Behind the scenes of the meat shortage

The Washington Examiner takes a hard look at some of the factors causing the current meat shortage in the USA.  As usual, they can be summed up in a single phrase:  the government got involved.

Dig a little deeper, and the situation gets even more dire. We could soon see farmers unable to keep their farms afloat, livestock killed in mass with no means to be sold, and hungry families.

For those unfamiliar with agriculture policy, this scenario seems unimaginable. But according to those who’ve spent their years toiling in the amber waves of grain, the problem was merely exasperated by the pandemic, not the result of it.

. . .

There is no actual shortage in livestock … Rather, the breakdown is coming on the plant side of the equation where cramped quarters are hazardous. Why can’t farmers sell directly to consumers and circumvent this problem? You guessed it — government regulations.

In 1967, the federal government blocked states from making their own decisions on how meat was processed and promptly handed the power to the Department of Agriculture, or USDA.

What followed was essentially a takeover of control of the industry. Farmers had to travel long distances and sell their livestock to a small number of USDA slaughterhouses instead of to local butchers, small processors, or directly to consumers. This relationship began to severely impact their profit margins as the government was able to force farmers to sell their product for pennies on the dollar. When you limit the number of places the producers can sell, you control the prices.

Even before the current crisis, this was a powder keg of cronyism waiting to blow. The economic model forced on farmers by the government simply doesn’t work. They’re buried in debt as they must finance expensive equipment to do their jobs, yet also must pay all of the costs of raising the animals upfront. And they increasingly see their returns diminish at the end of the equation.

Farmers are boxed in. While “Big Ag” gets bailed out from the ramifications of trade wars and other bad economic policies, small farmers, who make up the bulk of production, are struggling to survive.

To add insult to injury, as our farmers bend over backward to create under the heavy burden of strenuous regulations on our own soil, the USDA continues to import beef from Brazil’s cheaper, unregulated marketplace instead. You wouldn’t know that, though, because in 2013, Congress abolished the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law that would have tipped consumers off.

There’s more at the link.

The article doesn’t mention some of the positives of USDA involvement and the centralization of slaughterhouses.  Among others, they include the best use of the limited number of inspectors.  There aren’t enough of them to assign several to every remote slaughterhouse;  but if those facilities are centralized into larger, regional units, the inspectors can cope with the workload.  Also, there’s the problem of ensuring uniform standards among many scattered processing plants.  This is illustrated every day by outbreaks of food poisoning in countries that don’t pay enough attention to standardized processing, food hygiene, etc.  (We’ve all heard phrases such as “Montezuma’s Revenge”, “gyppo gut”, “the Zulu two-step”, “Delhi belly”, and so on.  They all have the same origin – or should I say “point of departure”?  On second thought, perhaps not . . . )

That said, there’s also a very strong case to re-examine the current system and see whether it can’t be improved, for the benefit of the nation as a whole.  I, for one, would like to know whether I’m buying beef “made in America” or produced elsewhere.  I’d also like to see an expansion of farm “buying clubs” where farmers are allowed to sell their meat direct to consumers.  Miss D. and I have bought half a cow before (its name was “Sir Loin”, we were told), and it lasted us well over a year – it was very good meat, too, straight from the farmer to the consumer.  Why not allow that on a wider basis?  Local game processors, ubiquitous in the hunting regions of the country, could just as easily process cows or pigs as they can deer or wild hogs.



  1. Luckily for us, Wisconsin has a rigorous certification and inspection process for local meat slaughterhouses and processors. They are only allowed to slaughter and process meat from animals in the state, and only sell it within the state. The local place we get our meat from is packed full from open to close, and they are able to sell animals from nearby producers, as well as break down institutionally packaged meats for consumer sale. Short version:they are busy, and have no concerns about running out any time this year.

  2. "Why not allow that on a wider basis? Local game processors, ubiquitous in the hunting regions of the country, could just as easily process cows or pigs as they can deer or wild hogs."

    Why not?

    Control. Graft. And risk-aversion ("What if" a governor permitted this, someone got sick / died? Massive liability suit. Safer, by far, to pass the buck to a federal agency.)

  3. Added: At the local grocery store, an entire bay of products normally filled with pork was empty (doesn't hurt me because I make a spirited attempt at keeping kosher, but the principle is double-plus ungood). But even beef and chicken was limited to two items per customer.

  4. The USDA importing beef? Maybe allowing imported beef but they are not in the business (until they go through the revolving door).

    The last I heard you could still buy a cow, have it processed and put it in your freezer as long as it's for your use.

  5. Lady in Wy. who raised a coyote named Charlie raises and sell grass fed beef. She has a route that she drives with the orders. I think she only sell west of the Mississippi. Can't say for sure but her web site is- Being single it just doesn't work for me but if hubs was alive I would be in line for this.

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