UPDATED: Coronavirus tests meat supply chain as farm groups keep food on shelves
Officials say agriculture necessary as other industries shut down
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect that while overweight permit fees for livestock haulers were not waived by the Pritzker administration, they have been waived nationwide by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
By BEN ORNER
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Meat has been among the most in-demand items at supermarkets as people stock up on essentials amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
That has people up and down Illinois’ livestock supply chain – especially producers of beef and pork – trying to keep up. Industry leaders say the Illinois factories processing beef and pork are running at normal capacity with multiple shifts a day to keep shelves and meat cases stocked.
“There has been and continues to be a steady supply reaching consumers,” said Jill Johnson, executive vice president of the Illinois Beef Association. “In the beef industry right now, there's nothing that's pointing to not being able to fulfill that demand.”
As orders for pork – of which Illinois is the fourth-biggest producer in the country – come in more frequently from grocery stores, the state’s three major pork packing facilities are functioning at normal capacity, according to Illinois Pork Producers Association Executive Director Jennifer Tirey.
“Our farmers don't stop working during this. They are in it for the long haul. And we are moving meat to grocery stores on a daily basis,” she said.
While meat flies off supermarket shelves, some of the stress on the supply chain is eased by a decrease in orders from restaurants, which had to close their doors to dine-in customers this week.
“We've actually had grocery stores be able to step in and pick up that slack,” Johnson said. “So in terms of keeping beef moving to a consumer, that's not an issue.”
Jacob Liebman, a Central Illinois beef cattle farmer with a small farm in Morgan County, said he has had a consistent stream of calls and texts from slaughterhouses, including one on Friday morning searching for more ground beef.
“He was looking for old bulls, old cows, just things that can be turned into hamburger, basically,” Liebman said.
Mike Doherty, a senior economist at the Illinois Farm Bureau, said one potential strain on the supply chain is uncertainty in the workforce for slaughterhouses and processing plants.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, Illinois has closed schools and put an added emphasis on caring for the elderly. So despite processing plants having “generally younger workers,” Doherty said some employees might need to stay home.
Tirey said pork packers “are managing to continue with normal operations,” but “as time goes on,” they have expressed similar concerns about workforce availability.
Johnson said the beef industry has “not seen the workforce be impacted in a large way by what's happening.”
The ag industry also got a vote of confidence in uncertain times at both the state and federal government level week.
Gov. JB Pritzker issued a “stay-at-home” order Friday, closing all non-essential businesses from Saturday at 5 p.m. through April 7. But all ag and food operations are among the “essential businesses and operations” that will continue to operate.
“Agriculture and the press, veterinarians and plumbers, laundromats and banks, roads, bridges, and transit – the fundamental building blocks that keep our society safe and steady – will not be closing down,” Pritzker said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Thursday classified agriculture as a “critical infrastructure” industry in a guidance letter, naming it alongside health care services and pharmaceuticals as necessary for American health, safety and economic security.
The guidance tells state governments to prioritize continued operations of such essential businesses as grocery stores, restaurants, truck stops, food processing plants, food safety workers and farm workers.
Tirey said the guidance will likely mean workers will get easier access to future government aid and COVID-19 tests to limit disruptions to production and processing.
“We're also advocating at the federal level, that if our farmers need lines of credit, if they need support financially, that those things be provided to them,” Tirey added. “Because if they can't continue to operate their business, they can't continue to help the consumers.”
Federal and state transportation agencies have also loosened regulations in the past week to make it easier for trucks to deliver food.
The U.S. Department of Transportation exempted semitrailers, including livestock haulers, from normal limits on driver hours as long as they are carrying certain food or medical supplies and equipment.
Pritzker also waived fees for overweight trucking permits for the movement of emergency relief supplies, including food but not livestock. However, fees for livestock haulers have been waived nationwide by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Liebman noted that while a majority of people can work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, farmers can’t, and he called the continuance of the supply chain “a matter of national security.”
“It’s just like a snowstorm, except it’s a long one. We don’t know how long it’s going to take, but everyone’s still out there,” he said. “Farmers are still going to be out there doing their job in pretty much full capacity, as usual.”
Doherty said that as long as processing, shipping and transportation networks keep running, people should not be concerned about food.
“This country can feed itself. And for the most part right now, agriculture has not been disrupted,” he said.
The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 585 cases of COVID-19 as of Friday, including five deaths. Though cases have been confirmed in 25 counties, health officials say everyone should assume the virus is already in their community.
For those with general COVID-19 questions, the Illinois Department of Public Health maintains a hotline at 1-800-889-3931 and an email address (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Customers looking for tips on how to store the meat they purchased can get information from the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, the National Pork Board and the National Chicken Council.