Widespread robot use may take a decade to reach U.S. meatpacking plants
  • COVID-19 and industry labor shortages may bring robotics to U.S. meatpacking plants sooner
  • Sustainability may be a benefit of new plants aided by robotics
  • Worldwide, meatpackers in industrialized nations are ahead of U.S. meatpackers in using robotics

While U.S. meat producers have been slower to adopt widespread robotics than their counterparts in other countries, the fallout from COVID-19 and chronic labor shortages in the industry may eventually push companies to modernize.

“This won’t happen immediately, but within 10 years, we’ll see more changes in U.S. meatpacking plants,” said Jayson Lusk, distinguished professor and head of the agricultural economics department at Purdue University in Indiana, a state whose meatpackers and workers have been acutely impacted by the pandemic.

In the quick-change scenario that has characterized the COVID-19 pandemic, just a few months ago, it was labor shortages that most vexed meatpacking companies, Lusk noted. But once the pandemic set in — characterized by lockdowns and employees’ high infection rate and deaths, which brought on fear of showing up at plants — COVID-19 realities overtook hiring concerns across the industry. As of May 28, more than 3,000 meatpacking workers tested positive for COVID-19 in the U.S. and at least 44 have died, according to the United Food Workers International Union, which represents some 250,000 in meatpacking and food processing. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meatpacking of beef and pork was down 40% in late April and early May compared to the same period last year, due to illnesses and measures imposed to lessen COVID-19’s spread, though those sectors have since rebounded to about 10% to 15% below 2019’s numbers. Chicken processing is also down 10% from 2019’s numbers. These cutbacks resulted in some meat shortages and higher prices for U.S. consumers.

Across the Atlantic, COVID-19 infections have been low at the slaughterhouses of Europe’s largest pork producer, Danish Crown, which relies on both robotics and humans to process some 18,000 hogs daily at its Horsens, Denmark, plant, according to Wired.

Sustainability is a pledge of Danish Crown, which employs 28,000 and also owns beef and veal slaughterhouses in five European nations and one outside Shanghai, the first of many planned for Asia. By 2030, the company’s goals include becoming the world’s most sustainable and successful meat producer, to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half compared to its 2005 number and to continue to use pigs from largely sustainability-certified farmers.

In New Zealand, robots play a key role in processing one of its main exports, lamb, as well as beef and venison. Among the companies that employ robots are Silver Fern Farms and Scott Meat Processing, which also has plants in Australia.

Silver Fern uses a lamb forequarter cut automation system, under a joint venture with Robotic Technologies Ltd., that makes a 3-D model of each carcass using high-speed laser scanning, which can repeat the process five times in 60 seconds.

Dermot J. Hayes, Iowa State University’s Pioneer Chair in Agribusiness, told Karma new U.S. processing plants coming online are more likely to be streamlined using robots than older ones. Last year, Tyson Foods debuted a robotic chicken processing plant in Arkansas that features four main areas, including labs for machine vision technology and space for team members to train in automation and robotics technology, according to a press release, part of the American meat processing giant’s $215 million investment in automation and robotics in recent years.