The Meatpacking Industry in Rural America During the COVID-19 Pandemic

There was increased attention to the meatpacking industry recently as high rates of outbreaks of the coronavirus (COVID-19) caused some meatpacking plants to temporarily shut down. Just over 500,000 people work in the meatpacking industry in the United States. Many plants are in cities such as Sioux Falls, SD, where meatpacking is just one of many major employers. However, several other plants are in much smaller municipalities such as Dakota City, NE, and Worthington, MN, where meatpacking is the primary employer in the county. There are 56 counties in the United States—49 in rural (nonmetro) counties and 7 in urban (metro) counties—where meatpacking is estimated to account for more than 20 percent of all county employment. While these counties make up 2.5 percent of all rural counties and 0.6 percent of urban counties, they represent 19.0 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively, of all meatpacking employment in the United States.

The employment dependence of these counties on a single industry makes meatpacking—officially termed “animal slaughtering and processing” in the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS)—a unique industry in the United States. The uniqueness of the employment concentration of the meatpacking industry (NAICS 3116) can be placed into context by examining the other 85 manufacturing industries categorized at the NAICS four-digit industry level. There are only 91 other counties in the United States where a manufacturing industry accounts for at least 20 percent of county employment. Motor vehicle parts manufacturing is the next highest industry with the number of counties with at least 20 percent of employment in a single industry, with only 12 counties, compared with the 56 meatpacking-dependent counties.

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