American meat providers resorting to drastic measures in COVID-19 pandemic

With several large meatpacking plants shuttered, farmers are left in the lurch. Though smaller plants are stepping in, it’s only a partial solution to a problem expected to have effects into 2021.
9:01 | 07/02/20

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Transcript for American meat providers resorting to drastic measures in COVID-19 pandemic
Reporter: Raising pigs is a family tradition for Randy Jay wurtsma. Hog farming is built on flow of lots of numbers, tight margins. Reporter: For three generations, this 2500-acre farm in Rushmore, Minnesota has kept food on the table for his own family and thousands of others across the country. Of course we're in business to make a profit, make money and make a living, but we an essential cog in feeding the world. Many farms like mine. This is where pork comes from. Without us, there wouldn't be any. Reporter: Wurtsma is contracted to sell his pigs, 24,000 a year, to one of the biggest pork processing companies, until it was interrupted two months ago. More meat packing plants close. Several major meat processing plants are struggling to keep up due to sick workers. Reporter: Today he's still recovering from the blow of the first wave of covid-19, shutting down major meat processors, including jbs this spring, yet, he's finding himself bracing again. I am very concerned about a second wave of coronavirus. We're still backed up on pigs from the first shutdown. Reporter: With at least 38 states report ago increase in covid cases, wurtsma is among the many worried about the economy coming to another stand still and creating a lasting impact on the meat supply chain. Will we ever run out of meat? The answer's no. Will we run into shortages? Yeah, there's a good possibility. Reporter: The shutdown left him with a farm full of pigs ready for slaughter. You could lose the farm literally. How heavy does that weigh on you. When that plant closed down, when we had no market for our pigs, technically, we had 15,000 pigs in our yard, and they were worth zero. This will be absolutely devastating to many farms. Reporter: The decisions to prevent overcrowding, euthanizing pigs and put being some on a slower diet to slow their growth. This is the feed system. Our target is normally to make them grow three pounds a day, now we're trying to get them to grow one pound a day or less. Reporter: He lost $200,000 in revenue two weeks. If he does have to kill his large hogs it would be a greater Eliminating it not to food is, it's just emotionally and physically and mentally, I mean, it's absolutely awful. Reporter: It hurts you not just in the pocket book. It's got to hurt you in the gut somewhere. I mean, these pigs are one of god's gifts. These pigs are intended for food. It's literally sinful to take this food and destroy it. Reporter: How does culling your herd, culling down those pigs affect the food chain down the line? There will come a point down the road when the packers are trying to kill pigs and there won't be enough pigs there. I firmly believe. Some farms are going to go out of business, it's inevitable. Reporter: When meat packing plants did reopen many couldn't return to pre-pandemic capacity in part because of concerns of the virus spreading. These large-scale packers know and are not hesitant to admit that the employee is the most important piece to the puzzle. Keeping them safe, taking into account their mental health is very important. Reporter: Over 26,000 covid-19 cases have been tied to meat packing plants. With these large-scale meat packing plants, we have hundreds and maybe thousands, up to maybe two or three thousand employees that come together to work. When you have large groups of people that come together, it only makes sense that it would become a hot spot. One of the country's biggest clusters of covid this spring was at Smith field foods processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. One worker said it wasn't worth the $17 an hour she was making. I was thinking it was not a safe place to work, especially to protect my family. Reporter: What made you think it wasn't safe? There is no social distance. We are working all together. We are working in lines. Reporter: One feet apart? Two feet apart? No, I can say a few inches. Reporter: She quit in April after working at Smith field for ten years. They told us in the first meeting that we are essential workers and we need to keep working to provide all the food to the tables. But at the same point, we are humans. We need to healthfully keep working. Reporter: As early as February I was told, they began instituting a number of covid-19 processes and protocols to protect our employees' health and safety, to implement protective measures across our more than 40 U.S. Facilities. The company said there are inescapable realities about our industry, posing challenges to social distancing, including installing plexiglass and adding mass thermal scanning systems. Some major processing plants, including smithfields are now beginning to approach full capacity once again. Meanwhile, the meat supply line has been getting help from the little guy. Or gal, in the case of Johnson sausage shop in Rio, Wisconsin. Chris Johnson owns this meat market and small processing facility. She typically slaughters 25-50 animals a week. Just a fraction of the bigger plants' kill capacity. But over the last few months she's been taking on as many animals as they can handle, helping farmers get rid of the backlog. We are their only hope, until these big plants open back up. We have thrown them a life raft when their ship is going down. And it's important, because if you have no farm, you have no food. Reporter: She says farmers have been posting about their surplus on social media. Her customers then step in to purchase an animal right off the farm and bring it to Chris. People have never bought a half a hog or quarter beef. They've never done this before and realized this is the way they should have been buying meat all along. Reporter: Because she's smaller in size, she has fewer workers, a key factor in preventing covid-19 outbreaks. She's completely booked through early next year, now processing 70 to 80 animals a week, almost doubling her pre-pandemic output. Every additional she takes on benefits farmers and consumers. If we didn't have the small plants, the food would be difficult. These guys are by far the bargain, the way to go. Reporter: And all the extra work at Chris's plants means jobs for people in her community. It's a win-win for everybody. They need money, I need workers. It's financial chain. Somebody is unemployed, just need a little bit of time until they get called back, I will definitely take them on. If there's something to take home with this covid-19 is that our local meat processors still have a place at the table and will continue to have a place at the table. However, this is a band-aid. They can't fix the problem. That's the bottom line. Reporter: Although the meat processing is beginning to pick up again, the glut of product and the recession mean farmers like wurtsma are getting paid less for their animals. Nobody is moving around like they normally do. The cruise ships. Hotel lines and ball games. Nobody's going out to have a hot dog at a ball game. Reporter: He's just hoping he can hang on through this period so he can pass the farm on to a fourth generation, his son. We're always hopeful about the future of farming. Farming has always had its challenges throughout the years. As long as there's an outlet for our products, we generally figure out a way to make it go.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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