Where’s the beef? ‘Meat simply is being held hostage’

Stoddard's Meat Market in Cottage Grove has seen consumer demand go "through the roof," affecting prices.
Stoddard's Meat Market in Cottage Grove has seen consumer demand go "through the roof," affecting prices.(NBC15)
Published: May. 11, 2020 at 5:29 PM CDT
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What some are calling a severe shortage in the availability of meat in these days of the coronavirus is not due to a true shortage of beef, pork, chicken, turkey or lamb, rather a shortage of workers to process it.

“There’s lots of beef, chicken and pigs out there and they‘re selling at the feed lots. The problem is processing plants are shutting down and their employees aren’t showing up for work so very little is getting processed,” said Steve Childre, foreman at Thigpen Cattle Company, in Falls County.

Thigpen, actually three companies, deals with livestock from birth ‘til butcher as the company raises cattle, moves cattle from field to sale, then moves cattle from auction to slaughter.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted production nationwide at U.S. meatpacking plants, leading to higher prices and scarcity for popular items like ground beef and chicken breasts in supermarket meat cases.

Meat and poultry processors in this area seem to be weathering the storm and have not significantly reduced output.

The current condition is expensive for consumers because fewer pounds processed translates into bare shelves at the market.

The rest of the livestock market suffers in times like these because it’s the packers, those companies that finish products for sale at grocery stores, who are raking in the profit right now, Childre said.

Cattle prices are down, said Jody Thomas, who owns and operates Waco Stockyards, where livestock will be on sale Tuesday, sheep and goats at 9 a.m., cattle at noon.

But Thomas said sales, at least the past couple of weeks, have been “kind of normal. In fact, we’ve actually picked up a little bit the past two weeks.”

The Waco livestock auction routinely will run 400 to 450 sheep and goats and about 300 cattle in a week.

“It was a little rocky very early on, but it straightened out pretty quickly and since then it’s stayed good throughout.”

The issue locally is who’s making the profit, and, producers say, it’s not them.

“Packers are profiting about $2,000-a-head,” Childre said.

“It’s just not fair.”

The meat simply is being held hostage, Childre said.

“It’s just stacked up,” he said.

“Some yards are calling, asking that we not ship cattle they already own to them, but sit on it for a week or two so they can get their lots cleared out.”

He says the big dilemma is unions that are involved in workers not going back to work.

“Those folks are getting paid as much to not work as they would be paid to work, so it’s not necessary for them to return to work.”

Unions, say their intent is only to protect their members’ health.

Some major U.S. meatpacking plants have become hotspots for the virus, but experts say that’s in part because of close working conditions that make the facilities high risk sites for contagion.

At least 30 workers have died from the virus, the main union for meat plant employees said on Friday.

Some grocers, including those locally, have begun limiting purchases and say they are preparing for intermittent shortages through May if not longer, and, they say, shortages may intensify in the coming weeks given the lag between production at the slaughterhouses and distribution to stores, which could mean shoppers can expect higher prices, slimmed-down selections and nudges to choose plant-based meat alternatives or less popular cuts like sirloin steak.

Consumers are cooking more at home, which means they’re buying more meat, protein, at the supermarket, where meat sales already were up about 41% year-over-year for the week ended April 25, according to research firm Nielsen.

Processed cuts, such as prime beef and boneless pork loin, will be less available because they require more manual labor at a time when meat suppliers are looking to speed the packing process.

Whole chickens, for example, might be easier to find, they say.

Its supply chain issues are driving meat prices higher and many retailers are having to pass that cost on to consumers.

Nielsen says research shows “retail prices of fresh meat, including beef, pork and poultry, have increased about 8.1% year-over-year for the week ended April 25.”

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