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For those who have contemplated becoming vegetarian, COVID-19 and its devastating impact on the meat industry and food supply chain could crush any lingering reservations. In fact, their options may be dwindling.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on all facets of the food supply chain, more meat processing plants with sick workers in North America have closed, leading company executives to warn of meat shortages.
Farmers who have nowhere to process their livestock have begun euthanizing millions of farm animals.
In the wake of this dark turn of events, vegetarianism looks increasingly preferable with plant-based protein products a palatable alternative. Fake meat brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meats that were already gaining traction before the pandemic are seeing an uptick.
Meat industry: Supply chain unravels
According to estimates released Tuesday by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, 22 meatpacking plants have closed in the past two months.
The virus has impacted 6,500 meatpacking and food processing workers and 20 workers have died, the UFCW said. The plant closures prompted Tyson Foods Chairman John H. Tyson to issue a warning.
“In addition to meat shortages, this is a serious food waste issue. Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation. Millions of animals – chickens, pigs and cattle – will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities. The food supply chain is breaking.”
President Donald Trump this week used the Defense Production Act to order meat processing plants to remain open, and declare them critical infrastructure, but it’s questionable whether workers will show up.
Even if plants resume operations and meat remains plentiful in grocery stores, vegetarianism looks increasingly preferable when confronted with the realities of industrial farming amid the pandemic.
Bloomberg reported that farmers are killing newborn pigs and their mothers, and injecting pregnant sows to cause them to abort their babies. A poultry company said it planned to slaughter 2 million chickens in Delaware and Maryland because of a lack of employees at chicken processing plants.
Before the pandemic, factory farming has increasingly come under fire for inhumane treatment of animals, damaging the environment, its treatment of workers, and a long list of other negative impacts.
Digital transformation in food industry has accelerated as food companies aim to become more efficient and resilient.
Fake meat brands surge
Warnings about potential meat shortages have sent Beyond Meat’s stock soaring, according to CNN Business. The company also is getting a lift from a new partnership with Starbucks to sell its plant-based products in China.
Beyond Meat rival Impossible Foods also has recently expanded its market reach, including selling in 777 additional grocery stores in California, Nevada, and the Chicago area. It also announced that it will sell its patties directly to consumers through food wholesaler Cheetah.
For companies like Impossible Foods, expanding into retail outlets is key since its primary market had been restaurants, which have been devastated by COVID-19.
One report cited data showing that sales of meat alternatives surged in March. FoodNavigator-USA also reported that other plant-based “meat” companies such as Tofurky are seeing increased sales during the pandemic.
Plant-based protein companies have touted their production processes as inherently safer than animal-based meat, something that more consumers may consider in light of COVID-19.
Experts cite the risk of infectious disease transmitted from animals to humans. Some reports have linked COVID-19 to “wet markets” selling live animals for food in China, and activists are seizing on the possible connection to highlight their view of factory farming.
Of course, whether COVID-19 alters how people view factory farming and leads to long-term increased consumption of fake meat products and more people switching to vegetarianism or veganism remains to be seen.
Bent, not broken: The food and beverage industry during COVID-19 has been stressed beyond belief, but there are ways to come out stronger.
As with everything, the pandemic has thrown the food supply into a deep well of uncertainty. However, I know that I’m going to be looking more closely at my protein options.