As more cases of COVID-19 continue to surface in meat-processing plants around the nation, some of the largest industry players have been forced to pause production, putting a kink in supply chains and raising shortage concerns.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union issued a statement last week noting that 22 meatpacking plants have closed at some point in the past two months as the coronavirus swept through workers' ranks. The illness has been blamed for 20 confirmed deaths in meatpacking facilities, and it has sickened more than 5,000 others, by the union's count.
The UFCW estimates that plant closures have reduced the nation's pork slaughter capacity by 25% and its beef slaughter capacity by 10%.
Faced with diminished supplies and to discourage binge buying, large warehouse stores, such as Sam's Club and Costco, recently have placed limits on how much meat customers can purchase. Costco currently allows individual customers to select no more than three packages of meat per visit, and Amy Wyatt-Moore, senior manager of corporate communications for Sam's Club, said her chain's stores have instituted their own policy.
"To ensure access to desired products to as many members as possible, we are limiting the purchase of all poultry, beef, lamb and pork items to one of each item. This limit is in effect at all Sam's Club locations," she explained in an email Tuesday afternoon.
Other grocers, including Aldi, have said they reserve the right to impose limits as needed on a store-by-store basis. In a Q-and-A explainer, the company said: "It is not Aldi policy to limit purchases to one per customer, but in the event of unexpectedly high demands, each store does reserve the right to limit quantities."
Smaller independent vendors, such as Superior Meats, have had to deal with the reduced supply of certain products as well.
"We've certainly been feeling the effects of it," said Benjamin Buchanan, meat manager for the Superior shop. "We are having some issues getting supplies in."
"One week we'll be able to get abundance of a certain product, and the next week we won't. But we'll be able to get something we weren't able to get the previous week. And prices have gone up quite a bit over the last several weeks," Buchanan said.
Restaurants, too, are dealing with diminished supplies of meat. Citing analysis by Stephens, a financial firm, CNN reported Tuesday that 18% of Wendy's restaurants across the nation — or nearly one in five — had to temporarily remove hamburgers from their menus.
Concerns of market manipulation also have been raised, with Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison recently joining officials from 10 other states to ask the Department of Justice to look into high beef prices that don't seem to jibe with the falling prices cattle producers are being paid for their animals.
“Minnesotans just want to be able to afford their lives — now more than ever, during the COVID-19 pandemic. For Minnesota’s small- and mid-size cattle producers, this looks like being able to trust that they can get fair-market value for their beef cattle. For Minnesota consumers, this looks like having confidence that they’re paying a fair price for the beef products they buy. But the beef market isn’t working for producers or consumers right now — instead of a fair, competitive market, it has the hallmarks of a manipulated, anti-competitive market,” said Ellison in a press statement. “I joined this bipartisan coalition to ask the DOJ to ask to investigate and put an end to unfair business practices because making sure that the market is fair for both farmers and producers in Minnesota is just common sense.”
But Buchanan suggested consumers bear at least partial responsibility for the current tight supplies of meat that have driven pricing higher.
"The limited supply is in part due to some of the plant closures. But a lot of it is a result of greater demand, because of people thinking that there is a shortage," he said.
Buchanan said he's had some customers purchase large quantities of meat but has not turned any business away.
"I think if people weren't trying to stockpile so much, there wouldn't be as much increased demand, and you wouldn't see this kind of limited supply and the higher prices. But when you've got people all across the country trying to do the same thing at once, it does put a strain on the supply," he said.
In the past month, Buchanan said he has seen the cost of meat that goes into his ground beef more than double in price. While Superior Meats has passed some of those costs along to its customers, he said: "We've definitely eaten some of that. We're trying to keep our prices as low as we can, and our profit margins are a great deal less than they were before, because we know people can only afford so much."