On April 28, São Paulo-based JBS announced that it could scale up its operations in Australia and Brazil—which haven’t been hit as hard by the virus as in the US—to ship more meat into the US market to make up for the shortage.

It’s a politically interesting move for meatpackers in Brazil, which only in February regained access to the American market after a three-year ban. In 2017, the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service closed the borders to Brazilian beef over food safety concerns because of sanitary conditions in Brazilian meatpacking plants. The agency lifted the ban after on-the-ground inspectors said the safety issues had been resolved. Now US meat groups, including the US Cattlemen’s Association (USCA), are upset about the reversal.

“USCA is stunned by the recent decision to risk the health of our domestic cattle herd and jeopardize the safety of consumers by allowing the importation of fresh beef from Brazil,” the group said.

The US meat system is staring down a harrowing set of circumstances. Workers in meatpacking plants around the country are reluctant to clock-in to jobs that expose them to a dangerous virus. As a result, domestic meat production is hitting a snag, leaving an opening for a foreign producers to make headway in the US market.

And US-based cattle ranchers should be concerned that they’re losing ground, Leonard says. Because of the way the virus has hobbled the US meat system, any inroads Brazilian beef makes into the market would be tough to reverse. Changing supply chains doesn’t happen overnight.


In late April, in an effort to resolve any impending meat shortages, US president Donald Trump decided to use war-time powers to force meatpacking plants to remain open. It’s a move that may wind up creating an even bigger problem by increasing the cases of Covid-19 among factory workers, further kneecapping production. Shortly after Trump’s announcement, Democrat lawmakers in the US House of Representatives asked USDA secretary Sonny Perdue to explain exactly how the White House intends to ensure workers have protections from getting sick (pdf), details that weren’t included in Trump’s order.

The overall impact the virus will have on the world’s food supply network remains to be seen. But if meatpacking plants keep having to close as workers are stricken with the virus, it won’t spell out anything good for US agriculture.

Could the US change its food system once the pandemic ends to make meat production more resilient? Leonard says he isn’t optimistic that the meat system will drastically reorganize its current setup.

“Turn the clock back to 2008, we had a Black Swan event in the US banking system, and the two biggest banks ended up on the other side even bigger,” he says, adding that changes in the US meat system over the last century would be hard to reverse.

“Once you tear apart the supply chain and the machinery that was there before, it’s really hard to replace it,” Leonard says. “Lots of viable producers have been put out of business over the years. Rebuilding that is really hard once it’s gone. We really are in a dilemma of what’s on the other side of this crisis.”

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