Groceries could see meat shortages by end of week amid plant closings

Consumers could start seeing shortages by Friday at supermarket meat counters, expert say.

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By Corky Siemaszko

This is not the time to pig out.

Beef, chicken and pork could be as scarce as toilet paper soon because so many meat processing plants have been temporarily shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic, industry experts are warning.

"We've just completed our third week of reduced slaughter and production," Dennis Smith, a commodity broker/livestock analyst with Archer Financial Services in Chicago, said. "My guess is that about one week out, perhaps around May 1, shortages will begin developing at retail meat counters."

Overall meat production is down 25 percent, Smith said, "which is a huge decline."

It might be time to save some bacon, since the amount of pork in frozen storage dropped last month by 4 percent, to 621 million pounds, the Department of Agriculture reported last week.

"The cause of the shortage is reduced production due to labor issues at the packing plants," Smith said. "Some plants have closed for deep cleaning and will remain closed until the employee base has recovered from the virus. Others are implementing safety procedures which in effect slows processing speed at the plants."

Case in point: The Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota — the state that is now one of the nation's biggest coronavirus hot spots — was closed after two workers died and 783 others tested positive for the virus.

Right now, there is enough meat to feed American appetites. In fact, the 502 million pounds of beef in warehouse freezers was up 2 percent from the previous month while the amount of chicken in storage dropped slightly to about 921 million pounds, according to the Agriculture Department.

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But the pandemic has clogged the pipeline for getting more meat to grocery stores, the experts said.

"There are likely to be (meat) shortages in select parts of the country," Terry Reilly, a senior commodity analyst at Futures International in Chicago.

Reilly noted that last month in Chicago, in the early days of the crisis, there was a run on chicken as fearful consumers emptied the shelves. He said there's no reason to worry just yet about a meat shortage.

"There is a lot of frozen pork and beef sitting in freezers, so people shouldn't panic," Reilly said. "In San Diego, they're trying to figure out where to store all the fish that they would normally be serving the tourists."

Also, meat processing companies have a restaurant line and a grocery line. And with restaurants closed, the companies have shifted those supplies of frozen meats to the grocery stores.

"Fresh meat, however, is going to be a challenge," he said. "If we continue to see meat processing plant closures, that will be a problem."

The experts weighed-in as Tyson Foods took out full-page ads Sunday in The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette warning that the "food supply is breaking."

"As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain," company board chairman John Tyson wrote. "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."

The Tyson chief, whose company employs some 100,000 workers, said it's devastating to farmers too because they no longer have anywhere to sell their livestock.

"Millions of animals — chickens, pigs and cattle — will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities," the ad read.

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Last week, Tyson Foods closed a meat processing plant in Pasco, Washington, that produces enough beef in one day to feed 4 million people. This came on the heels of the company closing two pork processing plants, one in Iowa and one in Indiana, and a chicken processing plant in Tennessee because of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said she hopes the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls can reopen "in a matter of days."

"This is a critical infrastructure business," Noem said Monday in a Fox News interview. "I've always talked about our food supply as a national security issue because it's important we feed ourselves in this country."

The Smithfield plant was shut down April 14 after 783 workers tested positive for COVID-19 and two died.

More than 5,000 meat and food processing workers have been infected or exposed to COVID-19 and 13 have died since the pandemic struck, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union reported last week.