When Melissa Hamel is making meals, she’s cutting back on the meat and bulking up on the veggies.
Hamel, who lives in Arkansas with her partner and daughter, said she’s had troubles finding boneless chicken breast at her local Walmart or nearby grocery store.
When she does find chicken, she’s paying more to get it. “Meat’s kinda expensive anyway, but it’s gone up quite a bit,” she said, estimating the cost has gone up an extra $3 for a pack of chicken breasts.
Hamel’s story could play out in many parts of the U.S., as the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc on the economy, hitting plants responsible for feeding Americans’ hunger for meat, and leaving many carnivores either struggling to find their favorite cut or shelling out more to get it.
“Are we going to have less meat for the American public? That’s probably going to happen this year,” said Len Steiner, an analyst at Steiner Consulting Group.
Concerns about a potential meat shortage bubbled in recent weeks following comments from Tyson Foods chairman John Tyson warning of a “vulnerable” supply chain caused by meat processing plants shutting down due to coronavirus outbreaks.
“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,” he wrote in a blog post.
Citing the Defense Production Act, President Donald Trump ordered meat and poultry plants to remain open during the pandemic to keep the supply chain intact.
“What the plant closures create is somewhat of an hourglass effect with plenty of supply in the bottom part and plenty of demand in the top part with the reduced processing capacity creating a bottleneck,” said Olga Isengildina-Massa, Associate Professor at the Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics for Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Could meat hoarding start?
Experts believe meat won’t likely follow the path of toilet paper, with totally empty shelves and consumers clamoring to find it. Shoppers might find local shortages instead.
“There are places where you will go right now and not be able to find meat,” said Steve Meyer, an economist with Kerns and Associates. “I don’t think that that is going to be everywhere all the time. A lot of this depends on which supplier the particular grocery store normally uses.”
Another challenge with hoarding meat compared to toilet paper: Where do you store it all?
“People’s ability to hoard is more limited with meat because it has to be refrigerated,” said Joshua Specht, a visiting professor with Notre Dame University’s History Department, and author of the book “Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America.”
Top grocers are assuring customers they will find plenty of meat available to purchase. In a statement obtained by USA TODAY, grocery giant Kroger said it has instituted purchase limits on ground beef and fresh pork.
“We feel good about our ability to maintain a broad assortment of meat and seafood for our customers because we purchase protein from a diverse network of suppliers,” said Kroger in a statement. “There is plenty of protein in the supply chain; however, some processors are experiencing challenges.”
Wegmans, a Rochester, New York-based supermarket chain, says they don’t expect to see a shortage of meat at stores, setting limits on family packs of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and 80% Ground Beef. “Although we may not have every product cut or variety available for the next few weeks, we are working hard to source all the product we can to ensure our customers have plenty of options in our meat department,” said Wegmans in an email. “We are confident supply will stabilize as time goes on.”
Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, said in a statement that meat remains in high demand. “As we would normally do during periods of high demand, we are working through our supply chain to continually replenish items as quickly as possible to help us meet the needs of our customers,” said the retailer.
What customers are likely seeing, and will continue to see, is the price of meat going up.
“What you’ll do is you’ll run the price up until it rations out,” said Steiner. “At a dollar and a half a pound, I’ll take a half-pound burger. At $4 a pound, a quarter-pound burger is OK.”
In the meantime, Hamel is going to continue supplementing her meals with more veggies. “We use a lot of cabbage,” she said. “Cabbage is still real cheap.”
Kyle Bagenstose contributed to this report. Follow Brett Molina on Twitter: @brettmolina23.
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