Amid Meat Supply Disruptions, Consumers Have Options
As meatpacking workers develop COVID-19 and the government pushes plants to stay open, small farmers rise to meet demand
Coronavirus outbreaks among workers at meatpacking facilities have led to the closure of at least 22 beef, pork, and poultry processing plants across the country, at least 5,000 sick workers, and as many as 20 deaths. Several of the shuttered facilities are owned by major meat producers, including JBS, Smithfield, and Tyson, causing the heads of those companies and others to warn that Americans may soon face a meat shortage.
In response to those concerns, President Donald Trump on Tuesday said he would use the Defense Production Act to try to keep meat processing plants open.
Many Americans report that they are indeed finding a reduced selection of meat at the grocery store, according to a new nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 2,164 Americans: Almost half of respondents said that since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, they weren’t always able to find the beef, pork, or poultry they wanted while shopping.
But experts say that this is primarily due to a disruption of the supply chain, not a widespread shortage of meat itself.
Sarah Little, vice president of communications for the North American Meat Institute, a trade group, says that while beef and pork production is down by about 29 percent, “there are still meat products in cold storage and we still export products.”
Why There's a Meat Supply Problem
Most of the meat Americans consume gets processed through a handful of major meatpacking companies and distributors, a system that has led to a plentiful supply of inexpensive meat for most Americans, says Julie Niederhoff, Ph.D., associate professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University.
“While there is a cost benefit to this system, there is also a risk, which we are seeing now,” she says, adding that closing just a few of those large plants can have a big impact on our food supply.
With plants closed or functioning at reduced capacity, farmers have had limited places to process their animals, and some have had to sell their product at a substantial loss, Little says. Some have even had to kill thousands of animals and not sell them at all, she says, “because there is nowhere to send them to be harvested and put into the food supply.”
Exacerbating the problem for consumers is that with many restaurants now closed, people are buying more meat at grocery stores, further depleting those supplies. And meat producers that had previously supplied restaurants can’t easily redirect their products to grocery stores, says Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports and former deputy undersecretary of food safety at the Department of Agriculture, where he oversaw the Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Meat bound for large food vendors is typically sold in large cuts, and the buyer needs the space to freeze it and the ability to butcher it. “The way the supply chain is set up now, it’s really difficult for a supplier to downshift quickly from supplying large clients like restaurants or food service clients to the consumer retail level,” Ronholm says.
Pushing Meatpacking Plants to Stay Open Could Make Things Worse
Encouraging meatpacking facilities to remain open even when there is a risk of the coronavirus is dangerous and potentially counterproductive, says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports.
He explains that the coronavirus was able to spread quickly at meatpacking plants—killing both industry employees and government food inspectors—in large part because plants have extremely tight quarters. “It’s hard to practice social distancing while parting out a carcass on the line where workers stand elbow to elbow,” Rogers says.
Anthony Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents meatpacking employees, has said that many of the big plants did not institute adequate safety measures early on and workers felt they were forced to choose between risking their lives and losing their jobs.
At least one meat processing worker, at a Smithfield plant in Missouri, has sued over the conditions, alleging that the company did not allow social distancing, neglected to provide personal protective equipment, and penalized workers for taking sick leave when they had symptoms of COVID-19.
Food safety advocates, including CR and the Consumer Federation of America, have called for stronger protections for meat processing workers and USDA inspectors, who are seeing the same shortages of personal protective equipment as frontline workers in healthcare.
Yet Trump’s recent executive order does not require additional testing of workers for the virus or mandate that companies comply with the safety guidelines recommended by the CDC and OSHA. If employees go back to work without adequate protections in place, this could lead to even more COVID-19 outbreaks and additional holdups in the meat supply chain, Ronholm says.
Keeping companies operational during an outbreak could not only harm workers and inspectors but also compromise the safety of the meat, Rogers says. While the coronavirus itself is not transmitted through food, if workers and food safety inspectors fall ill and are unable to fill shifts or perform their jobs effectively, that could increase the risk of foodborne illnesses, such as those caused by salmonella or E. coli.
Investing in ways to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the plants, on the other hand, would protect both worker health and the food supply, says Thomas Gremillion, director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America. But the Trump administration’s executive order does not spell out a plan to ensure that the necessary resources are provided to workers and inspectors at the plants, he says.
“If you want to maintain the stability of the food supply, you need to act more deliberately by providing personal protective equipment to employees, offering paid sick leave, and allowing them to space out, and slow down production,” Gremillion says. But he worries that the executive order might undermine those recommendations by giving “large meatpackers legal cover against aggrieved workers’ claims.”
And it might prompt some plants to open before they are fully ready. For example, a JBS plant in Greeley, Colo., which closed April 14, 2020, because of a COVID-19 outbreak that has led to at least 245 confirmed cases and six deaths, has already reopened. A JBS statement explained that the plant has instituted new safety protocols, such as free on-site testing for symptomatic employees, more personal protective equipment, enhanced social distancing protocols, additional sanitizing stations, and additional physical barriers on production lines. But many workers reportedly continue to fear for their safety.
A USDA spokesperson said that the agency is directing companies to adhere to guidance from the CDC and OSHA, and is working to ensure that “meat and poultry processors are able to continue to operate uninterrupted to the maximum extent possible.”
Advocacy groups are urging the USDA to work more closely with the food industry to redirect available meat (both in cold storage and on farms) and other surplus food to the places that need it, including food banks and nutrition assistance programs, says CR’s Ronholm.
Until those systems are in place, here are some tips on what you can do if you are having a hard time getting the meat you want.
Be flexible. Niederhoff, at Syracuse University, says that while selection at the grocery store might not be as varied as before—for example, you might not be able to find a particular cut of beef or your usual brand of chicken—you’ll probably still find some meat.
And Little, at the North American Meat Institute, says meat supplies in grocery stores could stabilize as meatpacking plants that typically source restaurants are starting to shift their production to service the needs of consumers purchasing in supermarkets.
Look for restaurants or mail-order businesses selling meat. Some restaurants across the country have begun selling groceries, including meat, directly to consumers since they were forced to close their doors to diners. For instance, Georgia Jones, a Houston steakhouse, is selling a variety of cuts for consumers to pick up and cook at home. Local butchers are also servicing their communities. Mazzella’s of Mountainside Gourmet Market in New Jersey, which has an in-store butcher, is offering both meat and groceries via curbside pickup or delivery.
You could also look into companies that specialize in mail-order meat and poultry, including White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga., and Stemple Creek Ranch in Northern California, which have reported spikes in sales in the past several weeks. These services, which tend to focus on organically raised meat and poultry, tend to cost significantly more than what you pay in a grocery store. (Read more about places other than grocery stores to get your food.)
Connect with local farms. Many local farmers and smaller processing plants that used to work with restaurants are redirecting their supply directly to consumers and are seeing a huge increase in demand, says Kelly Nuckolls, a policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an advocacy group focused on the sustainability of food systems. “This shift speaks to how much more nimble small operations can be compared to some of the larger corporations,” she says.
Charlotte Vallaeys, a CR senior policy analyst with expertise in sustainable agriculture and nutrition, says that it’s not surprising that local farmers are able to meet some of the demand. “What this pandemic has shown us is that we need a robust local and regional food system that connects farmers with consumers because it is able to be more resilient in times of crisis,” she says.
Michael Parkot, owner of Always Something Farm, in Genesee County, N.Y., has gotten creative with his business model during the pandemic. With restaurants shut down, he decided to create a pop-up shop at his farm and invited other local farms to participate. “We were able to provide people with access to a variety of hyperlocal, ethically raised foods, and every vendor there sold out,” Parkot says. “We controlled the number of cars on the property, offered contactless purchasing and payments, and set up sanitation stations.”
Parkot is planning more pop-up events, and is hoping people continue to come back even after the coronavirus crisis passes. “We are trying to foster as many relationships with people as we can so they are willing to invest in their local farmers,” Parkot says.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has put together a tool to help consumers connect with local farmers who are selling online, at farmers’ markets, or via pickup at the farm. “It includes all types of local food products in every state that you can purchase safely, with social distancing best practices,” Nuckolls says.
Niederhoff, at Syracuse University, says another potential benefit of buying directly from farmers is it could ease pressure on supplies in the grocery store. “If it’s within your budget and storage capacity in your home,” she says, “buying local will take that purchasing consumption off the grocery, which leaves that meat for people who do need to buy food on a week-to-week basis for financial and storage reasons.”
Consider nonmeat sources of protein. A lot of Americans consume more meat than is best for their health, Vallaeys says, so this could be a chance to seek out other sources of protein, such as beans, nuts, dairy, tofu, and fish. Research shows that substituting some plant proteins for meat can improve heart health and reduce overall risk of dying early. “Diets that are low in meat and focus instead on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and a variety of protein sources are consistently tied to better health,” Vallaeys says.
While the most nutritious plant-based proteins are unprocessed foods such as beans and nuts, you could look for healthy veggie burgers, particularly those that are ranked high in CR’s ratings for taste and nutrition.
Consumers seem to be fueling up on plant-based meats now, according to the Good Food Institute, a trade group for plant-based alternatives to animal products. The organization reported that U.S. sales of plant-based meat substitutes jumped 200 percent in the week ending April 18, 2020, compared with the same period last year, and surged by 265 percent over an eight-week period, per the consumer data group Nielsen.
“Retailers have been requesting expedited deliveries from us to refill shelves across the country,” says a spokesperson for Beyond Meat, which produces items such as plant-based burgers, sausages, and meatballs.
Similarly, “demand for Impossible Burger at grocery stores hit a new record in March as regions and states imposed shelter-in-place orders, and April will easily eclipse the previous record,” says a spokesperson for the company.
Whether you choose to reduce your intake of meat, try more vegetarian options, or seek out local poultry, pork, and beef, rest assured that “we’re not going to suddenly have no food in the grocery store,” Niederhoff says. “It’s about figuring out how to get [meat] from point A to point B in a way that is financially and legally responsible,” she says, and doesn’t compromise the safety of workers or our food supply.