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Is there still a meat shortage? The current situation with chicken, beef, pork prices and supply – CNET

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Big slabs of meat may be harder to find in the coming weeks, depending on where you live.

James Martin/CNET

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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.

We’ll talk about the current situation as we know it, the adaptations inside packing facilities that could change certain things about meat supply, and how an anticipated second wave of coronavirus — over 20 states are now seeing spikes in new cases — could continue to affect the US meat supply.

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. 

For its part, the Wendy’s fast-food chain indicated that its meat supply is nearly returned to precoronavirus levels, CNN reported. 

Plants are reopening, but there are still issues

Many plants have begun reopening with new protocols in place, like glass dividers between workers, required face mask use and an enforced six-foot distance at indoor work stations, according to guidance from the Centers for Disease and Prevention Center. However, workers are still concerned about the risk of contracting the coronavirus, Politico reported.

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.”

Meatpacking employees aren’t the only ones at high risk for infection. The coronavirus is also spreading among people who pack fruit and vegetables, Reuters reported.

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.

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

President Trump signed an executive order in April for plants to reopen, but not all complied, amid the fear of the virus’ spread. For example, workers in Utah started protesting against a meatpacking plant in June over safety concerns. 

Other animal processing facilities have shut their doors as needed, like Bristol Seafood’s Portland Fish Pier plant that closed for two days in May after some employees tested positive for the coronavirus. Continued outbreaks, or even a second wave of coronavirus, could cause future closures.

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Meat prices are on the rise.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

How are meat costs affected?

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. 

At the height of the meat processing closures, stores began raising the prices of meat and other grocery items, too, as a result of the forces of supply and demand. For example, eggs, milk and other dairy products became more expensive. 

Did coronavirus cause a meat shortage?

The answer is yes and no. At the beginning of the outbreak, farmers still had hogs, cattle and chickens, but the coronavirus disrupted the usual supply chain to make the meat less readily available. 

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. 

Farmers in North Carolina also euthanized 1.5 million chickens. The US Cattlemen’s Association noted in a letter to congressional agriculture leaders that the cattle industry had shown $14.6 billion in losses.

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.

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The shelves at your store may be empty.

James Martin/CNET

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.

Big meat processing plants, like Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, JBS and Perdue Farms have been affected due to plant closings, with plants reopening. Experts told Market Insider that the US doesn’t face a meat shortage, but rather a labor shortage, referring to the ability of healthy workers to safely do their jobs.

For example, Tyson Foods produces approximately 20% of the beef, pork and chicken in the US. The Tyson plant in Indiana had nearly 900 coronavirus cases at the beginning of May, making up 40% of the workforce at that location. That location produces 19% of the pork in the US. Another Tyson plant in Iowa had more than half of the workers test positive for the coronavirus. That plant alone processes around 19,500 hogs per day, which amounts to 5% of the total production in the US.

JBS, which processes 23% of the cattle in the US, says it will be affected for months due to the coronavirus, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.

How are grocery stores handling the situation?

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.

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Many farmers are having to cull their livestock since they have nowhere to send them.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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.

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You can still get meat delivered from a service like Crowd Cow.

Crowd Cow

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. 

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You can still order plant-based meat.

Impossible Foods

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.

The amount of protein required for each person varies depending on how much they weigh and the amount of exercise they get each day. USDA says the recommended dietary allowance for one day is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (or about 3.6 grams per 10 pounds). You can calculate your recommended protein intake here.

What can I eat for protein instead of meat?

If you find that meat is hard to come by in your area, here are several sources of protein you can turn to instead:

If you can’t find meat in your local store, you can still order it online. Here are some of the best meat delivery services, as well as how to get alcohol, wine and beer delivered to your door and the best meal kit delivery services.

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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.

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