The coronavirus pandemic is having a devastating impact on the US's food supply chain, especially the pork industry.
Some grocery stores are limiting meat purchases yet pig farmers around the country are having to make the unthinkable decision of having to euthanize their livestock. The National Pork Producers Association estimates up to 10 million hogs could be euthanized between April and September. And this could lead to some farmers facing financial disaster.
The association says since meatpacking plants have been closed, farmers are unable to sell thousands of hogs. At current plant capacity levels, approximately 170,000 market-ready hogs per day can't be sold.
"As we headed into 2020, American hog farmers on average were expected to make $10 per hog. Collectively, with the onset of COVID-19, they are now facing losses of more than $5 billion for the year as there are too many hogs and not enough plant capacity to process them into the food supply," said Jim Monroe, assistant vice president for communications at the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).
It takes about 10 to 11 months for hogs to be market ready, according to the NPPC. And with younger hogs coming up the supply chain, there is often no place to house the mature hogs.
"The only humane option is to euthanize them, a tragedy for farmers who work to produce food for people. Destroying these animals and the food they represent goes against every farmer instinct," the association said in a statement.
Pork production down 40%
The NPPC, which represents 42 affiliated state associations, says it is seeking federal government assistance to help the nation's roughly 60,000 pork producers through this difficult time.
"We can't speculate on when plants will be restored to full capacity. That's why federal assistance is so critical. This is a never-before-seen crisis in the US pork industry," Monroe said.
Due to Covid-related plant shutdowns and slowdowns, pork harvest capacity is down nearly 40 percent as of May 6, according to the NPPC.
Multiple outbreaks of coronavirus among meat and poultry processing facility workers have occurred in the US, leading to temporary closure of the facilities. But pigs are continuing to reach market weight on farms in numbers that are normal in a pre-coronavirus world resulting in overcrowding, according to the NPPC.
"The pandemic is having a dramatic impact on the pork industry in Minnesota and our family farmers emotionally and financially and it's impacting our rural communities," said David Preisler, CEO for the Minnesota Pork Producers Association (MPPA).
"We're happy to see the plants starting to come back online but we have a backlog of pigs that would take months to work through," Preisler added.
Minnesota euthanizing about 10,000 hogs everyday
An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 hogs are being euthanized every day in Minnesota, according to the state association. And this will continue to some extent until meatpacking plants get back closer to full capacity.
"Our farmers are doing everything they can to avoid depopulating animals who don't have a market including finding local markets, selling to other places, but the backlog of pigs is huge," Preisler says.
The Minnesota association is working to connect farmers with resources for depopulation and disposal, financial resources, and mental health resources. It's working closely with government officials to help them understand the issue and ask them to provide as much support and relief to farmers as they can.
The University of Minnesota Extension advises restricting access to feed and elevating barn temperatures to slow the growth rate of pigs.
"Depopulation is an absolute last resort for farmers and is absolutely heartbreaking. Right now, they are doing everything they can to avoid it," Preisler says.
Minnesota hog farmers are working with veterinarians and following guidance from the American Association of Swine Veterinarians for humane euthanasia.
"It's just not easy to kill that many pigs and then find out what to do with them," Rep. Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, told CNN in April.
The Minnesota Board of Animal Health has several options on its website on carcass disposal. They also offer a hotline to discuss livestock disposal.