Florian Hollmann often thinks back to a conversation he had four months ago with the truck driver who transported pigs every week from his farm in the municipality of Ense, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, to the Tönnies slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrück. "What will happen if they find someone with the coronavirus at Tönnies?" the driver — filled with foreboding after reports of ever more pandemic measures being introduced in Germany — asked Hollmann.
With Tönnies, Germany's biggest slaughterhouse, shut down since June 20 after a coronavirus outbreak infected more than 1,500 workers, the answer is now clear. The outbreak caused authorities to impose dayslong lockdowns in the districts of Gütersloh and Warendorf and put the spotlight on malpractice and worker exploitation in Germany's meat industry.
It is not just the slaughterhouse and its owner, the billionaire Clemens Tönnies, in trouble. The 28-year-old farmer Hollmann has a problem, too.
To be precise, Hollmann has 400 problems: 400 pigs he had planned to send to slaughter and that he now has to find space for in his stalls — despite the constant arrival of new piglets. "I have to be pretty creative these days," Hollmann said.
A precise process
The farm-to-table chain for pigs in Germany is precise. Everything runs according to a tight schedule. The process begins with the breeders, who look after the piglets up to the age of 3 months. Then, other farmers, such as Hollmann, take over to fatten the animals, using a liquid mixture of wheat, barley, soya meal and minerals to increase their weight to 100 kilograms (220 pounds) within four months. Companies such as Tönnies, Vion and Westfleisch slaughter a million pigs each week, with the meat going to supermarkets to be sold to consumers as sausage, schnitzel or ham hock.
"The pigs that are already ready to be slaughtered but can't be are creating a kind of bow wave that is constantly growing," Hollmann said. "Now we are on day 20. And I am wondering when the bow wave will swamp the ship."
Hollmann, who always wanted to be a farmer and started working at the centuries-old family farm a year ago, has responded to this "bow wave" by spreading the pigs among his four huge stalls — each of which contains 1,000 animals. He has marked the pigs with different colors. Blue means "has to go soon"; red means "as quickly as possible."
Rapid price drop
Before the pandemic, Hollmann was earning €20 ($22.50) per pig. But, for each of these marked animals, he has to pay out €20 himself. This is partly because the larger pigs no longer fit the conveyor belts. "We all want to eat same-sized schnitzels, so pigs that are slaughtered all have to be the same size as well," Hollmann said. "There is a specified weight range. If I supply pigs that are too big, I get paid less."
Prices for pork have gone down by about 25%. During the coronavirus pandemic, Hollmann has lost almost €10,000. For a short while after the facility in Rheda-Wiedenbrück closed, Hollmann was able to send his pigs to the other Tönnies slaughterhouse in Weissenfels, in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. Now, officials have ordered mass testing at the Tönnies facility in the eastern German state, as well.
Hollmann calls up fellow farmers daily to ask how they are handling the situation and whether they know of a slaughterhouse that can still take pigs. He is now planning only a few days in advance; resourcefulness, pragmatism and spontaneity are the order of the day.
One reason for this, Hollmann said, is that the communication between authorities and farmers leaves a lot to be desired. "I am just as much in the dark as anyone else about what is going to happen at Tönnies," he said. "I get all my information from the Gütersloh dailies."
'Isn't something new'
The Tönnies slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrück is scheduled to reopen in mid-July. Should that happen, 170 of Hollmann's pigs would arrive at the facility an hour later. And after that? Will anything have changed in the German meat industry? Activists are calling for animal welfare to take priority over mass production; many politicians want the emphasis to be on humane working conditions and not low prices. But will the industry listen — or just go on as before?
Hollmann said he believed that there would be change. "Tönnies is just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "The way people work close together at slaughterhouses and how the workers are housed isn't something new." He said anyone who didn't already know had ignored the facts. "But, to be honest," he added, "I have never heard anyone say: 'What's going on there is crazy! I couldn't have dreamed it up.'"
In the future, Hollmann would like to diversify his farm. He is already growing cereal crops, maize, sugar beet and carrots. He may also be able to enlarge his biogas plant, which produces electricity for 700 households.
Hollmann intends to diversify the slaughterhouse he sends his pigs to, as well — though that won't be easy. He said politicians must create the conditions for smaller slaughterhouses to be able to survive.
"Once, we had 20 or 30 slaughterhouses in North Rhine-Westphalia; now we have the choice of just three or four," Hollmann said. "The biggest problem is the increasing centralization."