The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion America’s coming meat shortage shows how vulnerable all of our supply chains are

Golden Gate Meat Company in Richmond, Calif., is shifting to filling home orders as restaurant business has fallen dramatically.
Golden Gate Meat Company in Richmond, Calif., is shifting to filling home orders as restaurant business has fallen dramatically. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

A month ago, it was already clear that one of the most urgent reasons for the rest of us to stay home was to protect the food supply chain. Supply chains are like the plumbing of an economy: We don’t notice them except when they break, and when they do, it rapidly becomes catastrophic.

In the United States, the pipes in that plumbing are mostly made up of people — farmers, truckers, bakers, meatpackers — and like the rest of us, those workers are vulnerable to covid-19. Every worker who falls ill with the disease is like a leak. By staying home, nonessential workers make it more difficult for the novel coronavirus to spread and, therefore, more difficult for the disease to undermine the whole system.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

It’s obvious that we haven’t done enough. The nation’s meat supply, in particular, is shrinking, as disease outbreaks at meatpacking plants shut down critical links in that supply chain. If something isn’t done, Americans will see gaps in the meat freezer and higher prices on the meat they can find.

The D.C. restaurant Little Sesame could have closed because of coronavirus but is using its kitchen to serve the city's most vulnerable instead. (Video: Shane Alcock/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s idea of doing something is to invoke the Defense Production Act to force meat processors to stay open, just as he invoked it to force General Motors to make ventilators and to keep 3M from exporting certain medical products.

Follow Megan McArdle's opinionsFollow

You will notice that N95 masks remain in short supply, while ventilators, sadly, turn out to be less useful in fighting covid-19 than we initially hoped. You shouldn’t expect much better than this underwhelming record from Trump’s latest order. Instead, you should expect that covid-19 will continue to expose how vulnerable all of our supply chains are to severe disruptions.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Japanese firms figured out that they could make stuff more efficiently if parts arrived at the plant just before they were needed; by the 1990s, U.S. firms were copying them. And not just automakers, either. For two decades, I’ve been reading accounts of the massive inventories that firms in every line of business used to carry in the bad old days; the tone of business writers was generally mirthful derision, in which I joined.

Inventory is expensive and wasteful; you have to sink money and resources into producing it, and then it sits around taking up space rather than rushing out the door to make you money. Like the stuff you have sitting in your closet, often it breaks or becomes obsolete while it’s sitting around, and then you have to throw it away. Lean manufacturing thus lets you produce a better product at lower cost.

Over the past four decades, America’s meat industry has followed other industries in using just-in-time supply chain management techniques to lower the cost and increase the quantity of meat Americans consume. Animals are now bred and fed during a precise window, at which point they are supposed to be shipped off to the processor. If the plant for which they were destined has to shut down for weeks because of an epidemic, the whole system backs up.

And here we are: There are already reports of farmers slaughtering animals that Americans would love to eat — if only there were some way to get them to the table, or at least, store them until the processors can reopen. Unfortunately, our whole economic system, not just our food processors, has been reconfigured to minimize storage and redundant processing capacities. Instead, we surfed a steady stream of goods and services flowing through our increasingly elaborate economic plumbing.

For all the hatred of factory farming — actually, factory anything — it allowed Americans to enjoy much nicer lives than their parents: bigger homes, more clothes and furniture, better electronics. Especially, it allowed them to feed their families fresher and cheaper food on a smaller share of household income than ever before. But only as long as the hydraulics of the system kept pumping, and the goods flowed on.

Fortunately, that plumbing was exceptionally reliable; even when a natural disaster disrupted production in one place, the vast network of pipes could simply divert a little from someplace where the resource pool was still high. The system was so resilient, in fact, that it took a pandemic attacking the whole world at once for it to begin buckling.

The Opinions section is looking for stories of how the coronavirus has affected people of all walks of life. Write to us.

But now that the virus has attacked, we can no more simply order the plumbing to start working again than King Canute could command the tides. Processing companies will probably open their plants, if the government mandates it, but they can’t make workers show up if they’re afraid of contagion — and while in theory, a judge might compel them, in practice, it seems unlikely that any judge will.

In the long run, it seems likely that companies will rethink running their operations quite so lean. But in the short run, we cannot fix the flaws in our supply chains with an executive order directing the pipes to stop leaking. For now, restoring the flow means forgetting about the plumbing and controlling the virus that’s attacking it at every seam.

Read more from Megan McArdle’s archive, follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Tom Toles cartoon: Trump’s meat order is an open and shut case

The Post’s View: Trump won’t use the Defense Production Act for medical supplies. But he’ll use it for meat.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The class war against front-line workers

Eugene Robinson: Trump refuses to lead a country in crisis

Loading...