Just when toilet paper is slowly beginning to reappear on grocery store shelves, now we have to face a different shortage. Meatless Mondays may by joined by Tacoless Tuesdays, Wienerless Wednesdays, T-boneless Thursdays, Fried Chickenless Fridays, Sausageless Saturdays, and Steakless Sundays. Holy Scarce Cow! There’s a meat shortage! What’s up with that?
Americans aren’t merely asking “Where’s the beef? They also want to know where the pork and chicken are too. All of these meats are in short supply as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. And, in a double whammy, what meat is available is much pricier. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects meat prices to rise in 2020 by as much as 2%.That’s too much!
While the coronavirus has not, at least as yet, infected poultry and livestock, it has taken its toll on the humans who process meat. With workers in this industry testing positive for COVID-19, processing plant closures have disrupted the supply chain in our country. Exacerbating the problem is the reduced productivity in those plants which have managed to remain open; they are only operating at 40-50% capacity. Less work equals less meat.
Plant closures have occurred for a couple of reasons. First, the number of absent workers has made it impossible for plans to operate. Tyson Food’s largest pork producing plant, located in Waterloo, Iowa, was forced to close for this reason. Was anyone really anticipating a positive result from basing an important meat plant in a town named Waterloo?
Similarly Smithfield Foods, the country’s larges pork supplier and a meat source for fast food chains like McDonalds, shut down its Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant when 293 or so of its workers were diagnosed with COVID-19. Yeah, they wouldn’t want to shut down with a mere 100 workers infected with a virus locking down the country.
Even plants with enough workers to function have closed or considered closing due to health hazards. What’s hazardous is that these employees work in close quarters. Forget six feet apart; many work shoulder to shoulder. Apparently these employees are packed in like sardines, although there have been no reports of a sardine shortage.
So one meat processing plant closes. Big deal, right? WRONG. The JBS plant in Wisconsin produces enough meet to feed 3.2 million Americans daily.
Restaurant Business reports beef production is down about 25%. As a result, lots of restaurants are finding beef items out of stock. In particular, Wendy’s, which touts its use of fresh beef only, has around 20% of its U.S. restaurants out of beef.
What’s one to do? Much depends on who you are. Consumers are, to NO ONE’s surprise, attempting to hoard meat. Hoarding a perishable product, though, is more difficult than hoarding toilet paper because refrigeration is necessary. So consumers have sought to increase their storage capacity. Chest freezers are selling out at Home Depot and are on back order until August 2020. Stores, such as Kroger, have reacted to the attempts to hard meat by placing limits on how much beef and pork customers may purchase.
President Trump has responded to the meat processing plant closures by invoking the 1950 Defense Production Act to avoid further supply chain disruptions. The plants have been declared “critical infrastructure” and have been ordered to remain open during the pandemic. The problem is that for these plants to be safe for workers, lower production will occur. Required social distancing will decrease the number of workers able to be on the plant floor. No longer will workers be able to stand shoulder to shoulder as they shoulder the task of producing pork shoulders.
Meat processing businesses are seeking a liability shield from Congress for their continued operation. Smithfield Foods has been sued by workers in a Missouri plant who allege that the company failed to protect them due to their close quarters and lack of sufficient PPE’s. How much must the employer do to adequately protect the workers? Are plexiglass barriers sufficient? Must Hazmat suits be issued?
Meat processing plant shutdowns are also affecting the animals from which the meat is taken. With reduced processing capacity, there are more pigs now than can be processed. Thus, pigs are backing up on farms. Ironically, there’s a plethora of pork on the farms but not on the supermarket meat shelves. Sadly, farmers do not have room for this overflow of pigs, and are having to resort to euthanasia for lack of space. Poor pigs!
The current state of affairs is described as an hourglass effect by a professor at Virginia Polytech. Ms. Isengildina-Massa explains that there’s plenty of demand for meat at the top, and a plentiful supply of animals at the bottom. The reduced processing capacity is the bottleneck in the middle constraining the supply from meeting the meat demand.
Also wreaking havoc in the meat processing world is the closure of commercial buyers such as restaurants, cruise lines, and theme parks. Per the National Chicken Council (which is presumably not composed of chickens), about 50% of chicken sales are to food services. A lay person might think the lack of commercial demand for meat would make it easier to have a retail supply, but that’s not necessarily so. It is difficult to shift production set up for food service sales to retail; for example, there is different packaging. I’m assuming the meat packages for theme parks are bigger than the ones consumers buy at Kroger.
Don’t think that you’ll be smart and make a run for the border to find some meat. Even if the borders are opened, shutdowns of meat processing plants have also occurred in Canada.
So, what’s the answer to the question of the hour, “Where’s the beef, pork and chicken?” Not on the shelves or on our plates. But they are definitely on our minds. Until meat production normalizes, Americans have to meet this difficult situation with bravery. We may be forced to try the Impossible Whopper if we want to sink our teeth into a burger.
Have you observed shortages of meat where you buy groceries? Has your grocer imposed limits on how much meat a customer may purchase? If real beef isn’t available, would you be tempted to sample an Impossible Whopper? Is becoming a vegetarian an option?