As more and more large meat processing plants close amid the nation's coronavirus pandemic, farmers across the country are running out of physical space for their pigs.
With slaughterhouses shuttered, hog farms became so crowded this week that many farmers have been forced to start killing their pigs en masse, the United Press International reported Thursday.
'This is our biggest crisis ever'
"I really, really don't want to kill my pigs," said Howard Roth, president of the National Pork Producers Council. "But it is getting close here. I know there are farmers who have had to kill their pigs, farmers are aborting sows. It's really awful."
Roth, who raises and weans pigs in Wisconsin, added that in a typical week, the American pork industry kills 2.5 million pigs. But this week, that number will drop to 2 million, leaving a backup of 500,000 pigs.
"We were already backed up by about a half million. This is bad," he said.
In Minnesota, 200,000 pigs could be killed, David Preisler, CEO of the Minnesota Pork Board, reported. He added that the impending slaughter is not for a lack of preparation. Farmers have prepared for a disease outbreak and many have opted to feed their hogs a high-fiber, low-calorie diet that slows down growth. But that works for only so long.
"You reach a point where you have to make a decision on things," Preisler said. "And that's unfortunately where we're at right now."
Numerous farms have also started to go out of business as a result of the pandemic, noted Joseph Kerns, president of Kerns & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in livestock. He said it was too soon to predict how many will eventually close, but predicted it could be a huge number.
"This is our biggest crisis ever in pork production," Kerns said. "And I don't say that lightly."
Disaster for the food supply chain
The issue stems from a wave of recent meat processing plant closures in the country now totaling over a dozen.
Earlier this month, one of the nation's largest meat producers, Smithfield Foods, closed its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant due to a virus outbreak among employees. On Monday, JBS, a large international meat processing company, closed its third plant, in Worthington, Minnesota. On Wednesday, Tyson Foods shut down its largest pork producing plant in Waterloo, Iowa.
At the time of its plant closure, Smithfield Foods CEO Kenneth Sullivan warned that the growing number of plant closures "is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply."
"It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running. These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation's livestock farmers," he added.
The pork industry is not the only meat industry that has been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, a Delaware chicken company was forced to kill 2 million chickens after a number of employees came down with the illness.