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With the pandemic hobbling the meat-packing industry, Iowa farmer Al Van Beek had nowhere to ship his full-grown pigs to make room for the 7,500 piglets he expected from his breeding operation. The crisis forced a decision that still troubles him: He ordered his employees to give injections to the pregnant sows, one by one, that would cause them to abort their baby pigs.

Van Beek and other farmers say they have no choice but to cull livestock as they run short on space to house their animals or money to feed them, or both. The world's biggest meat companies — including Smithfield Foods Inc, Cargill Inc, JBS USA and Tyson Foods Inc — have halted operations at about 20 slaughterhouses and processing plants in North America since April as workers fall ill, stoking global fears of a meat shortage.

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