Local shoppers, and those nationwide for that matter, may soon find themselves trolling the empty refrigerated section of the supermarket in search of meat.
Forget those avocado and mache wraps. Make no mistake about it; most Americans are carnivores.
Despite the billions of tons families go through every year, however, a glitch in the production line can bring the meat processing operation to a near-halt. The back-up in the meat processing flow has also negatively affected animal farmers; they have had to personally slaughter their stock onsite because they cannot get them to market within the intended timeframe.
It’s happening now, and it can be traced to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Wall Street Journal reported, “The pandemic is keeping thousands of meat-plant workers home across the U.S., according to industry officials, leaving work undone and reducing meat production as consumers turn to grocery stores for more of their food amid shutdowns of restaurants, schools and other providers.”
Mike Stone, one of the proprietors of Cromer’s Market in Noyac, feels the pinch. “Prices have tripled. We have to go through it to see if we can fill it when we get an order.”
Meat processing plants, as it turned out, were hotbeds for the novel coronavirus. And yes, the retail market is beginning to feel the pinch the backlogs have caused.
Recently two Tyson Fresh Meats plants in Iowa were shut down after 900 workers contracted COVID-19. An investigation revealed more plants with high concentrations of stricken employees, and two others, Waterloo and Logansport, were ordered to close days later.
An analysis from USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found at least 4400 workers had tested positive for the virus across 80 plants, causing 28 to close for at least one day.
The shortages caused in the Midwest are beginning to be felt here. One in five Wendy’s was out of hamburgers Friday, May 8. Peapod cautioned “all meat orders limited to two per category.”
As it turned out, a Peapod delivery on May 9 to East Hampton had two packages of chopped meat as ordered but no chicken or pork.
Stone said while the shortages he’s experiencing are limited to beef right now, the Hamptons are about the enter the busy season. He delivers from Montauk all the way to Hampton Bays. “The word is three weeks to a month” before prices stabilize, he said.
“By Memorial Day, Long Islanders may be hard pressed to find Italian sausages to put on their grill, no less burgers and dogs,” opined Joe Dowd in Long Island Business News May 7. Some chains, including Costco and Kroger, are limiting purchases.
President Donald Trump issued an executive order on April 28 declaring meat processing plants “critical” and stated he wanted to get them operational again despite the fact a high percentage of workers at the shuttered plants had the disease.
“Processing plants around the country have shut down amid outbreaks, putting a strain on the nation’s slaughtering capacity and prompting food companies to warn of coming shortages at supermarkets” according to a New York Times article. “Farmers have begun killing pigs and chickens they can no longer sell to companies for processing.”
Smithfield Foods recently shut down its Sioux Falls production facility, one of the country’s biggest pork processing facilities, accounting for four to five percent of U.S. pork production. It supplies nearly 130 million servings of food per week, or about 18 million servings per day.
Smithfield’s chief executive Ken Sullivan said last week, “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running.”
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said Friday May 8 the meatpacking facilities in question “have resumed or plan to resume operations this week following President Trump’s executive order.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and state and local health officials have been working around the clock to ensure a safe and stable supply of protein is available for American consumers all while keeping employees safe.
Management for Suffolk County supermarket chain King Kullen did not return calls by press time. Nor did area stores visited by The Independent seem to be understocked. But trade magazines said meat stock in some local retail outlets is thinning out and the selection is narrowing. The New York Post says inner-city stores are suffering from rising meat prices and lean inventory. Stone said wholesale prices for the average cut of $2.50 beef is up to $7, and that the added costs will be shifted to the consumer.
Americans produce much of the world’s supply of meat and is the number one exporter in the world. Americans eat more meat than any other nationality and pay less for it than in any other country.
According to 2017 estimates, America produced 6.3 billion pounds of beef, 25.6 billion pounds of pork, 5.9 billion pounds of turkey, 80.2 million pounds of veal, 150.2 million pounds of lamb and mutton, and 42.2 billion pounds of chicken.
In 2017, beef and beef variety meat exports amounted to 1.26 million metric tons worth $7.27 billion. That year, the U.S. also exported a record 2.45 million metric tons of pork and pork variety meat, or 26.6 percent of its product, valued at $6.49 billion. The U.S. exported 7261 metric tons of lamb valued at $19.5 million.
But those numbers pale in comparison to the first quarter of 2020, when exports smashed previous records. U.S. pork exports recorded the third strongest month on record. U.S. beef exports also recorded double-digit gains from a year ago, according to data released by United States Department of Agriculture and compiled by the U.S. Meat Export Federation.
USMEF president and CEO Dan Halstrom said the February export results confirmed that global demand for high-quality protein remains strong and resilient, despite COVID-19 dominating the news.
“By February, COVID-19 had emerged as a major health concern in several key Asian markets and was certainly impacting consumer and business activity, so it is great to see U.S. pork and beef exports achieve such strong growth,” Halstrom said in the release discussing Q1 2020 results.
“Obviously these are uncertain economic times and the road ahead remains very challenging, but these results are really a great testament to our international customer base. In the face of unprecedented obstacles, importers, retailers, and restaurateurs are finding creative ways to meet consumer needs, and with record production, the U.S. industry is well-positioned as a supplier. While we are in an unusual business climate that requires a lot of flexibility and innovation, there are excellent opportunities for red meat exports to continue to build momentum,” added Halstrom.