortages were the result of Covid outbreaks at a handful of companies responsible for most of the country’s meat supply. Briefly, the virus threatened to shatter a key link in America’s previously unbreakable food chain.Last week, a Democratic House panel started a probe into who was ultimately responsible for those outbreaks. It’s a crucial question, but it’s not the only one that lawmakers should be asking about this episode. They should also look into why just a handful of companies now processes almost all of the meat purchased by American consumers.To an extent few consumers appreciate, most of the U.S. meat supply emerges from a small number of facilities. By one estimate, about 50 large plants are responsible for slaughtering and processing 98% of the cattle in the U.S. Most of those plants are owned by just four companies: Tyson Foods Inc., JBS SA, Cargill Inc. and National Beef Packing Co. Collectively they control 73% of the cattle-processing market. It’s a similar story for chicken and pork.