What COVID-19 Revealed About the Meat Supply Chain

Last spring, the U.S. faced a near debilitating meat shortage due to the effects of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 outbreak hit meat processing facilities hard. Because of the close quarters of workers and the nature of the work in these plants, virus outbreaks were more or less inevitable. As these plants closed to ensure employee safety, the meat supply chain suffered. Grocery stores were running out of meat. Meat prices were skyrocketing. Americans were unable to buy meat to feed their families.

Because the U.S. meat market is highly regulated and centralized, only a few processors supply the vast majority of meat across the states. In fact, just over 50 plants account for 98% of all slaughtered and processed meat in the U.S., and a majority of these plants are controlled by just four companies.

While COVID-19 taught us a lot of lessons, one major lesson learnt revolves around the regulatory landscape of agriculture in the U.S., particularly of the meat supply chain.

Currently, federal regulations require facilities to be federally inspected and approved in order to distribute meat across state lines or within state lines to anyone other than family, friends or employees. This has placed considerable strain on processors, farmers and the like in competing or even participating in the U.S. meat market supply chain.

Reducing restrictions in this space would allow for a larger, more diverse, freer market for meat processors in this country. For example, the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act, better known as the PRIME Act, would expand on exemptions and allow facilities that currently operate under state regulation to participate in interstate commerce as well as intrastate commerce to customers other than family, friends or employees.

This federal legislation would drastically increase the amount of meat processors from which grocery stores, restaurants, hotels and other food establishments can purchase meat. This would not only allow for a freer market landscape, which has a variety of benefits in and of itself, but it would also help safeguard against future disruptions in the meat supply chain.

During the ALEC States and Nation Policy Summit in December 2020, the Task Force on Energy, Environment and Agriculture passed a model Resolution in Support of the PRIME Act. This resolution allows for states to explicitly express their support for the federal PRIME Act through their respective legislative processes. State like Iowa have already introduced bills with similar language.

The COVID-19 pandemic posed great strains on multiple industries, business, families and individuals all over the U.S. and the world. However, it also revealed that many government regulations are simply unnecessary and even, at times, harmful. This example of the meat supply shortage has taught us just that.

In Depth: Agriculture

In a 1787 letter to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “[a]griculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness.” Agriculture, perhaps more so than any other vocation or enterprise, is indelibly American. Defined as the cultivation of plants,…

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