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If the meat selection in your local grocery store seems more limited and expensive than usual, it’s probably not your imagination. Stores across the country have reported fewer shipments of beef, pork and chicken after more than a dozen large meat processing facilities temporarily shut down operations. The reason? You guessed it: The coronavirus.
Nearly 5,000 coronavirus cases throughout 115 meat and poultry processing plants were reported in April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, adding that the close working conditions in these types of facilities pose a significant risk for transmitting COVID-19. The virus is spread through coughs, sneezes, saliva and even vaporized breath.
If safety concerns have temporarily suspended operations, is there actually a shortage of meat in America, and what does it mean for the grocery stores that are waiting to restock their shelves? Here’s more information on what we know about the meat shortage, the effect on local farmers, and what you can do if you can’t find meat in the stores. This story is intended to provide an overview of the situation and updates frequently.
Is coronavirus causing a meat shortage?
Grocery store cold cases may not present all the cuts you’re used to, but does that mean there’s not enough livestock? Not necessarily. The larger facilities may have closed, but farmers still have hogs, cattle and chickens. The issue is that they can’t process or sell them while the facilities are shut, resulting, for example, in farmers with large pork operations having to cull their hogs, causing food waste.
According to Vox, one poultry processor says it will have to euthanize 2 million chickens. At this time, keeping excess cattle on the farms doesn’t appear to be an issue, according to The Guardian. However, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association found a study that estimated the cattle industry losses will reach $13.6 billion.
John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods (yes, the chicken nuggets people), said in a blog post that the food supply chain is vulnerable and that millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain while the meat facilities are closed. Others believe the shutdowns won’t cause the supply chain to break, but rather cause a strain, albeit a significant one.
The CDC stated, as a part of its guidelines for reopening the economy, that coronavirus “outbreaks in food production plants and other critical industries are crippling communities financially and threatening national food security.” Widespread restaurant closures may also play a role, with businesses completely closing or canceling their orders as more people eat at home.
A USDA study from 2018 indicated that Americans consume 10 ounces of meat per day, which is around 22% higher than the recommended amount, depending on how much you weigh and how active you are (more below on the recommended daily allowance).
How much is the industry impacted?
Big meat processing plants, like Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, JBS and Perdue Farms have been affected due to plant closings.
For example, Tyson Foods produces approximately 20% of the beef, pork and chicken in the US. The Tyson plant in Indiana had nearly 900 coronavirus cases at the beginning of this month, making up 40% of the workforce at that location. That location produces 19% of the pork in the US. Another Tyson plant in Iowa had more than half of the workers test positive for the coronavirus. That plant alone processes around 19,500 hogs per day, which amounts to 5% of the total production in the US.
JBS, which processes 23% of the cattle in the US, says it will be impacted for months due to coronavirus, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Is it safe to eat meat from plants that have reported employees with COVID-19?
The CDC says that there’s currently no evidence to suggest that coronavirus can be transmitted from food to a person. If you’re still concerned, follow Foodsafety.org’s guidelines for cooking beef and pork to 160 degrees Fahrenheit and chicken to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, a level known to kill bacteria and other pathogens.
How are stores handling the situation?
Stores may be impacted differently across the US. Many have already limited customers to two or three packages of each type of meat. For example, if you buy one package of steak and one package of ground chuck, you’ve met your limit on beef. This is to ensure that no single person is buying all of the meat off the shelves.
How are farmers who send their livestock to these meat plants affected?
In the precoronavirus world, large farming operations would pack up their cattle and take them to the meatpacking plants, then off to the butcher. However, with the plants slowing down, animal processing is reportedly backlogged. With major meatpacking plants closed down, like Tyson, large farming operations across the country are reportedly walking an economic tightrope. Feeding livestock is costly, and with nowhere to send their animals, some are turning to culling their herd.
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Are my independent local farmers affected?
In some areas, more people are buying meat from independent local farmers, according to CBS. But those farmers can only produce so much livestock, and small, local butchers can handle only so many animals at a time. At the same time, small farms also sell their animals to large slaughterhouses, leaving them with nowhere to process their livestock when all butchers are full.
Even if more people than usual are requesting to buy meat directly from farmers, there’s still a likelihood for delay if the smaller butchers with a limited capacity for processing meat are overwhelmed by the increased demand.
According to a family member from one ranch that CNET spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous, appointments with smaller and more boutique butchers typically are booked well in advance.
Can I still get meat from a meat delivery service and from restaurants?
Yes. Most meat delivery services work with independent suppliers to fulfill orders, however, they, too, might experience a delay. If you’re signing up for a meat delivery box for the first time, we recommend you call to ask how they’re impacted.
Note that many of these services are more expensive than grocery stores, often as a result of selling grass-fed, organic, heirloom or aged meat. For example, a box of steaks at around 76 ounces (or 4.75 pounds) from Crowd Cow will cost you $159. Similar steaks at the grocery store could cost you around $100 or less for the same weight.
Restaurants operate on a different supply chain than grocery stores, so it’s likely that open restaurants in your area will have meat. Some may limit their dishes as a response, or introduce new menu items that reduce the amount of animal protein in a given dish. For example, instead of a whole chicken breast with potatoes, a restaurant could potentially offer a pasta-with-chicken dish.
How long could a meat shortage last?
It’s unclear when factories, restaurants and supplies will return to precoronavirus levels. Some experts suggest that supplies will rebound as soon as June, while others say it could last the duration of the pandemic.
In April, President Trump signed an executive order to keep the meat processing facilities open during the pandemic to help prevent shortages. However, some brands, like Tyson and Smithfield, are keeping their plants closed to protect worker safety, saying they can’t operate if the employees don’t show up for work.
To make the workers feel safe, they would need to provide more personal protective equipment, as well as provide enough space between the workers. Tyson’s CEO said the company is taking temperatures of the employees, installing infrared temperature scanners in the facilities, supplying face coverings and conducting daily sanitizing.
Are Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat affected?
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are companies that make plant-based foods as an alternative to meat from animals. Their goal is to make a product that tastes and behaves like ground beef and pork when cooked.
An Impossible Foods representative said that so far, its facilities haven’t been impacted by the coronavirus, so its products are still available for purchase. The representative noted the top ingredient is soy, and therefore the company relies on heavy machinery run by a few essential employees while maintaining enforced social distancing.
The companies have actually seen an increase in sales due to the limited supply of meat, according to MarketWatch. The Impossible Foods representative said the company started the year out in 150 grocery stores, and now it’s in about 3,000 stores today.
Their websites can help consumers find nearby grocery stores that sell their products. The plant-based beef and pork aren’t available for mail order at this time.
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.