A handful of mainstream media outlets, including The New York Times, have in recent days swallowed what a few fringe groups are peddling in their latest attempts to malign the meat industry.
This time, it has to do with exports. We’ll get to it. But let’s revisit what has actually happened since Covid-19 was recognized as a global pandemic some 90 short days ago:
- First, food service outlets were upended, disrupted or slammed shut by closings and partial shutdowns of restaurants, hotels, schools, and sporting venues. Before the pandemic, and indeed over the past decade, most of America’s food spending has been away from home. But in a blink, much of that was gone.
- Then, harvesting and processing facilities for beef, poultry, pork and other products began curtailing operations and, thus, capacity. These measures were to ensure the health and safety of processing plant employees, who take great pride in sustaining life by processing livestock into a broad range of food products.
Either one of those circumstances would be a striking blow. But both at once was beginning to cause dramatic and catastrophic consequences up and down the meat supply chain, with the outlook worsening by the day.
The chairman of Tyson Foods made headlines with a prominent newspaper ad, explaining the difficult balance of protecting employee health first and foremost while honoring “a responsibility to feed our nation and the world.”
What made headlines was a single sentence he wrote: “The food supply chain is breaking.”
It was a fair warning.
And so many people, from public health officials to government agencies to the president, worked to provide updated health guidance to protect employees from the virus while also acting to keep essential meat plants running – actions meant to prevent food shortages, price hikes and collapse of the farm economy.
Here in North Carolina, our top public health official is a true expert. Dr. Mandy Cohen is trained in medicine and public health at Yale and Harvard, and was formerly the chief operating officer of the federal agency that administers Medicare and Medicaid in the Obama administration.
Dr. Cohen said it this way last month: “The food processing plants in our state are critical to our keeping up our food supply not only here in North Carolina but around the country, around the world. … We have done a lot of work to make sure that the workers in those plants are protected and that we are keeping those plants open.”
And yet, the headlines this week blared about a seeming “gotcha,” a supposed contradiction: Exports to China “surged” in April, in a circumstance that the New York Times reporter said, without any attribution, is “potentially embarrassing for an industry that trumpeted its role in feeding the American public to argue to keep plants operating during the pandemic.”
It is well-documented that American agriculture trumpets its role in feeding the American public, and the world.
There is not – and should never be – embarrassment about providing food for a fellow human being.
The rub here, at least with the New York Times, is apparently that some of those fellow humans are in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Chongqing… not just in Houston, Seattle and Chicago.
More explanation is necessary.
China has been faced with a severe and well-documented outbreak of disease in its swine herd. It’s one that has, by many estimates, wiped out a staggering share of its pig crop. That is to say, China right now is a buyer – from markets all across the planet. We intend to compete for that business, and make no secret about that.
Here’s some news for the New York Times: Our nation’s meat harvesting and processing facilities produce a range of products. In the pork sector, there are feet and ears and snouts and offals, along with hams and bellies and chops. Medical companies depend on some of these products. So do the pet food makers.
Some products go to Omaha. Some go to New York. Others go to China, Mexico, Japan and beyond. Much of what goes to China isn’t eaten here in America – unless you have had pig stomach soup lately.
This diversity of market options is good – for America.
The issue of the pandemic has never been about “supply,” in the sense that there weren’t enough pigs coming to market. Those breeding decisions were made some 10 months prior. There has been an ample supply of livestock.
The issue has been about getting the livestock processed into food and other products amid reduced and uneven capacity – that is, to do so safely with a healthy workforce – and then working hard to find buyers in this massively disrupted marketplace.
Neither Waffle House nor Denny’s nor Kroger can do much with a bone-in ham that tops the scales at some 30-plus pounds. Same goes for a 12-pound slab of pork belly, which is the beginnings of a wonderful piece of bacon.
But, some of those bulk products could still be shipped elsewhere, while a smaller workforce could manage to process other products to fill shelves here at home. Keeping the entire system moving is what kept our meat cases filled here at home.
The alternative to these efforts would have been a cascading calamity, all the way down to bankrupted family farms in rural America, and severe repercussions for the many communities that depend on their economic vitality.
The sad reality is that are tens of millions of dollars now being spent in courthouses and lobbying efforts and communications campaigns to attach any bit of news to a long-running and misguided effort aimed at dismantling animal agriculture. Much of what they push is distortions that lack perspective and context.
You would think newspaper reporters could recognize that harmful agenda by now, instead of falling victim to it.