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July 2022, Volume 28, Number 3

Meat and Migrants

The House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis issued a report in May 2022 that concluded meatpacking companies persuaded the Trump administration to declare meatpacking “critical infrastructure” in April 2020 so that their plants could stay open; meatpackers also tried to win protection from liability if their employees got covid. The report concluded that some 59,000 meatpacking workers got covid, and 269 died.

Some meatpackers are building or subsidizing housing for their employees, including JBS USA Holdings in Cactus, Texas, where JBS has 3,700 employees. Company housing is often more affordable but is usually tied to employment, so that those who leave the firm must vacate their housing.

Chicken. Over 90 percent of US broiler chickens are raised by farmers who contract with processing firms that provide farmers with the chicks and feed and pay them under a performance-based system that rewards farmers whose chickens grow fastest with the least feed, the so-called poultry tournament. Four firms process over half of US broiler chickens. USDA in May 2022 issued regulations that require these and other chicken processors to disclose the details of the tournament system, including where each farmer ranks.

California-based Foster Farms, with 10,000 employees and chicken processing plants in five states, was sold to private-equity firm Atlas Holdings in June 2022. Cargill and Continental Grain want to buy Sanderson Farms for $4.5 billion but, since Continental Grain already owns chicken processor Wayne Farms, the FTC may block the acquisition. JBS owns 80 percent of Pilgrim’s Price, but abandoned plans to acquire the remaining 20 percent stake.

Costco sells over 100 million two-pound rotisserie chickens a year for $4.99 each, producing many in a $450 million Lincoln Premium Poultry plant in Fremont, Nebraska. In June 2022, two law firms that specialize in animal welfare and cruelty cases sued Costco, alleging that its chickens were raised by some of the 120 farmers who supply Lincoln under poor conditions in a video made by Mercy for Animals.

Smithfield is closing its 1,800-employee hog-processing plant in Vernon, California in 2023, saying that high costs made the plant uneconomical. The UFCW, which represents the Vernon plant, hopes another firm takes over the plant.

Some firms make cultured meat, beginning with an animal’s stem cells from embryos or muscle and using a bioreactor to grow tissue that can be unstructured, as in chicken nuggets or hamburger, or shaped into steak and pork chops. Developing bioreactors that grow cultured meat quickly and efficiently has proved to be difficult, limiting the supply of cultured meat to consumers.

The Plant-Based Foods Association reported that sales of plant-based meat were $6 billion in 2021, with many consumers trying them but not always buying alt-meats regularly. McDonald’s is testing the Beyond Meat’s McPlant burger in some regions with mixed results, contributing to Beyond Meat’s falling stock price.

Rural or nonmetro counties with no towns having more than 50,000 residents gained population during covid, as people left counties with over a million residents to work remotely. A high share of jobs in metro counties can be performed remotely, which may maintain population growth in rural counties.

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