Since the coronavirus pandemic went full swing in March, shoppers in the United States have seen empty grocery shelves and have read about farmers dumping their milk and destroying produce because of a dearth of buyers.
More than a week ago, Smithfield Foods, one of the largest pork processors in the U.S., shut down its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant after more than 230 employees tested positive for COVID-19 and two people died. (Smithfield’s plants in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Missouri also reported that employees had tested positive and have shut down.)
Many other meat processing plants — including Tyson, JBS and Cargill — have also temporarily shut down in cities across the U.S. and in Canada (some of Tyson’s plants have opted not to shut down despite having sick employees) and several more deaths have occurred. Reports surfaced that the shutdown, coupled with panic buying, will result in meat shortages.
So, will it actually be difficult for consumers to buy meat soon? Experts advise there’s no need to panic. Let’s take a look at how grocery store shelves may look in the near future.
Even if your grocery store is low on meat, there’s likely a surplus of meat at farms.
The real problem right now is that the U.S. has too much meat but nowhere to send it.
“I don’t see any shortage in meat,” Mike Phillips, co-owner and salumiere of Minneapolis’ Red Table Meat Co., told HuffPost. “In fact, it’s the other way around, especially for the farmers I work with. They can’t get rid of enough. They’re worried they’re going to go bankrupt. They have a lot of money [invested] in feeding animals and nowhere for them to go.”
With distribution channels including restaurants and schools severed, a surplus of animals remain on farms. “The model only works when the pigs are ready,” Phillips said. “When the animals are ready, they’re ready. It’s going to cost a lot more to keep feeding them. Is there a place where it can be processed? Are those people still working if you process it? Who buys it? If nobody is going to buy it, where is it stored? Who pays the processing fees while no one is buying any of it?”
Not only is there nowhere for the meat to go, but in many cases there’s also no mode of transportation to get it there.
Ron Joyce is president and CEO of the North Carolina-based family-owned Joyce Farms. He said the media has fueled a panic-buying mentality and that, in his experience, the real problem of grocery store shortages has to do with transportation issues.
“If a store normally receives a truckload of products per day and, through panic buying, consumers are buying four or five times their normal quantities, it is not possible to immediately get four to five trucks per day,” he said. (According to Joyce Farms’ chief ranching officer, Allen Williams, “Food has to travel more than 1,500 miles in the U.S. to get to its final destination of a grocery store or restaurant.)
“I think America has the ability to produce the meat we need overall, but there could be short-term and/or regional shortages due to logistics and plants being closed,” Joyce said.
How grocery stores are affected.
On the grocery side, many stores have been able to keep up with meat demand, for the most part. One such chain is Whole Foods.
“Since we work with a variety of local and regional suppliers all over the country, it allows us to be more flexible with supply source and safely move inventory as needed to combat possible shortages,” Theo Weening, Whole Foods’ vice president of meat and poultry, told HuffPost.
“Specific product availability and replenishment in-store varies across the country based on a number of factors, such as shopper habits and supplier outages,” Weening said. “However, both our local and regional supplier partnerships, which meet our rigorous quality standards, have provided us with opportunities to be flexible and bypass interruptions to supply chains where possible, getting product to stores as quickly as we can.”
Another fear is that meat prices will increase at grocery stores because of supply and demand. But there’s not too much cause for concern, according to the experts.
Currently, the price of retail beef has indeed increased, even though the price of cattle is down, due in part to the meat supply pivoting from restaurants to retail (restaurants aren’t ordering as many filet mignons, but consumers are buying ground beef to make burgers at home).
But Phillips says he and farmers like him pay a “fixed” price for their livestock and that the price is “steady.”
“The farmer knows what the pig costs to grow and process,” he said. “I don’t see much change in those prices even in a 10-year period.”
“The production of meat and poultry in America is very efficient and is sensitive to demand,” Joyce said. “If demand increases, pricing normally increases short term and the supply increases, bringing pricing back down. If demand decreases, the opposite happens. Competition normally keeps pricing in balance in the long term. However, different animals have different grow-out times, so production adjustments can vary. Chickens are the quickest and easiest to adjust to demand because of their short growth period. Pork takes a little longer and beef takes the longest.”
But ultimately prices are influenced by consumers.
“When the consumer votes with their dollars to demand cheap meat, then you’re going to get places like Smithfield that will rise to the demand and give it to people,” Phillips said. “But if people vote with their dollars differently, then for sure you could sure see the farmers who are struggling right now, they have plenty of pork to sell.”
Why a meat shortage at grocery stores is unlikely.
Despite what appears to be a temporary shortage in supply chains, consumer relief is on the way. “Producers and retailers typically plan for steady demand increases and were not prepared to deal with the rapid surge we saw with the onset of the crisis,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture wrote on its blog. “But over the next few weeks, as retailers restock their shelves and demand from overstocked consumers declines, we will see fewer empty shelves and prices should stabilize or even decline.”
Additionally, the USDA announced that “in both commercial and public storage, the U.S. has stockpiled 925 million pounds of frozen chicken, 491 million pounds of frozen beef and nearly 662 million pounds of frozen pork,” and the federal government announced that it plans to purchase some of the farmers’ surplus meat and give $16 billion in direct payment to farmers. So it seems like a shortage might be overblown.
How do we prevent a meat shortage in the future?
Once the pandemic tapers off, what will the future of agriculture look like, or what should it look like?
“I think there will be more emphasis on local or regional production of food,” Joyce said. “I would like to see more people engaged in how and where food is produced. Most are not aware that a lot of it travels across the country or even from other countries to get to them.”
Phillips offered a similar sentiment. “I’m hopeful that people are going to be interested in quality and local things and creating more food themselves and understanding the real costs and price of foods .... This isn’t the first virus that’s going to come down the pipeline. Things are probably going to have to change a bunch, I would imagine. I feel like it is a chance for people to reconnect with the wheres and whys and hows of their food, and examine the system and decide what’s actually healthy for us and what’s not.”
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Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.