Meat processing plants adjust as safety measures are enforced

Installation of PPE is diminishing capacity at some facilities, but it’s only temporary.
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Meat processing plants in Michigan are facing some disruption as they look to stock the shelves of grocery stores throughout the state.

According to George Quackenbush, executive director of the Michigan Beef Industry Commission, there have been closures of some meat processing plants in the state, while others have reduced their operational capacity.

“We have seen temporary closures, and that has been a moving target in terms of the extent,” he said. “We have seen some plants close for a few days, others close for a week or even longer.”

One of the facilities that was closed in West Michigan was the JBS meat packing plant in Allegan County after about 60 of its staff tested positive for COVID-19. The plant has since reopened.

As a result of those closures and the safety and health concerns that surround the meat industry, plant operators are implementing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which have resulted in a slowdown in the meat supply processing chain.

Mary Kelpinski, chief executive officer of the Michigan Pork Producers Association, said there is a large pork processing plant in Coldwater, Clemens Food Group, that has been able to stay open throughout the pandemic, but it has slowed down production while personal protective equipment is being installed.

“They have made adjustments to their production line so there is more space between workers,” she said. “In some areas, there are plexiglass (barriers) between workers. They have been able to secure the personal protection equipment that they need as far as masks and face shields.”

In addition to revamping the workspace at meat processing plants to meet the CDC guidelines, the industry is facing an issue that has plagued it for years: a labor shortage.

“A lot of the processing plants that are open are not working at 100% because of some of the absenteeism related to COVID-19 or other issues, so some plants are open at 50% of production and then if they can’t get enough (employees) to be open themselves, then they are closed,” she said.

With some processing plants operating at half capacity, Kelpinski said one of the changes that people will notice in the meat section of grocery stores is how the meats are cut.

“Now that the processing plants are not open 100%, they have smaller capacity to get meat through,” she said. “They are not able to make as many custom cuts as they used to. A lot of the products that you will find in the grocery store might be bigger packaging. Instead of having small pork steaks, you might find a full-size pork shoulder roast that is a little bit bigger than what you are used to. There might be more bone-in products and less boneless products because it takes longer to take the bones out. They are trying to get as much product through the plant as possible and that means they can’t make different varieties as they used to.”

About two-thirds of all pigs and cattle that are raised in Michigan are processed in the state with the rest going to out-of-state plants.

Quackenbush said in Michigan the bulk of cattle herds produce dairy; however, the bull calves that come from dairy farms are raised and later processed into beef, which he said happens largely in-state.

“There are other breeds of cattle that are raised specifically for beef and a lot of those cattle are processed outside of Michigan because the plants that specialize in those cattle are largely outside of the state,” he said.

Despite the current lag in processing, which has disrupted the supply chain up and down the line, Kelpinski said it is only temporary and production will return to full capacity.

“There is plenty of meat to go around, so we don’t want people to hoard meat,” she said. “Just go to the store, buy what you can use. It is not the time to fill the freezers. Just put the meat in the refrigerator, use it up quickly and then go back and get more. Don’t hoard!”

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