workplace food industry - factory butchery for the production of sausages - butcher cuts meat
Credit: iStock

COVID-19 has changed everything, highlighting one of the meatier issues during this crisis: the politics of beef production and export. From ranches to feedlots, slaughterhouses to global markets, beef is now one of the most important products under threat in a high-stakes international food-supply game.

Meat supplies are so important, in fact, that President Trump intervened to order keep meatpacking plants in operation.

Meat consumption makes up a big part of Americans’ protein intake—with milk and dairy being the most important. Anything that threatens its availability on the market or dramatically raises its price is of national concern. Recent shortages and store limits on meat purchases have further raised the alarm. Supply and demand are strained.

Cattle ranchers are certainly feeling the squeeze: Demand for beef has dramatically dropped as restaurants close. However, those fast-food chains and markets with customers seeking burgers and steaks are finding a stark supply reality — cattle can’t get from feedlots to fork because of supply constraints. Coronavirus outbreaks in factory slaughterhouses are hampering the ability to process, package and deliver the product.

With more than 4,900 meatpackers infected and 20 reported deaths, fewer animals are being butchered and processed. Less processing capacity means fewer heads of fattened cattle get churned through the system. Less processing capacity means lower demand for animals at the plants, dropping the price per head and significantly raising costs as stay-at-home cattle are expensive for ranchers and feedlots to keep.

Fewer cattle entering processing plants also means fewer packaged meat products coming out. In the marketplace, that translates into shortages and higher prices in supermarkets. Not enough meat explains why 1,000 Wendy’s burger joints were suddenly short on patties.

The problem is not just at home. The human preference for beef is stressing a system that also depends on global markets. Australia’s producers, for example, rely heavily on beef and barley exports to China. This week, China cut off Australian exports because the island continent wants to investigate the Chinese origins of the coronavirus. Beijing is punishing Aussies for their alleged COVID-crisis finger-pointing, attacking food exporters through economic coercion.

China is blatantly doing what other powerful countries often get away with—marrying trade policies to political goals. This linkage happens all the time. The Trump administration, for example, has vigorously reintroduced this into its own policy toolkit, making import tariffs a staple of creating economic leverage to achieve policy outcomes. From Europe to China, steel to cars, tariffs are this administration’s preferred means to extract trade concessions and political favor.

China’s move is intended to change Australia’s political posture and help put the Canberra government out to pasture. Beijing visibly winks, denying the politics of the beef ban, arguing instead that Australia violated food inspection standards. Both could, of course, be true. Food inspection can be spotty in the best of nations.

America’s meat industry has a long and sordid history, highlighted early in the 20th century in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” an eye-opening novel exposing the meatpacking industry’s unsanitary processes and unsavory labor practices. The novel generated a public uproar, and new safety and sanitation laws were passed, but the meat industry continues to have problems exacerbated by globalization.

Mad Cow disease, the controversial use of hormones, targeted trade barriers and adversarial nations’ policies that undermine foreign agricultural sectors are just some of the attacks and inherent weaknesses of today’s fragile and globally interlinked food-supply chain.

Vulnerabilities ranging from pandemic to political whim should motivate both consumers and policymakers to rethink the system of food production and delivery—independent of the many ethical considerations surrounding meat consumption.

Unreliable and bottle-necked supply chains alone have led to today’s beef shortages. Some countries have awakened to this challenge. China has a heightened sensitivity to food shortages, for example, as the nation suffers from a decimated pork supply, down 40 percent because of African swine fever.

From a consumer perspective, we must reconsider eating habits that require enormous energy and resources to bring beef from hoof to hamburger. Thankfully, there are more and, increasingly, better options, including plant-and-lab based substitutes.

Governments, too, need to reconsider how to help deliver enough food to people with fewer dollars to spend and to markets with potentially fewer imported and transported foodstuffs. Just as all industries are reviewing their options to repatriate work and onshore manufacturing for profitable and strategic purposes, so, too, will the political leadership in several countries need to work harder to increase and diversify their food industries’ homegrown production and quality.

After all, COVID-19 has changed everything, including the way we eat.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).