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Coronavirus-caused supply chain shortages have an upside

The Baltimore Sun • Apr 30, 2020 at 12:00 PM

In 1942, when the United States was in an actual war (as opposed to the metaphorical variety against a virus), the federal government set up an agency to both ration and set prices for food. Eventually, a system of coupons was established and the Greatest Generation grew accustomed to diminished availability of sugar, beef, cheese, coffee and canned milk. Having meat in one's meal was a treat. Shoppers had to make the "red" points and "blue" points stretch over a month. And the Office of Price Administration sponsored posters warning against hoarding meat as an unpatriotic thing to do. "Rationing means a fair share for all of us," reads one of the OPA posters showing two happy women sharing coupons with a pleased butcher.

That's something to keep in mind with this week's announcement from one of the nation's top meat producers, Tyson Foods, that the food supply chain is "breaking." Shutdowns of meat processing plants in far-flung outposts that proved especially vulnerable to coronavirus outbreaks have reduced meat production by roughly 25% by some estimates, and the impact is expected to be felt in local supermarkets in days. Making matters worse, of course, will be the tendency of some people to rush out and buy up meat with the news of any production shortfall.

In the midst of a 2-month-old global pandemic, hoarding has already happened with toilet paper and disinfectant wipes, commodities with a far less devoted fan base than chicken, pork and beef and no apparent production decline. Even the selfless men and women back on the World War II homefront had to be given coupon books to get them to ration. It wasn't instinctive to share then, so what chance is there of voluntary restraint today?

The good news is that there's a silver lining here, and not just for the animal rights crowd. Americans eat too much meat. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, per capita red meat and poultry consumption in 2019 was 223.7 pounds, the highest USDA has ever recorded. Granted, there have been changes in consumer tastes over time. Poultry consumption has nearly tripled since 1960, for example, while red meat has fallen slightly, and there was a dip in overall meat and fish consumption after the Great Recession simply because of a decline in personal income. Still, overall, the U.S. is among the world leaders in consuming meat and there's a health and environmental price to be paid for that.

Heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, obesity, strokes -- the list of maladies associated with meat consumption is long and well-established. Indeed, it's been so convincingly documented that a tax on meat has been proposed more than once as a way to help offset health care costs. Federal nutrition guidelines released during the Obama administration called for eating more fruits and vegetables and less red meat. That's also the message from the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that documents a link between meat consumption and greenhouse gas production. Farm-raised animals, particularly beef, represents about one-seventh of all human-related emissions.

But this isn't about ethics or health or even looking out for one's neighbor. Ultimately, the meat shortage is coming whether welcomed or not, and Americans would simply be better off using the opportunity to make some much-needed lifestyle changes rather than being miserable. It's time to start recipe exchanges, perhaps, and to actually use those dried legumes sitting in the back of the pantry. Let us all be grateful that spring is here with its array of fresh vegetables. Meat doesn't have to be the centerpiece of every meal; it can be the accent, the flavoring.

You know what was regarded as patriotic during World War I and II? To plant a "victory garden" in the backyard. The idea was that the more fruits and vegetables we could produce ourselves, the more farmers could export to our allies. What might be regarded as patriotic in the middle of a COVID-19 outbreak? Maybe not to take the last two pounds of ground chuck out of the meat case and instead grab the ingredients for lentil soup, stuffed pasta shells and vegetable lasagna. With a nice green salad. And perhaps some oven-roasted fresh vegetables. And, if you're really lucky, you might even have a grandparent or great-grandparent who can tell you (from a safe distance) stories about what real sacrifice during a worldwide emergency is all about.

(c)2020 The Baltimore Sun

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