Business & Economy

Meat supplies unlikely to get very lean

A person behind a meat counter
Meat department manager Adam Evenstad puts out a tray of meat April 9, 2020, at Festival Foods in Lexington, Minn.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

With the shutdown of several pork processing plants in Minnesota and neighboring states, some folks are wondering if they should make a bacon run or stock up on ham or other meats. 

The pork plants closed after employees became ill with the COVID-19 virus. On Monday, JBS announced it would indefinitely shut its Worthington, Minn., plant after more than two dozen employees tested positive for the coronavirus. Pork plants had previously closed in Iowa and South Dakota.

But at this point, industry observers and players say there’s plenty of meat for consumers. Most pork and other meat processing plants are still operating and there are sizable stocks of meat in storage.  

“We can still bring home the bacon. You're still gonna have pork in your store,” said Jennifer van de Ligt, director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute at the University of Minnesota. She said maybe seven pork plants have closed across the country.

She said there may be spot, short-term shortages, but she doesn't expect significant price increases.   

“On any given day that you go to the grocery store, depending upon how your local grocery store stocks its meat counter, you could walk in and not see meat on that particular day,” she said. “It doesn't mean that it won't be there the next time that you go.”

Overreacting will only create more problems, van de Ligt said.

“You see meat is not there. [And think,] ‘Oh, my God, as soon as meat is there, I need to buy as much meat as I can,’’ she said. “And then for the next person, there's no meat. So, it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, even though there's plenty of meat, if we'll all just be rational about it. Only buy what we need for about a week and then go about our lives.”

She said hoarding really hurts people who don’t have the money to buy more than a few days’ worth of food, if that. Of course, many grocers are trying to thwart hoarding by limiting purchases of milks, eggs, meat and staples.

Michael Boland, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota and director of the Food Industry Center, agrees consumers shouldn’t be worried now about the meat supply.

“I think there's no reason right now to go buy an extra freezer, to go stock up on pork,” he said.

Or any other meat, for that matter. Boland said food companies and the food supply chain have held up amazingly well during the COVID-19 crisis.

Still, a lot of things could go wrong. Boland said it’s critical to keep food chain workers healthy. Companies are trying to do that, providing protective equipment, distancing workers on production lines and taking other steps to keep production going during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Boland said another important factor is farmer confidence that they’ll have the domestic and immigrant laborers need to handle crops that are harvested by hand.   

“You've got farmers now saying, 'I don't think I'm going to plant that this year. Those vegetable crops — because I don't think I'll get labor to harvest in the fall — I don't want to be stuck with a crop that I can't harvest,’” he said.

That's a worry that needs to be addressed to head off possible trouble.

While some meat plants have closed, others have reopened and ramped up production, said Sarah Little, a spokesperson for the North American Meat Institute. She said the latest data from the federal government indicates there’s been about a 5 percent drop in pork production and a 15 percent drop in beef production. That could mean certain cuts of meat are missing at times in stores. But Little said there will be meat.

She said meat packers are increasingly diverting meat that had gone to restaurants and other other institutional customers, channeling it to the consumer market in quantities consumers typically buy.

“There's no reason to panic,” Little said. “We have cold storage and we also export meat. We don't see a situation in America where we would run out of meat. It's just a matter of the supply chain operating efficiently to get it where it needs to go."

Hopefully, Little said, people don't panic, as they've done with toilet paper and other goods that have been in short supply.

Many consumers are positioned to bulk up their stashes of meat, if not hoard it. Freezer sales have been hot since March, when consumers cleared groceries stores of many foods, including frozen and refrigerated items.

“As soon as [freezers] come in, they sell out,” said Brian Holicky, general manager of Warners' Stellian, the Twin Cities appliance dealer. “We're trying to get our hands on as many of them as possible. But I don't know that you're going to find them anywhere with regularity right now."

The most popular freezers have been 5- to 7-cubic-foot models, selling for $250 and up. Holicky said people have also been buying second refrigerators for their homes, often stashing them in garages.