Will COVID-19 Affect Meat Production?

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Is it possible for the United States to see a shortage in meat in the coming months/year? Yes. We have a food supply chain. A chain is dependent on each link maintaining itself to make the chain strong. The food supply chain contains many links (stages of production) and each link is dependent upon the other.

The poultry industry is the one that can make the most changes quickly. They can shorten or expand their ‘food chain’ in weeks. It takes 21 days for an egg to hatch, thus companies can incubate those eggs and have a chicken ready to process in roughly 10 weeks. Poultry companies can choose to incubate or not incubate eggs based on product demand or processing availability. Right now the processing link is the weakest part of the chain. It is the most critical. If processing plant workers do not show up to work or a significant number become sick, these animals cannot be processed. Companies are implementing many strategies to improve worker safety… but will it be enough?

The pork industry has it a little harder. It takes roughly 10 months from conception to harvest. A little less than a year ago sows were bred to produce pigs that would be harvested now at full capacity. However, we have all seen in the news that processing plants have been closed due to coronavirus outbreaks among employees that work in the plants. The chain is broke. Companies can’t stop animals from finishing. Finishing is the layer of fat that animals put on at the peak time to harvest them. It basically means they are at their prime to harvest. They can hold those animals for a short time but then it starts to affect the earlier stages of production. Now the pork industry is having to reroute animals to other facilities. Companies are also looking down the road. In order to prevent this from becoming a major pile up, they are lowering production and holding animals as long as they can. They have no choice. Remember these animals are almost a year in the making.

Now for the beef! It takes almost three years from conception to harvest in the beef industry. A cow carries her calf for 9 months. After birth, that calf will grow and be ready for harvest at or just prior to 24 months of age. Are you seeing how much time is invested in each animal? Changes in the beef supply chain cannot be made quickly. Beef processing plants are not running at full capacity or have had temporary shut downs due to the coronavirus. Independent processors have been operating at maximum capacity to meet local producer needs to accommodate their customer’s need for meat products.

Problems on the processing end of the meat industry are real. Workers in the processing plants work very closely together. Precautions need to be taken and safety measures have been implemented. Monetary incentives for these critical employees may be needed to ensure that our food supply chain continues to stay strong. Farmers are still feeding animals and planting crops. However, there has to be somewhere for them to go and that is a processing plant.

Bottom line, we will see less meat available in the grocery stores. The processing plants are operating at a reduced rate or some temporarily not at all. Companies are making adjustments but you can see it doesn’t happen overnight.

As a consumer what should you do? If supplies at your normal grocery store or meat source are low, consider looking for local producers with meat supplies on hand. Should you consider freezing meat? If you have the ability to do so, yes. Will we see an increase in the price of meat? Most likely. Meat processing plants are operating at a 25% reduction. Thus we will see a slightly lower supply and demand will remain. Will we run out of meat? No. The United States would reduce or eliminate exports of meat to meet the demands of our people.

Don’t be excessive. If you have the opportunity to buy bulk chicken, do so and freeze. If you don’t have extra freezer space, prioritize what you freeze. For example do you need frozen waffles or could you make pancakes? That would make more space for meat or things you can’t make yourself.

I hope this article gives you a little better understanding of how our meat supply chain works and much time is involved before that steak hits your plate.