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Meatless Mondays? Potential coronavirus-caused supply chain shortages could lead to a healthier population, planet | COMMENTARY

A shopper walks past a mostly empty deli meats section at an Aldi store in the Lincoln Park neighborhood Monday, March 16, 2020, in Chicago. Concerns about COVID-19 have led to high-volume purchases of certain food items, a problem likely to worsen with recent outbreaks at meat processing plants nationwide.
A shopper walks past a mostly empty deli meats section at an Aldi store in the Lincoln Park neighborhood Monday, March 16, 2020, in Chicago. Concerns about COVID-19 have led to high-volume purchases of certain food items, a problem likely to worsen with recent outbreaks at meat processing plants nationwide. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

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 so many worried that, in the words of the Tyson Foods chairman, the food supply chain is “breaking." Shutdowns of meat processing plants because of coronavirus outbreaks had threatened to reduce meat production by roughly 25% (the Salisbury area in Maryland has become another COVID-19 hot spot, the uptick composed chiefly of people who work at nearby poultry processing plants). And the impact is already being felt in supermarkets. That, in turn, prompted President Donald Trump to this week designate meat processing plants as “critical infrastructure” that should remain open, but there’s some question as to whether that’s possible or wise as coronavirus cases mount and workers raise health concerns. And in any case, the meat market is destined to be leaner, if only because producers have to adopt social distancing and other stricter health standards likely to reduce output and/or raise prices.

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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. Poultry was already flying off the shelves before the recently announced decision to destroy nearly 2 million Eastern Shore chickens because there aren’t enough people to slaughter, clean, cut them up and package them properly. If people hoard toilet paper, it’s hardly a surprise that fresh broilers might get the same treatment. 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 to these circumstances 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.

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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. Marylanders would be wise to use the circumstance to make some much-needed lifestyle changes. 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 Giant meat case and grab the ingredients for lentil soup and vegetable lasagna instead. 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.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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