If you’ve been to a grocery store in recent weeks, you may have noticed the meat section looking a little picked over.
Then again, maybe not: while some stores have imposed limits on how much meat customers can buy, or have run out of some products, others haven’t seen much change in supply.
There’s no shortage of animals. But as COVID-19 has closed down or slowed down meat processing plants, the meat supply chain has been strained, making it more difficult to get animals processed and get the meat to the right places at the right time.
The good news, for meat eaters: America isn’t likely to run out of meat. But consumers should expect to see some fluctuations in the availability of certain meat products in the months to come.
In recent months, dozens of food processing plants have seen their production lines slow or shut down as a result of COVID-19, according to a list kept by Meat and Poultry, a news outlet covering the meat and poultry processing industry.
Locally, the first big hit came when a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, shut down mid-April after hundreds of employees tested positive for COVID-19. Next came JBS Pork in Worthington and Jennie-O in Willmar. Nationally, there have been closures in pork, poultry, seafood, beef and vegetable production facilities.
Conditions in food plants, where employees work closely together, are conducive to the spread of COVID-19. Additionally, many plant employees are new Americans trying to get a leg up in the U.S. economy and live in close quarters where the virus can easily spread. As of early May, more than 10,000 meat packing workers had been infected or exposed to COVID-19 and at least 30 had died, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
In late-April President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing facilities open, which helps prioritize personal protective equipment and testing supplies for plants, said Lauren Servick, the director of marketing and public policy engagement at the Minnesota Pork Board.
As of the last two weeks, local hog processing plants are back open, Servick said. And while some are working Saturdays to handle pent up demand, they are still operating with reduced staff due to illness or absenteeism due to employees’ fears of coming to work.
“Ultimately, [employees are] kind of the most important part of this piece. They need to feel safe so they can come to work and turn pigs into pork,” she said.
With some processing shut down and then slowed, though, there’s a one-to-two week processing backlog, Servick said. Many farmers have had to euthanize their hogs. Ag Commissioner Thom Petersen told MinnPost he expected between 25,000 and 30,000 turkeys to be euthanized this week for similar reasons.
That’s despite efforts at many levels to work around the backlog. At least one farmer began marketing pork to consumers directly on social media. Smaller meat processors located in communities throughout the state have stepped up to increase their volume. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has provided grants to some to increase their capacity to process animals, whether that’s by purchasing a new cooler or a new saw.
“I think we’ve done 10 grants so far just in the last couple weeks and we’re working on processing more,” Petersen said.
While that may help, small processors can’t come close to the 20,000 hogs a day processed at a plant like JBS.
Processing bottlenecks aren’t the only disruption to the food supply chain that’s come as a result of COVID-19.
When the virus began to hit hard in the U.S. in March, many Americans took advice to stock up for two weeks in case of quarantine to the extreme, panic-buying at the grocery store and even buying chest freezers en masse to ensure they would be adequately supplied with food. This sudden increase in demand disrupted a system accustomed to supplying shoppers on a much more short-term basis.
Restaurants closing set off another shock: In 2019, Minnesotans ate out more than they ate at home, Petersen said. With coronavirus around, Minnesotans went from eating at home around 50 percent of the time to eating at home 80 percent of the time almost overnight.
That left a mismatch in supply, with meats packaged in restaurant-sized boxes and portions, and demand, with people cooking at home.
Restaurants aren’t immune to COVID-19 related supply inconsistencies, either.
Lauren Le owns Que Viet, a beloved Vietnamese restaurant in Northeast Minneapolis, with her husband Dat. Overall, things have gone pretty well for their restaurant, despite the pandemic.
“We’ve been actually very blessed. We’re definitely slower during lunch because that was our core dine-in — people would come in for lunch,” she said. But people are already accustomed to swinging by to pick up takeout for dinner, which the restaurant has streamlined with a takeout window.
But about two weeks ago, the couple started hearing from their longtime supplier that it might become difficult to source pork due to COVID-19 plant closures.
“We sell so many egg rolls, we just knew we needed to maintain that,” Le said. “At our restaurant, we have to have the egg rolls.”
Luckily, they have a walk-in freezer, so they’ve tried to keep a little more pork on-hand, even if the price has gone up a bit, from about $1.80 a pound to to $2.60 a pound.
“I think we’ll be OK, but I mean, fingers crossed,” she said of keeping up with demand.
What you find depends on the store
As for what you, the consumer, sees on store shelves, right now that largely comes down to where your grocer gets their food, Ag Commissioner Petersen said.
Big processors like Smithfield and JBS are big suppliers of pork for stores like Costco and Walmart, where some customers have reported scant meat supply on shelves and the companies have limited the amount shoppers could buy in a given trip.
Smaller grocery stores, which may be able to adjust to more local suppliers more quickly, or those who buy from plants that haven’t shut down, may have seen fewer disruptions.
But it doesn’t just come down to that, either. Some of the U.S. meat supply is kept in cold storage. With all the disruptions, some meat is having to be moved farther to get onto store shelves.
“The meat is there, it’s just it might be in a storage facility that’s 300 miles away, instead of 100 miles away because there’s one plant shutting down while another may be working,” said Joleen Hadrich, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Applied Economics who specializes in agricultural economics. “We just need to move that meat from point A to point B and it’s taking time to create those shifts.”
And with restaurant volume down, the packaging consumers see in grocery stores might be different than what they’re accustomed to.
“I was in Lunds and Byerlys last week and there was a 10-pound bag of unfrozen chicken breasts,” Hadrich said — something you might not ordinarily see on the stores’ shelves but rather something that might have shipped to restaurants. She bought it, figuring she could separate out the meat into smaller portions for her purposes.
“As a system, we’re set up to be efficient, so this one plant packages this product in one specific way — they can’t overhaul their production line to adjust,” she said.
The good news is, things are looking up.
Servick, of Minnesota Pork, says pork plants are operating at between 75 and 77 percent capacity on the whole in the U.S. now, an improvement over previous weeks. She hopes to see that number jump from 80 percent to 85 percent by the end of next week.
“By that point, we’ll be pretty close to where we were before the plants were shutting down,” she said.
In the coming months, consumers should expect to see sporadic disruptions in food supply and potential price hikes, Petersen said, but he strongly advocated against panic-buying.
For the time being, he said shoppers may have better luck patronizing smaller grocers, local meat markets, farmers markets and butchers, which tend to operate outside the major processing supply chain, when possible.
“And buy what you need. Don’t hoard; it’ll be fine,” he said.
Hadrich echoed that point.
“Maintain your normal purchasing habits,” she said. “Buying more than what you would consume in one or two weeks is what is further magnifying some of these supply chain disruptions that we’re seeing.”
Keeping food on the shelves isn’t just a matter of convenience, she added.
“Not all consumers within our system have the ability to stock up on food. Many people are working on a budget that really only allows them to buy enough food for a week or two, so if people are panic buying, that’s limiting the opportunity for people who are living on a smaller budget to be able to buy these types of foodstuffs,” Hadrich said.
Correction: This post has been updated to clarify which Que Viet location Lauren and Dat Le own.