There are signs that the US meat supply chain is breaking down, leading to limited supplies both for restaurants and home consumers. How real is the problem? One out of five Wendy’s has run out of meat. And in red meat-loving Texas, shoppers can only purchase limited amounts of meat at the grocery store.
“We urge customers to not overbuy meat products, this behavior alone would create a shortage…at this time we have implemented a purchase limit on meat,” Texas-based grocery store chain H-E-B tweeted. The store imposed limits of 5 packages per customer of beef, pork, and chicken on May 1. Houston-area stores were limited to four packages of ground beef, four packages of chicken, and two packages of beef brisket. Costco is also limiting sales of beef, poultry, and chicken to three items per person.
The limits, put in place to protect supplies, are supposed to be temporary.
The Cause: Meat Plant Closures
The meat packing industry has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19 infection. In Iowa, four out of five of the hardest-hit businesses are in the meat industry, according to CNN.
- The Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, where officials identified 221 positive cases of COVID-19, represents 26% of the employees tested.
- Iowa Premium National Beef in Tama, where they identify 258 positive cases, represents 39% of the employees tested.
- The Tyson plant of Waterloo has 444 positive cases, which represents 17% of the employees tested.
- The Tyson plant in Perry had 730 positive cases, which represents 58% of the employees tested.
These dire test results have led to plant closures in Iowa, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. There is simply no way to have effective social distancing in place in these facilities.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union estimated last week that 20 meatpacking and food processing workers have died so far. The union said last week the closures have resulted in a 25% reduction in pork slaughter capacity and 10% reduction in beef slaughter capacity.
Tyson Foods warned Monday that it expects more meat plant closures this year. The company also said it will continue producing less meat than usual, as workers refrain from coming to work during the outbreak.
Even a Presidential Order Isn’t Compelling
On April 28, President Trump issued an executive order compelling meat plants across the nation to stay open during the COVID-19 crisis. Declaring the plants “critical infrastructure,” Trump signed the order under the Defense Production Act, which concerns industrial production in the event of an emergency.
But this has been met with skepticism and resistance from meat plant workers across the US. “All I know is, this is crazy to me, because I can’t see all these people going back to work,” a Tyson chicken worker going by Donald told CNN Business. “I don’t think people are going to go back in there.”
Union officials shot back at the Presidential order. “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products,” Stuart Applebaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said per the New York Times.
The Smithfield Foods, Inc. meat plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, reopened this week after it closed following an outbreak of coronavirus. The city’s mayor told CNN it’s still “hard” to determine what an appropriate safety level looks like.
And, the unsafe working conditions continue to spread: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Maine is reporting 20 additional positive coronavirus cases at a Tyson Foods plant in Portland.