The coronavirus threat may disrupt the beef and pork industries, representatives and analysts say. Workers may have to stay home because of school closures, and demand may decrease as consumers buy less meat.
The National Pork Producers Council wrote to President Trump on March 10 that labor shortages in the industry are likely to get even worse due to the coronavirus situation, Meat + Poultry reported. The NPPC's letter asked national and state leaders to help devise solutions should producers be hit by holdups in the supply chain, and the group again called for expedited immigrant worker visas to ease the labor crunch.
For the beef sector, coronavirus could have a similar effect as African swine fever on the pork market in China, according to Mother Jones. The magazine said ASF had destroyed half of China's pigs by the end of last year, causing prices to spike and consumers to opt for beef instead. As a result, China imported more beef and prices rose. As coronavirus surfaced, however, both demand and prices fell.
Should coronavirus create serious problems for the pork and beef industries, it would further disrupt two sectors that have not had the greatest past couple of years. U.S. pork producers have seen high demand, in part due to African swine fever in China, but increasing labor shortages have strained the industry.
Howard Roth, NPPC president and a Wisconsin hog farmer, wrote in the group's letter to Trump that school closures keeping parents away from work were already a problem in farm and processing plant areas.
"The specter of market-ready hogs with nowhere to go is a nightmare for every pork producer in the nation," Roth said in a NPPC release. The release added that the industry relies on foreign labor, and without a stable workforce, the sector could see increased production costs, resulting in higher food prices for consumers.
Roth also said in the letter that because of low unemployment, there aren't enough workers to run second shifts on weekdays or Saturday shifts in many of the country's pork packing plants. This capacity shortfall was expected to start in September, he added, but with the coronavirus threat, it could occur sooner and possibly create problems with daily animal care.
Thousands of workers are needed every day to tend to pigs and operate slaughter plants, The Wall Street Journal noted. New facilities had opened up and farmers were producing more pigs before exports were hampered by trade disputes between China and the U.S.
Whether expedited immigrant worker visas can alleviate the problem remains to be seen, but that's a goal the pork industry, dairy producers and farm groups have had for a long time. Since the Trump administration has been cracking down on undocumented immigrants in the food and agriculture sectors, it may not choose to revisit immigrant worker visas — particularly while the president has been trying to grapple with the coronavirus issue by issuing travel bans.
Regardless, the coronavirus threat is everywhere, with cases reported on every continent except Antarctica. There is no guarantee immigrants would be less likely to be impacted by exposure to the virus.
Meanwhile, shifting domestic demand for beef continues to plague that industry. As Mother Jones pointed out, economic optimism leads to more consumer beef purchases, while worries about money prompt people to seek out less-expensive options. U.S. per-capita beef consumption fell 10% during the recession between 2007 and 2011, the magazine reported, but it had recovered by 2015, along with the economy.
That recovery hit a wall with lagging demand for beef from China due to coronavirus and because carnivores are remaining at home instead of going out to buy steak or other meat products. The Journal reported the result has been dropping U.S. cattle prices — they've fallen 19% so far this year, or about a quarter per pound — and they could slide even more unless the situation starts to resolve.
Meat company stocks have taken a beating in the past month. Shares of Tyson Foods have dropped 36%, and U.S. depository shares of Brazil's JBS are down nearly 32%.
The beef sector is also being challenged by plant-based alternatives whose growth seems to expand with every passing day, so its position is likely to get even worse, with or without coronavirus.