While the appearance of rationing policies in grocery stores today for meat and beef products similar to those used for toilet papers in March might lend suspicion of a supply shortage, both grocery and beef organizations say that Washington meat lovers shouldn’t be worried about empty shelves.
“I think this is going to be short-term,” Washington State Beef Commission Executive Director Patti Brumbach said of the reduced production at processing facilities. “We have a lot of cows ready for harvesting and lower ability to process those animals.”
Late last month, the Tyson Fresh Meats Washington-based processing plant in Wallula temporarily closed to test its workers for COVID-19. After two weeks, production resumed. However, the company and other similar processing plants have incorporated new safety rules and standards such as social distancing that is reducing production capacity.
“This is a labor-intensive business at the processing level,” Brumbach said.
Washington Food Industry Association CEO & President Jan Gee told Lens: “they’re learning what we had to learn 6-7 weeks ago, and there’ll be some temporary disruption.”
According to data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), just 30 processing plants make up 88 percent of total capacity in the country. Currently, processing plant capacity nationwide is down by 38 percent, despite seven new plants opening. That, coupled with the closure of restaurant and other businesses that purchase beef, has seen the nation’s cattle beef industry suffer an estimated loss of $13.6 billion in total economic damage.
However, Brumbach says that for consumers they’ll still be able to buy meat—though not with the same variety as before. “One day they might go to the grocery store and not find their favorite sirloin, but they might be able to find a flank steak.”
Gee said consumers could also see an initial price increase “because of everything that’s going on. We don’t expect it to smooth out for a little while.”
Like Brumbach, she said the meat varieties will be limited, though those who love hamburgers won’t be disappointed. “Meat processors are taking the meat that would have gone to restaurants…and they’re grinding it up into hamburger. We should have a great supply of it, but the specialty cuts are going to be spotty for a while.”
Gee also anticipates a similar situation for poultry. “Instead of having them butcher all the specialty cuts, you’ll see more whole chickens in our grocery stores just to make sure we have a supply.”
As processing plants incorporate new safety standards, Brumbach said it’s unknown when or if “they’ll ever be able to go back to full capacity. Safety is their paramount concern.”