Concentrated animal feeding operations in Missouri, or CAFOs, are starting to feel the strain from COVID-19.


With the closure of multiple meat processing facilities in Central Missouri and elsewhere due to outbreaks among workers, CAFOs are not able to send the volume of animals to processing facilities like they once were.


As of Tuesday, there have been at least 4,400 reported positive cases tied to meatpacking facilities at 80 plants in 26 states, and at least 18 reported worker deaths at nine plants in nine states, according to tracking by USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting


The greatest impact is on the pork industry, state Rep. Kent Haden, R-Mexico, said. This limitation is leading to CAFOs either to euthanize pigs on the nursery side, or hogs that are too large for processing facilities, he said.


"It’s catastrophic for the food supply and producers," Haden said. "This is one of the bigger nightmares we’re going to have with [COVID-19]."


Since CAFOs currently have an overabundance of animals, but fewer that are processed, it could lead to less meat available on grocery shelves and an increase in meat prices in the next few weeks.


CAFOs are required to use buffer zones between hog facilities and public structures or residences. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources relaxed buffer rules beginning Friday and continuing through May 15 due to growing populations of animals at CAFOs.


CAFOs not only have to keep these buffer zones, but depending on how they are classified can only keep so many animals at one time as well. Buffer zones range from 1,000 to 3,000 feet depending on the number of animals. The buffer zone rules suspension does not apply to manure discharges or other environmental rules from DNR, just how close hogs can be to public or residential structures.


Processing plants are taking fewer hogs now, Haden said.


"Instead of taking six loads of hogs, they are now taking maybe two," he said. "So, we are getting bigger pigs and we are getting backed up."


This is leading to hog euthanasia at CAFOs, he added. Wisconsin is expecting to lose 200,000 hogs through euthanasia due to processing plant shutdowns.


"The swine industry before COVID-19 was at 100% kill capacity," Haden said.


This means about 500,000 hogs were killed per week, he said. After COVID-19, that kill capacity was reduced by 40%, according to Haden. This means only about 300,000 hogs are being killed on a weekly basis now in Missouri.


"This could take an industry down," Haden said.


The Missouri Pork Association sees the relaxing of rules as a positive, despite the reduction in product output.


The rules suspension "will also help farmers most effectively deal with environmental and animal welfare issues during this unprecedented time in our nation’s history," a statement read.


While producers have emergency plans in place, the new coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented, Missouri Pork Association Director of Communications Diane Slater wrote in an email.


"As events change, farmers are doing their best to take care of their pigs, people and the environment," she wrote.


President Donald Trump on Tuesday called up the Defense Production Act to aid the U.S. pork industry. The act, first passed in 1950, seeks to protect "industrial efficiency and responsiveness." The move was celebrated by Missouri Pork Association Chairman Marcus Belshe.


"Uniform, consistent solutions and all available resources are needed to address this crisis," he wrote in a statement. "We must stabilize the current plant capacity challenge and overcome other major hurdles facing the nation’s pork production system."


The relaxing of buffer zone rules is not seen as positive for all, however.


The buffer zone rules already are inadequate so to suspend them is a bad move, Missouri Rural Crisis Center Rural Organizer Brian Smith said.


"It can end up jeopardizing the environmental side of things, even though those rules haven’t been relaxed," he said.


Smith also hopes that DNR, despite relaxing buffer rules, will not accept any further CAFO applications for the time being.


"This crisis has really demonstrated the rigidity and lack of resilience in that CAFO model of agriculture," Smith said. "Ultimately, DNR standards need to be strengthened and not weakened."


Smith would prefer to see CAFOs develop environmental crisis plans so they can respond quicker to major events that affect their industry. The CAFOs shouldn’t be blindsided, he said.


"DNR needs to require that CAFOs have a crisis plan in place for these types of crises that can pop up," Smith said.


cdunlap@gatehousemedia.com


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