Meatpacking facilities in the U.S. emerged as hotbeds for coronavirus outbreaks. Thousands of workers became ill and +50 have died. In some cases, the communities where the operations are located have seen infections surge as well. Dozens of plants were forced to scale back operations or close down completely, leading to supply chain bottlenecks that caused major logistical hiccups with livestock and consumer supply.
It makes sense that many industry experts believe the fallout from the pandemic will lead to meat companies adopting more automated technologies at a faster clip than previously expected. As many in the industry have pointed out, the problem in the supply chain occurred because of plant closure or slowdowns due to coronavirus infections among employees or fear impacting the workforce. Sadly, as some argue, automating meat production could eliminate the number of employees at risk, thereby lowering the risk of interruptions, but could also put some out of work.
Wired magazine recently highlighted Denmark’s Danish Crown, the biggest meat processing company in Europe, which includes one of the world’s largest pig slaughterhouses in the world in Horsens, Denmark. According to Danish Crown, among the company’s 8,000 employees in Denmark, fewer than 10 workers have tested positive for coronavirus. None of its slaughterhouses in Denmark have had to close or slow down production and heavy automation is one reason that might explain why – it’s considered one of the most modern facilities in the world. Click HERE to learn more.
Jayson Lusk, a food and agricultural economist at Purdue University, explained to Wired that the reason U.S. meatpacking plants don’t have more automation because of a lack of economic incentives. In particular, American companies have access to cheap and readily available labor. However, shifting demographics and the tight labor market have made it increasingly tough for the industry to fill jobs in recent years, so automation was already being looked at as a solution. Lusk says that with coronavirus entering the picture, there is also the sudden realization that cramming more workers into plants turns them into potential infectious disease incubators.
Blake Hurst, President of the Missouri Farm Bureau, penned a recent article in The Dispatch that examines the various problems facing the meat industry as well as possible solutions. Hurst makes an excellent point about increasing automation in the industry, noting that the only companies that likely have the resources to implement widespread transformation will be the largest ones. Danish Crown spent nearly $300 million on its massive pork processing plant in Horsens, which necessarily included specialized – and pricey – robots and other equipment. Danish Crown says the modernization has paid for itself but it took about ten years.
As Hurst points out, that runs up against the other problem many see inside the meat industry – consolidation to the point that now just four companies account for 85% of U.S. beef and pork processing business. The meat industry is currently facing antitrust action with critics claiming price collusion and calling for increased competition. But Hurst also points out that increasing the number of processing facilities in the U.S. would also be a big challenge as it’s exceedingly tough to find communities that are willing to host and accept them.