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Millions Of Pigs Will Be Euthanized As Pandemic Cripples Meatpacking Plants

With meatpacking plants reducing processing capacity nationwide, U.S. hog farmers are bracing or an unprecedented crisis: the need to euthanize millions of pigs.
Scott Olson
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With meatpacking plants reducing processing capacity nationwide, U.S. hog farmers are bracing or an unprecedented crisis: the need to euthanize millions of pigs.

Third generation hog farmer Chad Leman, making his daily rounds, points to dozens of 300-pound pigs.

"These pigs should be gone," he said.

He means gone to the meatpacking plant to be processed. But with pork processing plants shut down due to worker safety concerns, he's faced with a grisly task: He needs to kill the pigs to make room for more.

And Leman isn't the only one. With meatpacking plant closures and reduced processing capacity nationwide, America's hog farmers expect an unprecedented crisis: the need to euthanize millions of pigs.

The meatpacking industry is being ravaged by the Coronavirus crisis, and thousands of employees have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19.

This has led to a significantly reduced capacity for processing hogs into pork, which is forcing farmers like Leman to make the difficult decision to euthanize their pigs.

Jason Lusk, the head of the agricultural economics department at Purdue University, estimates that there is currently a 40 percent reduction in meat processing capacity, which will lead to 200,000 pigs per day being left on their farms.

"That's a million extra pigs that would have gone to market, but instead are staying on the farm, from just one week," Lusk said.

Hogs ready for slaughter cannot be easily held on farms because of their fast rate of growth. Pigs that are held much longer than six months after birth grow too large for processing, and meat processing plants typically won't accept hogs larger than 300 pounds.

"Nationwide, as an industry, we're thinking right now, given what we know, somewhere between five and ten million" hogs for euthanization, said Leman, a farmer from Eureka, Ill., and a board member of the Illinois Pork Producers Association.

Before the Coronavirus crisis, pork production was a finely-tuned, just-in-time supply chain. During normal times, this led to efficiency and the reduction of the cost to produce pork. Now, it is a significant burden to hog farmers who will have nowhere to sell their ready-for-market pigs.

"The system is built for certain sized pigs to go to the processor, and to be in the barns," said Heather Hill, a multi-generational hog farmer living in Greenfield, Ind. "So even by tweaking their diets and trying to slow down how fast they're growing, the pigs are still going to continue to get bigger."

Hill and her husband sell 30,000 pigs to market per year, and typically send 500 to 600 pigs to slaughter each week. But for now, they're holding more pigs on the farm than they typically do.

"Each load of pigs we can't sell, it definitely creates a domino effect, where we have a backlog of pigs," she told NPR.

Most farmers don't want to talk about the prospect of euthanizing pigs, but considering the reduction in processing capacity, it has become almost inevitable that farmers in the American Midwest will need to consider what to do with the pigs that they can neither sell nor afford to hold on to.

"What the challenge has become, now, is that we didn't realize how long these plants were going to be down," Leman said. "And so now the problem is going to linger for far longer than we thought. I mean, I think we're going to have shipping disruptions now until at least July or August."

The tragedy of euthanizing millions of pigs is compounded by the fact that other parts of America face unemployment, poverty and hunger. But without meat processing, you can't turn pigs into pork.

"There's conversations going on every day... to figure out how can we most efficiently and humanely do this," Leman said. "This is not about euthanizing half a dozen animals. This is thousands and millions of animals. This is just an unforeseen calamity, really."

And beyond just killing the hogs there's an open question about what to do with the many, many 300-pound carcasses. The logistics alone are difficult to contemplate: while most farmers have euthanized pigs before in small numbers, doing so for large groups of pigs requires more sophisticated equipment — after all, once they're killed, the heavy pigs need to be transported for disposal.

The large numbers prevent easy solutions, like giving away the pigs to food pantries — for which they would have to go through processing plants. One possibility is the disposal of carcasses in massive landfills.

And to make matters worse for Leman: Last weekend a polar vortex swept through the Midwest and froze some of his emerging crop of soybeans, which he uses to feed pigs. This means he'll have to replant acres and acres of soybeans, even as he deals with the pork crisis.

"My wife and I have a longstanding joke between us. She always says, 'well Chad, it could be worse,'" Leman told NPR. 'And I say, 'I know, but it could be better!'"

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Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.