Is there still a meat shortage? The current situation with chicken, beef, pork prices and supply
Complications accelerated by the coronavirus could continue to change the stock of meat in stores.
Katie TeagueWriter II
Katie is a writer covering all things how-to at CNET, with a focus on Social Security and notable events. When she's not writing, she enjoys playing in golf scrambles, practicing yoga and spending time on the lake.
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When the coronavirus pandemic began shutting down meat processing plants across the US and Canada, concerns over a meat shortage surged. Would shelves empty and prices skyrocket for months to come? Now, as facilities begin to reopen, we have a few more answers, and many more questions.
This story is intended to provide an overview of the situation and updates frequently.
Is the meat shortage over?
The answer to this questions is a bit complex, so we'll break it down below -- what is a meat shortage mean, how did the meat supply become affected and could it return.
For now, signs indicate that meat production is back in motion and that supplies may be easier to find. However, pricing may still be affected (more below) and there are indicators that the supply could be interrupted again.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention details guidance on how processing plants can promote worker safety, noting that "meat and poultry processing workers often have prolonged closeness to coworkers (e.g., for 10-12 hours per shift). Continued contact with potentially infectious individuals increases the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission."
Some meatpacking facilities may experience less efficiency and production with the new safety measures in place, which could still have an impact on the total amount of meat being processed and delivered to restaurants and grocery stores.
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How have meatpacking facilities been affected by the coronavirus?
Nearly 5,000 coronavirus cases and 20 deaths throughout 115 meat and poultry processing plants were reported in April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, adding that the typical close working conditions in these types of facilities pose a significant risk for transmitting COVID-19. Since April, no new numbers have been reported to the CDC, the New York Times reported, so it's unclear how many cases there are to date. The virus is spread through coughs, sneezes, saliva and even vaporized breath.
Many processing facilities have reopened and are working close to normal, according to Beef Central. However, workers are concerned about their safety. For example, a JBS plant in Utah is remaining open after nearly 300 workers were found to have the virus.
The cost of meat products like chicken, beef and pork, have been on the rise. Staples like ground beef are still seeing higher prices, the Wall Street Journal reported. Business Insider reports that beef prices were 15.6% higher in the last week of May than they were the previous year.
Jim Monroe, the Assistant VP of Communications for the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) organization told CNET that there's not a pork shortage, and "the issue is on the farms where hogs are backed up due to COVID-related meatpacking plant disruptions." He said "since the Defense Production Act was implemented, which prioritized the continuity of packing plant operations, the situation has improved."
The issue was, and continues to be, that facilities can't process meat at the same rate when factories are closed or accommodate fewer employees in line with safety guidance. As a result, farmers with large pork operations, for example, had to cull their hogs, causing food waste.
Another issue is the restriction on smaller meat processing plants that aren't allowed to supply grocery stores, restaurants, schools and hotels, according to the Foundation for Economic Education organization. The organization says that the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act (PRIME Act) could help lift these restrictions, as well as the dependency on big meat processing plants, like Tyson.
Is it safe to eat meat from plants that have reported employees with COVID-19?
The CDC says that there's currently no evidence to suggest that coronavirus can be transmitted from food to a person. If you're still concerned, follow the Food and Drug Administration's guidelines (PDF) for cooking beef and pork and beef steaks to 145 degrees Fahrenheit and chicken to 165 degrees Fahrenheit -- both with resting time -- temperatures known to kill bacteria and other pathogens.
How much has the meatpacking industry been affected?
NPPC told us that 40% of pork packing plant capacity was idled at one point, but this number is currently down to 12%. The organization said the situation has improved, but there's still a backup of hogs -- between 2.5 to three million -- on farms.
Stores may be affected differently across the US. Many are starting to ease their limits on how much you can buy of a certain product, for example two or three packages of each type of meat. That could potentially change in response to a second wave of the virus.
How are farmers who send their livestock to these meat plants affected?
In the precoronavirus world, large farming operations would pack up their cattle and take them to the meatpacking plants, then off to the butcher. However, with the plants slowing down, animal processing is still reportedly backlogged as of the end of May. With some major meatpacking plants closed down, like Tyson, large farming operations across the country are reportedly walking an economic tightrope. Feeding livestock is costly, and with nowhere to send their animals, some had turned to culling their herd.
NPPC, the pork association, told CNET when the hogs get too large, worker safety issues arise and the processing plants can't accommodate oversized hogs.
Are my independent local farmers affected?
In some areas, more people have shifted to buying meat from independent local farmers. But those farmers can only produce so much livestock, and small, local butchers can handle only so many animals at a time. At the same time, small farms also sell their animals to large slaughterhouses, leaving them with nowhere to process their livestock when all butchers are full.
Even if more people than usual are requesting to buy meat directly from farmers, there's still a likelihood for delay if the smaller butchers with a limited capacity for processing meat are overwhelmed by the increased demand.
According to a family member from one ranch that CNET spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous, appointments with smaller and more boutique butchers typically are booked well in advance.
Can I still get meat from a meat delivery service and from restaurants?
Yes. Most meat delivery services work with independent suppliers to fulfill orders, however, they, too, might experience a delay. If you're signing up for a meat delivery box for the first time, we recommend you call to ask how they're impacted.
Note that many of these services are more expensive than grocery stores, often as a result of selling grass-fed, organic, heirloom or aged meat. For example, a box of steaks at around 76 ounces (or 4.75 pounds) from Crowd Cow will cost you $159. Similar steaks at the grocery store could cost you around $100 or less for the same weight.
Restaurants operate on a different supply chain than grocery stores, so it's likely that open restaurants in your area will have meat. Some may limit their dishes as a response, or introduce new menu items that reduce the amount of animal protein in a given dish. For example, instead of a whole chicken breast with potatoes, a restaurant could potentially offer a pasta-with-chicken dish.
How long could a meat shortage last?
It's unclear when factories, restaurants and supplies will return to precoronavirus levels. Some experts suggest it could last the duration of the pandemic. Washington Post reports that meat shortages could get worse if the workers continue to get sick.
It's possible that a second wave of coronavirus cases could cause plants to shut down again if enough workers get sick, or if the risk to healthy people in the facilities is determined to grow too high.
Are Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat affected?
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are companies that make plant-based foods as an alternative to meat from animals. Their goal is to make a product that tastes and behaves like ground beef and pork when cooked.
An Impossible Foods representative said that so far, its facilities haven't been affected by the coronavirus, so its products are still available for purchase. The representative noted the top ingredient is soy, and therefore the company relies on heavy machinery run by a few essential employees while maintaining enforced social distancing.
The companies have actually seen an increase in sales due to the limited supply of meat, according to Vox. The Impossible Foods representative said the company started the year out in 150 grocery stores, and now it's in about 3,000 stores today.
Impossible Foods is now available for home delivery and you can place your order on buy.impossiblefoods.com. Beyond Meat's website can help consumers find nearby grocery stores that sell their products, but the plant-based beef and pork aren't available for mail order at this time.
How much protein is recommended per person per day?
A USDA study from 2018 indicated that Americans consume 10 ounces of meat per day, which is around 22% higher than the recommended amount, depending on how much you weigh and how active you are.
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.