Thousands of pigs are rotting in compost as US faces shortages
There is perhaps no more dramatic an example of the destruction plaguing America’s food supply chain than this: Thousands of pigs are rotting on compost heaps as grocers run out of meat.
COVID-19 outbreaks at slaughterhouses have led to the largest pig culling effort the U.S. has ever seen. Hundreds of thousands of animals are already backed up, and CoBank estimates 7 million animals may have to be destroyed this quarter alone. That’s about a billion pounds of meat lost to consumers.
Some farms in Minnesota are even using chippers — reminiscent of the 1996 movie “Fargo” — to grind up carcasses to be spread out for compost. Rendering plants are seeing higher volumes of hogs turned into everything from gelatin to sausage casings.
Behind that enormous waste are thousands of farmers, some of whom are holding on in the hope that slaughterhouses get back up and running before animals get too heavy. Others are cutting their losses and culling herds. Pig “depopulation,” to coin an industry euphemism, highlights the disconnect that’s occurring as the pandemic sickens workers trying to churn out food supplies in mega-plants across the U.S.
“In the agriculture industry, what you prepare for is an animal disease. The thought is never that there’s not going to be a market,” said Michael Crusan, spokesman at the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. As many as 2,000 hogs will be composted a day and laid out in windrows in Nobles County. “We have lots of pig carcasses that we have to effectively compost on the landscape.”
Most meat plants that closed as workers fell ill have reopened after President Donald Trump issued an executive order to do so. But the processing industry is still far from pre-pandemic levels given social-distancing measures and high absenteeism.
The fallout has left meat cases at grocery stores across the U.S. with fewer supplies and driven up prices. Wholesale pork prices in the U.S. have doubled since April.
America’s pork supply chain is designed for “just-in-time manufacturing” as mature hogs are sent from barns to the slaughterhouse, and another group of young pigs take their place within a few days after the facility has been disinfected, said Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian with the National Pork Producers Council.
The processing slowdowns left younger pigs with nowhere to go as farmers initially tried to hang on to mature animals for longer. But when pigs reach about 330 pounds (150 kilograms) they are too big for slaughterhouse equipment and the cuts of meat won’t fit into boxes or Styrofoam trays, Wagstrom said.
Farmers have limited options for euthanizing animals and some are setting up containers such as an airtight truck box to pump in carbon dioxide and put the animals to sleep, Wagstrom said. Other methods are less common as they are more traumatic to the worker and the animal. They include gunshot or blunt force trauma to the head.
Landfills are taking animals in some states while shallow graves lined with wood chips are being dug in others.
“It is devastating,” Wagstrom said by phone. “It’s such a tragedy and it’s such a waste of food.”
In Nobles County, Minnesota, hog carcasses are being put into a chipper designed for the timber industry, an idea initially developed to combat an outbreak of African swine fever. The material will then be applied on a wood-chip bed and covered with more wood chips. This will speed up the composting significantly compared with an intact carcass.