Grilling season is nearly upon us, but some meat lovers are girding up their loins for a possible protein shortage.
The COVID-19 outbreak has slowed production at U.S. meatpacking plants, leading to disruptions in the supply chain, and that may mean fewer selections in grocery store meat cases and higher prices on best-selling cuts, at least for a while.
Many grocery stores imposed limits on meat purchases per shopper weeks ago to ensure availability to more customers. Demand rose more than 40 percent in April, according to The Nielsen Company, as consumers began cooking more at home during outbreak-related shutdowns – a trend that also has resulted in a temporary flour shortage.
But just as with the flour shortage, the issue lies not with a lack of supply but with putting the product into the hands of customers.
“It’s important to note that there is not a shortage of cattle supply. It’s just a reduction in the amount of throughput that each of the plants are being able to put out right now,” said Dale Sandlin, the executive vice president of the Georgia Cattlemen’s Association.
Nationwide, that issue was partly addressed when President Donald Trump issued an executive order April 28 allowing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to protect local meatpacking plants from state and local pressure to shut down because of COVID-19 outbreaks among workers. Fourteen U.S. beef and pork processing facilities are expected to resume operations this week as a result of the order.
“President Trump took decisive action to ensure America’s meatpacking facilities reopen in a safe way to ensure America’s producers and ranchers will be able to bring their product to market,” said Sonny Perdue, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
Union representatives say that ensuring worker safety should be the nation’s chief concern, as the industry has recorded more than 10,000 workers sickened by COVID-19 and 30 virus-related deaths.
“We are calling on the White House to end the delays and immediately mandate that all meatpacking companies provide the highest level of protective equipment, ensure daily testing is available for all meatpacking workers, enforce physical distancing at all plants, provide full paid sick leave for any workers who are infected, and establish constant monitoring by federal inspectors to ensure these safety standards are enforced,” said Anthony M. Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, in an interview with Meat + Poultry Magazine.
Many of those protective protocols already are in place at meatpacking facilities such as Cargill Meat Solutions in Newnan, a beef production plant. The company has implemented several safety regulations and granted all employees two weeks of paid sick leave, according to Daniel Sullivan, media relations director.
“We need to keep our workers safe so we can continue to provide food for the entire country and the entire world,” Sullivan said.
Around Coweta, grocery stores appear to be fairly well stocked, and most continue to implement limits on meat purchases. And Jason Kanner of Cow Eata Meat Co. in downtown Newnan said his supply remains steady.
“The only thing we’ve seen is an increase in prices – not a lack of,” Kanner said.