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Dairy Cows (Photo by Kat Lawrence/MSU Extension Service)

Mississippi ag industry holds on as virus rattles supply chains  

By JACK WEATHERLY

National news reports have grabbed attention with footage of vast amounts of milk being dumped and mounds of vegetables that were buried in the fields that grew them.

Those are two of the many effects of the corona virus pandemic on the nation’s food supply.

The milk and vegetables had to be discarded because of a widely cited failure of “supply chains.”

In other words, the usual destination for those foods was not holding up its end of the bargain, according to Dr. Elizabeth Canales, specialty foods specialist at Mississippi State University.

Restaurants – which have been sharply curtailed due to the pandemic – are supplied with different cuts of meat than groceries.

Those dire dumping scenes have not happened in Mississippi, whose growing season for vegetables is just getting underway, Canales said in a recent interview.

Mississippi is not a major milk-producing state. It produced 29 million pounds of milk in the fourth quarter of 2019, about .054 percent of the national total of 53.8 billion pounds.

Michael Ferguson of Tate County, vice chairman of the Atlanta-based Dairy Alliance, said in an interview that he knew of only one incident that has occurred in Mississippi. Several tankers of milk designated for schools had to be dumped because of a miscommunication, he said.

Sale of fruits and vegetables to restaurants are suffering due to the ban on dining in, Canales said. Service is limited to curbside pickup and deliveries.

And because the channels are not established, “it’s hard to shift to retail,” Canales said.

But another threat to the food supply is shutting down of meat processing plants in other states.

But Dr. Josh Maples, assistant professor of economics at MSU, said in a teleconference on Friday that it will be “unlikely to see a national shortage of meat.”

That comes after SmithField and Tyson Foods shut down pork processing plants due to the outbreak of Covid-19 among its workers. The virus has not been shown to contaminate food.

Tyson Chairman John Tyson on Sunday said “the food supply chain is breaking.” Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson is the United States’ largest meat processor. It has shut down two pork plants and one beef plant.

That assertion was rebutted by Executive Director of the American Association of Meat Processors Chris Young, who told Newsweek: “People may get to the grocery store and they may not have the exact cut of protein they want. But overall, there’s going to be enough meat for the consumer.”

Maples said that the second quarter supply of beef is expected to be slightly higher than average, even though there has been the disruption starting in early March.

There has been a sharp decrease – 10 percent to 20 percent – in the beef supply in the past couple of weeks, he said.

Still, he said, “prices are not crazy yet.” Maples agreed with Canales that it is difficult to shift from one market – retail groceries, for instance – to another, such as restaurants. Cuts of meat are different for each destination market, he said.-

Jon Kilgore, livestock communications director for the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, said that only about 1 percent of the beef cattle raised in the state are processed here.

However, the pandemic is having a “huge impact on the producers of the herd in Mississippi,” which was about 930,000 in 2018 and is probably about that now, Kilgore said.

Kilgore agreed with Maples, saying that “you can’t just flip a switch” and move beef from one customer to the next. He noted that processors set up their machinery to cater to their customers, whether restaurants or grocery stores.

However, he said there is “nothing we can’t work through.”

Sanderson Farms Inc., which is based in Laurel, is the nation’s third-largest chicken producer, with five plants in Mississippi and 13 total, including in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina.

Sanderson sent 415 workers in Moultrie, Ga., home, with pay, after the area was determined to be a hot spot for the virus. One infected worker was sent home from the McComb plant in late March.

Mike Cockrell, chief financial officer for Sanderson, issued a statement in response to an inquiry by the Mississippi Business Journal:

“While Covid 19 has impacted all meat processing plants, Sanderson Farms continues to meet the daily challenges of our current environment through the heroic efforts of our dedicated workforce. Based on market demand, we have adjusted our product mix to meet the needs of our consumers. We will continue to constantly evaluate the health and welfare of our workers and provide the safest working environment as possible.  Sanderson Farms is proud to play a vital role in the critical infrastructure of the US food supply chain.”
Cockrell declined to respond  to questions as to how specifically the company, which is publicly traded, is faring.

President Donald Trump plans to order U.S. meat processing plants facing concerns about corona virus outbreaks to stay open to protect the country’s food supply, a senior administration official said on Tuesday, according to Newsmax.

Trump was  likely to sign an executive order later Tuesday, using the Defense Production Act to mandate that the plants continue to function, the official said.

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About Jack Weatherly