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US under pressure to keep slaughterhouses open amid pandemic

17 March 2020

The USDA hopes to reassure meat producers that it will keep slaughterhouses staffed with federal inspectors as fears of potential shutdowns due to the novel coronavirus mount.

According to reporting from Reuters, meat industry groups are expressing concerns over tumbling livestock prices and food supplies.

Livestock markets have been negatively impacted as the spread of the coronavirus threatens staff at processing and inspection plants.

Prices for cattle could fall further if the outbreak forces industry giants like Tyson Foods or WH Group to close slaughterhouses. Shutdown would remove markets for farmers to sell their animals and could temporarily restrict meat supplies.

The USDA said it would use its authority and “all administrative means and flexibilities to address staffing considerations” during the outbreak.

USDA officials told the National Cattlemen's Beef Association that the agency will ensure it has replacement inspectors ready to staff slaughterhouses if necessary, said Colin Woodall, chief executive of the trade group. Farmers and industry groups reiterated there were no confirmed shutdowns.

"We need to make sure that we're keeping the beef flowing," Woodall said.

The US Cattlemen’s Association has asked whether the USDA would ease staffing requirements for meat inspectors to avoid supply disruptions if coronavirus threatens operations, said Jess Peterson, senior policy advisor for the trade group. However, he stressed that the association wants meat to be produced safely, saying “we’re just looking for flexibility so that nothing gets shut down.”

April live cattle futures fell 14 percent this month due to concerns that the virus could shut slaughterhouses and cause an economic slowdown that would reduce beef demand. Boxed beef prices rose on Monday and Friday while futures sank.

The USDA is examining the markets for possible anticompetitive behaviour, said Peterson, who said he spoke with USDA Under Secretary Greg Ibach.

The agency in August launched a separate investigation into widening prices between cattle and beef after a fire at a Tyson Foods slaughterhouse in Kansas shut the plant.

Farmers said coronavirus has the potential to wreak even more havoc if it shuts multiple slaughterhouses.

"That's my worst nightmare," said Peterson, a rancher in Montana.

Read more about this story here.


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