Expect temporary changes in the meat case
The meat case is likely to look different for a period of time due to supply chain disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus, the virus that causes the infectious disease COVID-19.
The livestock and meat industries are experiencing supply chain disruptions due to COVID-19. The first disruption happened when large numbers of the population started staying at home. This caused an initial spike in meat and poultry sales at the grocery store and drastic decreases at restaurants. Neither processors nor the supply chain were set up to quickly divert large quantities of meat or poultry that typically go to foodservice (hotels, restaurants, schools, etc.) or to grocery stores. Additionally, meat and poultry intended for foodservice is not packaged in consumer-friendly packages and it is very time consuming and costly to reconfigure packaging lines. Grocery store meat cases had shortages based on this initial switch in buying patterns similar to the issue with toilet paper.
In the past few weeks, regardless of their preventive measures, several large meat and poultry processors have had to temporarily close and then decrease their regular production schedule due to outbreaks of COVID-19 in meat and poultry processing employees. Although there are cold storage (refrigerated and frozen) stocks of meat and poultry, there may still be instances where certain types and cuts of meat and poultry are unavailable at certain times or in retail outlets. Meat and poultry are perishable products and are processed at amounts that account for real time distribution and usage.
Consumers will see some of their favorite meat cuts not available or in a different form than familiar cuts. Some major retailers are limiting the amount of ground beef and fresh pork that customers can purchase. Limitations are put in place to prevent panic buying by consumers so that limited supply can be stretched over a greater number of customers during the time that processing is not at full capacity.
Meat and poultry are typically marketed to consumers in retail packages that are convenient in size, ranging from a couple of servings to family packs. They are in cuts and package sizes that consumers seek, such as steaks, roasts, chops, ground meat, chicken wings, breasts, or thighs. In this current squeeze on processing capability, meat and poultry in the grocery store may not be in the typical cuts that consumers are used to purchasing. Instead, more wholesale types of cuts such as whole loins, ribs, and larger roasts are currently more common. This is because of reduced labor availability at both large processors and in grocery stores that are still trying to deal with increased amounts going through their meat cases.
Fresh pork examples that you may see include more full size pork shoulder roasts that are typically cut into pork steaks or smaller pork roasts and full bone-in or boneless pork loins that are typically cut into pork chops. Fresh beef examples include less availability of ground beef and fewer beef to fat ratios, 80-20 ratio may be most common, and leaner or fatter 95-5 or 70-30 ratios may be harder to find. If larger packages of ground beef are purchased, it is safe to store it refrigerated for a couple days before you use it or freeze it. The beef case may also see more whole loins and ribs instead of smaller packages of one to two steaks. Whole chickens may be easier to find than packages of breasts, legs, thighs, and wings.
The changes and shortages in the meat and poultry case will last until large processors are able to operate at their normal capacity. Michigan State University Extension has resources for safe handling and storage methods of meat and poultry. There are fact sheets available for beef, lamb, pork and poultry. Consumers can purchase larger packages and cuts of meat or poultry and then cut and freeze smaller quantities in freezer bags or freezer paper for future use. Larger roasts can be purchased and ground at home using in-home grinders or mixer attachments and then frozen into patties or smaller package sizes.
Furthermore, prior to COVID-19, there has been a strong demand for purchasing meat and poultry locally from farmers. Small meat processors are not able to accommodate all the demand from farmers needing livestock processed or consumers wanting to purchase meat and poultry. But small processors are working as hard as they can and as many hours as possible while implementing additional sanitation and disinfection practices to keep their employees and customers safe and healthy.
Nearly all small processors are booked through the summer months or even through the end of the year for appointments with farmers to harvest livestock. Small processors may need to limit the amount of specialty cuts or variety of packaging options they can offer customers who are purchasing whole, halves, or quarters of animals for their home freezers because of the increase in processing demand. It takes a tremendous amount of time to do some of the customized requests. Examples of these specialty
processes include single packaged steaks versus two per package, one size of ground beef packages, bone-in versus boneless cuts, and more.
Please utilize patience and understanding if your local meat processor is not able to complete all of your individual requests. Also, remember to communicate with your small processor if you no longer need an appointment, as they all have waiting lists of other farmers willing to take the spot. Do not show up to the processing plant with additional animals beyond what you have scheduled or forget to show up on your scheduled date. It is unlikely these last-minute requests will be accommodated.
Please remember to be considerate with employees at retail outlets where your desired cut of meat or poultry and quantity is not available. The meat and poultry supply chain – farmers to processors, and distributors to retail sales are doing their very best to meet current demand in these difficult and rapidly changing circumstances.