Pork chops and hamburgers may be joining toilet paper, sour-dough starter and a professional haircut as one of those commodities consumers didn’t realize they so desperately needed until they became so difficult to obtain.
For weeks, as a “protein facility” here and a meat factory there shut down due to COVID-19 concerns, headlines have been warning that the meat supply chain was being disrupted. It apparently has reached a critical juncture.
“Grocery executives at retailers including Walmart and Costco Wholesale worry supplies of some products could run short just as demand is surging,” write Jacob Bunge, Sarah Nassauer and Jaewon Kang for The Wall Street Journal.
“Last week U.S. beef production fell 24% compared with a month earlier, with pork off 20% and poultry down 10%, according to estimates from CoBank, an agricultural lender,” they report.
“‘I have not seen beef sales and all protein behave this way since the Atkins Diet days,’ when shoppers bought up meat as part of the low-carb diet, said Jeff Lyons, senior vice president of fresh food for Costco. The warehouse chain is considering new suppliers to shore up its meat supplies, he said,” Bunge, Nassauer and Kang continue.
“A rash of coronavirus outbreaks at dozens of meatpacking plants across the nation is far more extensive than previously thought, according to an exclusive review of cases by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting,” write Kyle Bagenstose, Sky Chadde and Matt Wynn.
“And it could get worse. More than 150 of America’s largest meat processing plants operate in counties where the rate of coronavirus infection is already among the nation’s highest, based on the media outlets’ analysis of slaughterhouse locations and county-level COVID-19 infection rates.
“These facilities represent more than 1 in 3 of the nation’s biggest beef, pork and poultry processing plants. Rates of infection around these plants are higher than those of 75% of other U.S. counties, the analysis found,” they add.
“On Thursday, Tyson Foods said it was shutting its beef facility in Pasco, Washington, fresh on the heels of the company idling two key pork plants. Case counts are continuing to mount, including in Canada, where industry groups are saying they’ll probably hold back some supplies usually exported to the U.S. And the head of JBS SA, the world’s top meat producer, is warning of shortfalls,” write Bloomberg’s Deena Shanker, Michael Hirtzer, Jen Skerritt and Lydia Mulvany.
“Meanwhile, 100 U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors have tested positive for the coronavirus. The workers, part of the Food Safety and Inspection Service that employs about 6,500 inspectors, have been traveling between plants with known infections to other facilities. And at least one inspector has died after apparently contracting Covid-19,” they add.
Meanwhile, “shutdowns for slaughtering plants are cascading through meat supply chains and causing weird dislocations for prices -- finished products are surging, while farmers are getting paid much less for animals,” according to a Bloomberg story published by the Los Angeles Times.
“Prices for pork bellies, the cut that’s turned into bacon, have more than doubled in just the four days through Tuesday on supply concerns. With so many fewer hogs moving through slaughter, Smithfield Foods had to shutter facilities in Wisconsin and Missouri that turn pork into finished products like bacon and sausage,” it continues.
“Any empty shelves to date have been the result of bumps in the supply chain, with stores being unable to restock as quickly as customers are buying. But bacon, pork chops and ham could be the first to face actual shortages: The amount of frozen pork in storage nationwide -- more than 621 million pounds -- dropped 4% from March to April, the USDA reported this week. Slaughter rates are down 25%, and 400,000 animals are backed up in slaughterhouses. And with meat plants of all kinds operating at 60% of capacity, shortages loom for beef and poultry as well,” Liz Crampton reports for Politico.
“If we start to see more closures and these facilities remain offline for a prolonged period of time, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which consumers don’t see changes at the supermarket,” David Ortega, an agricultural economist at Michigan State University, tells Crampton.
The changes they see will be fundamental, even as demand remains the same, Ian Bogost argues in a piece in The Atlantic. The grocery “industry will be even more colossal. Its small shops and workers may suffer. Its big companies may triumph. And Americans will keep shopping, as they always have,” he concludes.