Strength of cybersecurity is only as good as the weakest link: Former U.S. National Security official
Meat production in the U.S. is climbing back toward normal levels, with the government pressing other companies to boost output while JBS SA’s meat plants recover from last weekend’s cyberattack.
More of JBS’s beef plants were running at least one shift Thursday. Still, even as the facilities return to at least partial operation, workers returning to a meat-processing plant in Texas on Wednesday afternoon were told to be ready to do things by hand. With everything from knife sharpening to production-line speed controls relying on automation, coming back from a cyberattack that forced the world’s largest meat producer to halt operations across the globe is set to be a bumpy ride.
Cattle-slaughtering had essentially returned to normal, with 120,000 head slaughtered Thursday, just 1,000 less than a week earlier, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. The USDA said earlier this week that it had reached out to other meat producers to encourage them to boost their output as much as possible.
The attack on JBS and ensuing shutdowns upended agricultural markets and raised concerns about food security as hackers increasingly target critical infrastructure. Wholesale meat prices are at the highest level since the early days of the pandemic last year, and cattle futures swung wildly amid speculation of how long the shutdowns might last
“There’s a lot of automation, there’s a lot of reliance on technology,” said Wendell Young, head of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ local union representing 1,500 members at JBS’s beef slaughterhouse in Souderton, Pennsylvania. “You can disconnect some of those wires and switches and run things old-school, but before you do, you want to make sure that everything’s running smoothly.”
By Thursday morning, more of JBS’s facilities were ramping up, including a beef plant in Cactus, Texas, which was resuming normal schedules, according to an official Facebook post. A JBS spokesman in an email said the company didn’t have any updates at this time. JBS shares fell as much as 2 per cent in Sao Paulo.
The weekend cyberattack forced the Brazilian food giant to shut down all of its beef plants in the U.S. -- accounting for almost a quarter of American supplies -- and slow pork and poultry production. Slaughtering operations across Australia were halted and at least one Canadian plant was idled. JBS, which has facilities in 20 countries, also owns Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., the second-biggest U.S. chicken producer. The extent of the outages may never be known as JBS didn’t detail the impact.
The vast majority of plants resumed operations Wednesday, including all of the pork, poultry and prepared foods facilities around the world and the majority of its beef facilities in the U.S. and Australia, according to a statement late Wednesday.
At least some plants were doing operations manually, meaning logistical labor like packaging and accounting for cattle would be a challenge, according to workers who asked not to be named because they are not authorized to speak for the company. There’s likely to be “some more manual processes than normal in the early days, until they’re sure everything’s back up and running properly,” Young said.
The road to recovery has proven long for many companies subjected to ransomware attacks. Colonial Pipeline Co. had to shut the largest fuel pipeline in the U.S. for nearly a week last month, causing shortages at filling stations, and some regional supply chains struggled for several weeks.
The White House in a memo said corporate leaders should immediately develop plans to counter the attacks, including offline backups to crucial information. There are no Department of Agriculture cybersecurity regulations or requirements for meatpackers, a U.S. official said.
“Certainly this is going to have an impact on the prices of meat,” Texas Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar, co-chair of the Congressional Beef Caucus, said in an interview with Bloomberg Radio. Congress needs to address cybersecurity threats in part by crafting a “comprehensive” national strategy and provide adequate oversight, he said.
Live cattle futures in Chicago have steadied after falling to touch a near five-month low on Tuesday. Choice-grade wholesale beef has jumped 3.2 per cent this week to the highest since the record prices of last May, when COVID-19 closed U.S. beef plants, and wholesale pork prices were up 2.4 per cent, USDA data showed
In Texas, workers returning on Wednesday also had to deal with issues like cattle left in freezers longer than usual, potentially rendering them inedible. Employees also are seeking full confirmation that their personal data housed by JBS wasn’t compromised. The company has said it’s not aware of any evidence that customer, supplier or worker data has been leaked.
At plants in Nebraska, some employees returned on Wednesday, while others will be back on Thursday, according to Eric Reeder, president of UCFW Local 293 in Omaha. He wasn’t yet sure if operations will be at full production.
“Everything is run by the computers,” Reeder said. “If they can’t access them, they can’t run.”
By Thursday, an Omaha plant will resume work while one in Pennsylvania will be back to normal status, labor union leaders said. JBS said its Canadian beef facility in Alberta, one of the largest in the country, has resumed production. Workers at the Longford beef processing plant in Australia have been told operations will resume Friday, according to a spokesman for the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union in Tasmania.
The Australian government is seeking technical information from JBS about what happened on its network “with a view to us potentially being able to help other victims before they become victims,” Rachel Noble, director-general of the Australian Signals Directorate, told a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday.