Lyda Garcia is the Ohio State University Extension meat specialist and has gotten many questions about alternative meats.

Cyber attack on meat industry yields minimal disruption

Over the Memorial Day weekend, JBS SA, the world’s largest meat marketer, had to shut down all of its U.S. beef processing plants. It total those plants process around 20% of the American beef market. JBS plants in Australia and Canada were also affected by the attack.  

“JBS’ computer networks were infiltrated by unknown ransomware. The USDA released a statement showing its commitment to working with JBS, the White House, Department of Homeland Security, and others to monitor the situation,” said Jeffrey K Lewis, Research Specialist. Ohio State University Agricultural & Resource Law Program. “The ransomware attack comes on the heels of the Colonial Pipeline cyber-attack, leading many to wonder who is next. As part of its effort, the USDA has been in touch with meat processors across the country to ensure they are aware of the situation and asking them to accommodate additional capacity, if possible. The impact of the cyber-attack may include a supply chain shortage in the United States, a hike in beef prices at the grocery store, and a renewed push to regulate other U.S. industries to prevent future cyber-attacks.” 

Brazilian-based JBS is one of four global large-scale meat producers. The company announced in a written statement that it “took immediate action, suspending all affected systems, notifying authorities, and activating the company’s global network of IT professionals and third-party experts to resolve the situation.” The company said it expected that the vast majority of its plants would be back within days of the attack.

And even if there were a retail meat shortage in groceries or restaurants as a result of the cyberattack, it likely would only ripple down to a couple of days or so, said Lyda Garcia, an assistant professor of meat science and an Ohio State University Extension meat specialist. 

“We still have three other large-scale meat packers that make up some 80% of the nation’s beef and pork supplies,” she said. “Retail stores may see a little hit, but there’s no need to panic. There is plenty of meat out there.” 

Garcia said that even if grocery stores start to show limited supply as a precaution to prevent any meat shortages, consumers can still purchase meat from local meat processors, who are working overtime processing meat as a result of supply chain issues stemming from COVID-19 closures from earlier in the pandemic. 

“In fact, small meat processors are still going strong. Many of them are booked until 2022,” she said.

As COVID-19 spread through the nation’s largest meat-processing facilities last spring, some temporarily closed or reduced hours because so many employees were out sick. Meanwhile, orders piled up. As a result, many local processing facilities took the orders instead.

“Small, local meat processors are still in full operation and are still running on overdrive,” Garcia said. “I don’t think consumers have to start stocking up like many did during the earlier days of the pandemic. 

“We’ve learned a lot from the hit that meat producers took from COVID-19. Because of what they learned, meat producers are doing everything in their power not to get to the point of a meat shortage again. That doesn’t mean that it can’t happen, but we’re more informed, more educated, and more prepared now because of lessons learned from COVID-19.”

One of those lessons learned from COVID-19 was the need for more local meat processors, Garcia said. In response to that increased demand, at least eight new meat-processing facilities have started up in Ohio since last fall, she said.

Garcia, as part of an effort to serve Ohioans, organized a team from CFAES that created a free online “toolkit” with questionnaires, links, and other resources to help people fully think through starting up a meat-processing facility. Using the toolkit, a prospective entrepreneur can discover livestock inventories by county throughout Ohio, business model options, guides to creating a business plan, contacts in the meat industry, and a host of other resources. 

“If they can go through and answer questions from the questionnaires, they’ll have a good idea of what’s involved,” Garcia said. 

The toolkit touches on several challenges regarding launching a meat-processing business, including finding land for the facility, securing a bank loan, getting commitments from enough producers, and attracting a customer base. 

“It’s a complex system and I recognize the toolkit is only 60% of what they need, but it is definitely a good start,” she said. “The other 40%, they’re going to have to learn as they go.”

To access the free meat toolkit, visit go.osu.edu/meatoolkit.

To find out about a series of meat-cutting workshops, visit go.osu.edu/meatworkshops.

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