Farmfront Board Member
Why were meat prices so inexpensive at the beginning of COVID-19?
Large processors that would have sold purely to now-closed restaurants and schools were facing an excess in supply. Those that cater to grocery stores were running short. Large processing facilities are set up to cater to specific types of products. change in packaging and processing was unlikely in a short time frame. There may even be cases where plants were continuing to process livestock. Still, they may not have had the ability to put it into what is called a tray pack form. That is what most consumers look for. What’s more, at the time of the shut-down, many restaurants were stocked with hundreds of thousands of dollars of meat. The solution was to move the product quickly through small butchers and grocery stores.
What is causing meat shortages now?
Let’s begin by describing the job atmosphere. Workers at large processing facilities conduct their jobs in very close quarters. This is with good reason. It ensures quality products for customers. Preparing food, meat or even produce, requires the expertise of hundreds working together.The inability to safely follow social distancing has become a balancing act of keeping employees protected, having consideration for the health of their families, all while still providing a safe product. The necessity to work in close proximity created a perfect breeding ground for COVID-19. And, COVID-19 didn’t hold back on taking up the opportunity to mingle. Therefore, companies such as meat processing plants, as well as logistical warehouses became hot spots for the virus.
Amid that evolving storm, society was in an unprecedented place full of unknowns lurking at every corner. Panic is a natural reaction in such situations. Panic lead to purchases of large quantities of food, specifically, meat and toilet paper.
What has presented itself as a food/meat shortage was ultimately a workforce shortage.
According to Reuter’s, in late April daily pork production was down by as much as 45% with 20 plants closed due to the outbreaks. Production has since rebounded as plants began opening their doors in late May. However, production continues to lag. Major factors include the required quarantining of some employees and fear of contracting the virus. Mark Lauritsen, a vice president at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), noted a rate of 30-50% employee absentee during the week of June 7-14.
With all major meat processing facilities facing reduced or zero production,, many farmers were faced with the difficult task of getting rid of their livestock. Some were forced to euthanize due to the broken supply chain. Many others who were able to, took to social media to find anyone to purchase the animals. However, once livestock was sold to others, the need for processing was still needed. Smaller farmers and consumers found themselves reaching out to local meat lockers in the hopes that they would process the meat and freezers would be filled.
These processors set up appointments for the drop-off of animals in need of processing. Under normal circumstances, they would not have so much foot traffic and the general wait time for an appointment was around 3 months. In the new COVID-19 world, numerous small processors have found themselves booked through mid-2021.
One positive thing that can be picked up from our time in quarantine is the newly proposed PRIME Act PRIME stands for Processing Revival and Intrastate Exemption Act. This would allow over 1000 small slaughterhouses to be able to sell to larger distributors. These include such as restaurants or cafeterias.It lifts previous restrictions. Don’t let this alarm you. These processors will still be under the same guidelines of potential USDA inspection at any time. However, this may be the next step we need to help us bridge the gap between large meat producers and the family processors. It may allow all gaps in the market to be filled.
Are there other options?
Remember to check out your local slaughterhouse, or farmers market options to also help support small farmers and family businesses. Who knows, maybe with a little bit of practice you may be setting up a butcher shop for your family in your own kitchen!
Some great resources to get you started including The Bearded Butchers on YouTube. They explain in great detail how to process everything from cattle and sheep, to elk and deer.
Another great resource is the Handcrafted series from Bon Appetit. While not as in depth as the Bearded Butchers this shows you great ways to break down large sections of your meats!
While we have found ourselves in a new realm, we must remain open minded and realize that the ways of the past may light a path for a solution to stocking your freezer.