Across the country, meat processors are temporarily shutting down as workers are getting infected with COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean America is about to run out of meat.
The closures are devastating to meat producers. Without processing facilities, livestock farmers are having a hard time selling their meat.
But U.S. consumers don’t have to worry about shortages in supermarkets, experts say. At least not yet.
“I don’t think the shutdowns so far have been enough to be noticeable” to consumers, said Steve Meyer, an economist with commodity firm Kerns and Associates. “We have a lot of pork, we have a lot of chicken, we have a lot of beef in cold storage,” he said. “We can draw on that should we have some shortages.”
Some of the plants that have shut down are working to divert supply to other locations. Tyson, one of the world’s largest meat processors, suspended operations at its Columbus Junction, Iowa, pork plant last week. But it is sending livestock that was headed to Columbus Junction to other pork plants in the region to minimize impact on production. If other plants follow the same tactic, they could help mitigate the losses in production as well, Meyer noted.
Plus, livestock that is not diverted will still need to processed when plants open up, Meyer said.
Christine McCracken, senior analyst of animal protein for Rabobank, said that plant closures or reductions in operations due to labor shortages or social distancing efforts may mean fewer options. But they probably won’t mean less meat altogether.
“There likely will be a drop in the number of types of products that are on the shelves,” she said. “It may be that a deboned product isn’t available because they don’t have the labor to do that. So boneless chicken breasts might not be an option in the coming weeks.”
The situation is fluid, and things could take a turn for the worse. Consumers may feel the impact if plants stay closed for a long time, or if many more close all at once.
And in the long term, meat prices could go up.
If livestock farmers go out of business because of the pressures they face today, the US meat supply will eventually contract. That will mean more expensive meat for consumers, McCracken said.