Dwindling meat supply is driving prices up amid virus outbreak

Posted at 11:44 AM, May 05, 2020

Meat processors across the country are feeling the pain of the COVID-19 pandemic. With social distancing guidelines and some workers getting sick, a number of meat plants are shutting down, hurting supply nationwide.

"Even those that have been able to stay open are operating at limited capacity. In recent days, they’re processing 40 percent fewer animals than they did this time last year," said Economist Jayson Lusk, who heads the Agricultural Economics Department at Purdue University.

Lusk says that is a lot of meat not being processed that people are counting on. Mid-South BBQ restaurant owner Brian Dickey is just one of those people.

The Tennessee restaurant just reopened after being shut down for several weeks. The restaurant cooks more than 2,000 pounds of pork a week. Now, they're worried if they'll have to shut down again because of a dwindling meat supply.

"I was kind of scared last night when they told me. I was thinking, ‘we just got open two days ago and now you’re telling me we might have to shut down again because we’ve got no meat?’ I got a delivery today that was supposed to have six cases of meat on it. It would have been about 900 pounds and it didn’t come in," said Dickey.

The result of a reduced meat supply is higher meat prices. Lusk says pork and beef prices have gone up more than 60 percent.

"I think over the next coming weeks the chances of there being reduced availability have risen and that may hold true for the next couple of weeks, but that will be really spotty depending on your particular location and particular stores," Lusk said.

President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order to keep meat processing factories running. Lusk says it will still take time for some plants to be fully operational.

The important thing is to not panic buy and be open to purchasing different cuts or kinds of meats than you're used to. That's exactly what Mid-South BBQ did, driving to another supplier 40 miles away to pick up a cut of pork they don't usually cook with.

On a positive note, Lusk says the nation's frozen meat supply is higher than normal.

"To give you a sense of how much is in storage, we have roughly 10 days of total national consumption in storage, so even if we shut down every plant tomorrow and kept consuming the same amount, we could still have enough for ten days," said Lusk.

He also says the United States exports more than 20 percent of pork products, so if rising prices and availability becomes a continued concern, more of those meat exports will stay here in our local grocery stores.