For some, pandemic highlights need to revamp meat processing industry

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio)  With coronavirus cases surging at large meat processing plants, some Philadelphia-area purveyors say the pandemic is highlighting the need to revamp the industry now more than ever. However, they warn coming up with new solutions would mean changing the mindset of the industry — and consumers. 

Raymond Rastelli of Rastelli Fine Foods said it's easy to have a breakdown of the food supply when just four companies supply the majority of the world's meat — including Tyson Foods, which last weekend, took out ads in several major newspapers warning that coronavirus-related closures would cause shortages. 

Rastelli said those problems can be avoided when purveyors depend on small local farms instead.

"Knowing who the farmers are, knowing who the small processors are, and many of them,” he said. 

A good way to avoid large health outbreaks that halt meat production, he added, is to diversify the production.

"Working with the smaller producers and the smaller processors gives us a little wider range, a little wider footprint, and then when one has an issue, it's not quite as deep an issue as it is if you're really dependent on just what we call The Big Four,” Rastelli said.

But that comes with a cost.

"Most American consumers, they're used to paying a lot less for products than they should,” said Dave Magrogan, CEO of Harvest Seasonal Grill and Wine Bar.

He points to a connection between the pandemic, environmental issues, and working conditions, and added that investing in local farms and farmers markets — while initially more expensive — is in our best interest, not only health-wise, but also for the larger food economy in the long run.

"If we can support them, we can see a better product coming through and some better environmental decisions as well,” he said.

Magrogan built his business model on local suppliers, and said while buying local can get expensive, it also means he’s supporting family-owned farms. 

"I think people are starting to realize that getting that really cheap cut of meat or that cheap burger or that cheap piece of chicken has a price,” he said. 

It's not just the ability for workers to social distance from each other that's crucial, Rastelli added, but it’s also about keeping them informed through a work culture in which they believe their employers care about them.

"Those large plants, many of them closed not just because their employees got the virus, but because many of their employees are afraid to come to work,” he said.