North American Meat Institute (NAMI) President and CEO Julie Anna Potts told lawmakers during a House Committee on Agriculture hearing Wednesday, Nov. 3, that labor shortages in the meat industry are key factors in rising food prices.
“Just six weeks ago, the Biden administration tried to blame the meat and poultry industry for the rising cost of food. Today, Congress will hear from other food manufacturers, shippers, input suppliers, growers and retailers enduring the same labor shortages up and down the food supply chain that are driving the record cost of food at the holidays,” Potts said.
In her testimony, the NAMI president acknowledged that “production in meat packing and processing plants is labor-intensive, and therefore tied to the number of employees working the line.” She added that the labor shortage in the meat industry also extends to warehouse workers, skilled maintenance positions and other jobs critical to maintaining the supply chain.
“To be clear, labor challenges were not caused by the pandemic – COVID-19 only exacerbated the issue. The meat industry has been facing a labor shortage for some time, and it continues today,” Potts wrote in her testimony.
Potts said NAMI members are still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, making existing labor challenges worse. The shortages came alongside a significant increase in consumer demand – which has continued into this year.
In a bid to address the problem, NAMI has supported legislation allowing the meat and poultry industry access to an expanded, year-round agricultural guest worker program.
“The current agricultural guest worker program fails to meet the needs of all of agriculture. It is seasonal and does not include the meat and poultry industry,” Potts argued. “Bringing nutritious and affordable animal protein to consumers requires a strong, efficient supply chain. [That] supply chain is hindered by the lack of access to a skilled, reliable workforce for meat and poultry operations across the country.”
Industry experts Dennis DiPietre and Lance Mulberry laid out the effects of the meat industry labor shortages in an Oct. 21 piece for AgWeb. As an example, they mentioned a major ham and bacon supplier facing challenges over the quality and quantity of the raw material it is processing. But the said supplier has a more vexing issue – a chronic reduction in its workforce.
“The supplier has upped starting salaries by 50 percent, [yet is still] 25 percent short on a full workforce. The higher-than-normal salaries raise costs and bring in people who need to be trained, delaying fully competent and efficient execution of the plant. Unfortunately, many of them attracted initially to the high-sounding hourly rate decide this isn’t for them and leave sometime soon after training. This forces the whole process to start all over again,” they wrote. (Related: Pork industry pundits lay out effects of labor shortages on supply chain.)
NAMI also expressed concern about the vaccine mandate for federal employees announced by President Joe Biden. In particular, the group focused on the U.S. Department of Agriculture‘s Food Safety and Inspection Service. It also called the lawmakers’ attention over vaccine requirements for federal contractors, such as rail lines and the trucking industry.
Potts wrote: “By statute, meat and poultry plants are subject to continuous federal inspection, without which product may not be shipped in commerce. If significant numbers of federal inspection personnel decline to get vaccinated, it will compound the current inspector shortage and result in slowdowns at processing plants.” (Related: USDA turns down vaccine exemption request for FSA employees… decision will degrade food harvests for years to come.)
Ultimately, NAMI urged the federal government to “develop viable contingency plans should there be significant attrition of federal inspectors due to this mandate.”
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