Grocery stores, including Hy-Vee, Baker’s, Sam’s Club and Costco, are beginning to limit meat purchases as meatpacking plants stricken by the coronavirus scramble to stay open and fully staffed.
But there’s no need to run out and fully stock the freezer, yet.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and an agriculture professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln said they don’t expect imminent meat shortages, even as the ongoing pandemic forces more Americans to stay home and cook more meals there, driving demand at the grocery store.
“You may not find the same selection you found before, but you’re going to find … something to be able to feed your family,” Ricketts said Tuesday at his daily coronavirus briefing.
West Des Moines-based Hy-Vee announced Tuesday that customers would be restricted to four packages of meat — any combination of beef, pork and poultry — starting Wednesday.
“At Hy-Vee, we have product available at our stores but due to worker shortages at plants as well as an increase in meat sales, customers may not find the specific items they are looking for,” the company said in a press release. “Because of this, we are going to put a limit on customer purchases in the meat department.”
Costco announced similar limits on Monday — shoppers can buy only three packages of fresh meat and must wear masks in stores. Since April 30, Baker’s has been limiting purchases of ground beef and fresh pork, and Sam’s Club is allowing customers only one item each of beef, pork, lamb and chicken.
A statement from Walmart said meat continues to be in high demand, and the company is working within its supply chain to quickly replace items.
Fareway, which has several stores in Omaha, including a meat market at 90th Street and West Center Road, declined to comment, and SpartanNash, which runs Family Fare stores, did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s not clear whether supermarkets are trying to proactively ward off any meat shortages or meat hoarding, or whether they are experiencing difficulties obtaining enough ground beef, chicken breasts and bacon to satisfy customer demand.
“At Baker’s, we feel good about our ability to maintain a broad assortment of meat and seafood for our customers because we purchase protein from a diverse network of suppliers,” spokeswoman Sheila Lowrie said. “There is plenty of protein in the supply chain; however, some processors are experiencing challenges.”
Jayson Lusk, who heads the department of agricultural economics at Purdue University, wrote in a recent op-ed that cattle and hog slaughtering and processing are down about 40% compared with last year.
As the coronavirus sickens meatpacking workers, the massive plants that slaughter, slice and package meat in states like Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota and Colorado have been forced to slow or even halt production.
In the past week, three meatpacking plants in Nebraska — Tyson plants in Dakota City and Madison and a Cargill plant in Schuyler — have temporarily shut down for deep cleaning and to await workers’ COVID-19 test results.
Elliott Dennis, an assistant professor of livestock marketing and risk management at UNL, said he doesn’t see widespread meat shortages on the horizon.
“This is more to prevent runs on meat than anything due to meat shortages,” he said. Think of shoppers stocking up on toilet paper when the pandemic began.
“That had nothing to do with the supply of toilet paper but people’s reaction to the idea that there may not be any in the future,” he said.
Costco, Hy-Vee and other stores are most likely trying to prevent customers from emptying the meat case, so shoppers still have a decent supply from which to choose.
“People don’t need to buy three months worth of meat right now,” Dennis said.
And vegetarians know from experience that other high-protein options exist — think beans, lentils, peanut butter and cheese, though Ricketts said he would never support a “Meatless May.”
When President Donald Trump signed an executive order last week ordering meat processing plants to stay open, White House officials said the administration was working to prevent a situation in which a majority of processing plants shut down for a period of time, potentially leading to an 80% drop in the availability of meat in supermarkets.
Some economists, though, have said there should be enough meat in cold storage to prevent widespread shortages.
Cold storage includes frozen food that meat processors hold on to. Turkeys, for example, are raised and slaughtered year-round, but most are kept in cold storage until Thanksgiving, Dennis said.
Whether customers will end up paying more for meat remains to be seen.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the average price-per-pound for boneless, skinless chicken breasts, for example, was actually almost 10 cents lower in March 2020 than in the year prior. That may reflect pre-pandemic pricing. But prices were up for ground chuck during the same period.
Higher-end cuts typically served at restaurants, like ribeyes, filets and prime rib, may actually be on sale, with so many eateries closed or doing takeout only.
“We’ve seen that some of these plants have shut down, and some of these plants are operating at a reduced capacity,” Ricketts said Tuesday. “I’d imagine that’s having an impact on how much of the meat supply is out there. I do not believe we have a meat shortage … but certainly we’re seeing a slowdown in the pipeline.”
Two weeks ago, estimated capacity at hog processing plants was down about 20%, some Nebraskans said. That left those who raise hogs and cattle stuck with animals that were ready for market and left some producers willing to take rock-bottom prices to free up space in barns and pastures, and cut their losses.
Kelly Witte knew something was up on Monday when she got word that Cargill wouldn’t be able to take the 100-plus head of cattle that were scheduled to be trucked from her and her husband’s Dodge County feedlot to the Schuyler beef plant this week.
She and husband Don typically send their cattle to the Cargill plant or to Greater Omaha Packing, whoever’s offering the best price. Now, with the Schuyler plant offline, the Wittes had to arrange for truckers to haul those cattle to a Cargill plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado, instead.
“In the end, we’ll probably get the same amount or close to the same amount we’d get the other way,” she said. “In that instance, I think they’re trying to be fair to the producers. Everyone’s just trying to do the best they can right now.”
A friend in Columbus has been trying to sell hogs on Facebook for $100 apiece.
“He’s trying to do everything he can not to euthanize them,” Witte said.
She and her husband called a smaller meat locker in West Point to see if they could get some cattle butchered for their own personal consumption. It sells meat directly to a few customers, too.
The earliest appointment available? February 2021.
Tyson’s Dakota City plant, which was initially scheduled to close just for a long weekend and reopen Tuesday, will remain idle for the time being, officials said Tuesday.
“The health and safety of our team members is our top priority, and we take this responsibility extremely seriously,” spokeswoman Liz Croston wrote in an email.
“We continue to work through processing the large amount of testing data for our 4,300 team members, and therefore have decided to temporarily delay the reopening of our Dakota City facility.”
Coronavirus outbreaks in Nebraska have also been reported at the Smithfield pork plant in Crete, the Tyson plant in Lexington, the JBS USA beef plant in Grand Island and several meat and food processing plants in the Omaha area.
Even as plants deal with workers becoming infected with COVID-19 or slowed-down production due to workers calling in sick en masse, the meat supply in the United States would be in trouble only if nearly every plant shut down at the same time, Dennis said.
He doesn’t expect plants to close for long but to take time to sanitize, erect more dividers on production lines to separate workers and get more workers tested.
Cargill aims to reopen its Schuyler plant by May 18.
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