John Tyson, Chairman of Tyson Foods, put it simply—the food supply chain is breaking.
As processing plants close across the nation because of health and safety concerns, suppliers are expecting meat shortages. Farmers will likely dispose of millions of animals.
“Millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain,” Tyson said in a blog post. “As a result, there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed.”
“ … Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation,” he added. Millions of animals—chickens, pigs and cattle—will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities.”
According to the United Food and Commercial Workers, 20 meatpacking and food processing workers died by the end of April and at least 5,000 meatpacking and 1,500 food processing employees have been directly impacted by COVID-19. The group also said that more than 20 plants have closed in the past two months, which has impacted more than 35,000 workers and reduced pork slaughter capacity by 25 percent and beef slaughter capacity by 10 percent.
As to how this will affect the restaurant industry, Wendy’s is the most recognizable example thus far. CNN Business reported that 1,000, or 18 percent, of Wendy’s 5,500 domestic restaurants were not serving any hamburgers or other meat-based items.
Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor acknowledged that some items may be in short supply and that there’s “probably a couple of weeks” of tightness ahead.
“We do believe it is temporary,” Penegor said. “And we’re close with our big supply partners and we have several of them on the fresh-beef front. We do believe we’ll work through this in short order, but we will make sure that in the short-term we’re delighting every customer with what we have.”
The shortage has led to an increase in prices, as well. A U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesperson told Newsweek that consumer prices for pork could increase as much as 3 percent. For chicken, it’s expected to be between 0.5 percent and 1.5 percent and beef it could be between 1 percent and 2 percent.
Kroger and Costco are among several grocery chains that are temporarily limiting the amount of meat a consumer can purchase.
Steve Groff, a lifelong farmer and author of the upcoming book, “The Future-Proof Farm,” describes the meat shortage as a “strong or major inconvenience.”
“The thing of it is, it’s about the supply chain,” Groff says. “We have plenty of meat. But these processing factories have been either shut down or greatly slowed down because it takes human labor. … Because it’s such a human labor type of process, if you have 20 percent of the employees gone, it’s just hard to run the thing.”
He adds that inventory won’t do much to hold off any shortage.
“You don’t like to keep meat very long,” Groff says. “It does have a shelf life so to speak, or freezer life. But our system has been pretty much built on just-in-time. Now that doesn’t mean there isn’t a reserve or buffer there, but we’re six weeks into this now and that inventory is being used up. We’re going through that phase right now. I don’t expect things to get significantly worse as they are today.”
From what he’s been told, Groff says the U.S. has bottomed out as far as plant closures. To Groff’s point, the Department of Agriculture announced May 8 that around a dozen meat processing facilities will reopen this week. This comes after President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order to keep meat and poultry processing facilities open. As part of the order, the CDC, OSHA, and Department of Health and Human Services put out guidance for plants to use to ensure safety and continue operations.
Groff emphasizes that the issue is with the supply chain, not the supply. He notes that some have gotten the impression that farmers are trying to hold back their supply in order to get higher prices.
“That’s just totally wrong. It’s the supply chain,” Groff says. “Believe me, the farmers are devastated. They’re not manipulating anything. Nobody is. You really can’t point fingers to anybody here.”
Groff says the shortages bring up a matter that needs to be discussed on a national basis—rethinking the scale in which meat is processed.
The author says the large, regionalized corporate model has created affordable meat, but the industry has run into a chink in the armor.
“The little countryside butcher is pretty much obsolete nowadays,” Groff says. “Food safety and a lot of those things made it difficult for them to compete with the large-scale mass production. We need to rethink our food system a little bit and this goes into vegetables, as well. This whole thing of an industry corporate model, we like it. We like the cheapness and affordability and everything, but maybe we need a little bit more of the smaller operations to be incentivized to get back in the business. … The closer you can get to the producer or the farmer, the better.”
The Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service established a National Incident Coordination Center to “provide direct support to producers whose animals cannot move to market as a result of processing plant closures due to COVID-19.” The center, in conjunction with state veterinarians and other officials, will help producers find alternative markets and if necessary, advise on depopulation and disposal methods.
Groff says consumers should be patient and not overreact to the shortages, which he expects to be short-term.
“We don’t need to do the toilet paper thing again,” Groff says. “That debacle probably is at least going to soften some of this. I think people learned their lesson on that. There’s going to be plenty of food. There’s enough food. We may not be able to get the prime rib that we wanted to have Friday evening for dinner. Maybe you’ll just have to get another meat or another cut for dinner or something else. You’re just going to work around. It’s an inconvenience.”