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OM in the News: Why We Ran Out of Meat

July 13, 2020

Workers donned protective gear at a Tyson poultry-processing plant in Camilla, Ga.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a debacle for the $213 billion U.S. meat industry, writes The Wall Street Journal (July 10, 2020). For the first time in memory, there wasn’t enough meat to go around. Reduced production forced grocery giants such as Kroger, Costco. and Albertsons to limit how much fresh meat shoppers could buy. Wendy’s had to tell customers that some restaurants couldn’t serve hamburgers.

Deboning livestock and slicing up chickens has long been hands-on labor. Low-paid workers using knives and saws work on carcasses moving steadily down production lines. It is labor-intensive and dangerous work. and remains one of the more hazardous jobs in the U.S. With 4.3 workplace injuries or illnesses per 100 workers in 2018, the industry’s rate is nearly 40% higher than the national average for all industries, surpassing logging, mining and construction.

And factory floors have been especially conducive to spreading coronavirus. In April and May, more than 17,300 meat and poultry processing workers in 29 states were infected and 91 died. Plant shutdowns reduced U.S. beef and pork production by more than 1/3 in April. The companies are searching for a solution–and they think the found one: robotic butchers.

Over the past 3 years, Tyson, the biggest U.S. company (with 122,000 employees out of 585,000 industry-wide) has invested about $500 million in technology and automation. It plans to increase the shift to robots in the aftermath of the pandemic. While some of these robots, such as automated “back saw” cutters that split hog carcasses along the spinal column, labor alongside humans in plants, the finer cutting, such as trimming fat, for now largely remains in the hands of human workers, many of them immigrants. Annual turnover in meat plants ranges from 40% to 70%, versus 31% average for manufacturers.

Yet a growing consumer appetite for products such as deboned chicken and skinless meat has required more people on processing lines. Decades ago, most Americans bought whole chickens. Now, 85% of chicken eaten is parts like breasts and wings or products such as chicken finger.

Classroom discussion questions:
1. Which of the 9 production technology tools described in Ch. 7 in your Heizer/Render/Munson text could be applied to this industry?

2. Why have robots not made a greater headway in meat plants?


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