Twenty workers have died and nearly 4,200 meatpackers at 115 processing plants in the United States are infected with the coronavirus, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. The infection has closed dozens of plants were an estimated half-million workers process pork, beef and chicken.
The viral infection and subsequent closures are straining the supply of meat to market. Beef production is down 25% and pork has declined 15% from a year ago, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The shortages are starting to show up in the meat department at local supermarkets.
"Right now, there's definitely some supply issues that are starting to affect how much product we have in stores," said Arthur Ackles, vice president of merchandising and buying at Roche Bros. Supermarkets.
These days, it’s lean pickings at the Wellesley-based company’s 20 stores, so Ackles wants to be fair to customers.
"We're starting to limit products to two packages of each type right now, at least for the foreseeable future," he said.
Still, the short supply will mean higher prices.
"We’ve seen some pricing that’s gone up double what it was a week ago, so it gets to a point [where] we can’t absorb it any more," he said.
The meat shortage is bad news for shoppers at large supermarket chains, but its been a boon to small community-supported agriculture groups —better known as CSAs — the local system connecting farmers directly to consumers.
"We’ve just had a huge interest this year," said Diana Rogers a registered dietician who operates a CSA and organic farm in Carlisle, where she sells pasture-raised meat.
"When we have all of our meat supply in the hands of basically five major companies, now's a great time to support local farmers that are raising their animals the right way and also to really transform our meat economy into a more resilient regional meat system," she said.
President Trump has signed an executive order requiring meat processing plants to stay open during the pandemic, but maintaining social distance for workers along crowded assembly lines is all but impossible. Workers now have their temperatures taken before shifts and are provided with masks. But that does not eliminate the virus’s threat, nor does it guarantee the cheap, abundant supply of meat we have come to expect.
Yossi Sheffi, director of transportation and logistics at MIT, believes the U.S. food supply system has performed “miraculously” during the pandemic.
"You may not be able to get the cut you like … so you’ll get a different cut," says Sheffi. "Let me be clear, there are spot shortages here and there. What the supply chains (are) experiencing are unprecedented changes in demand."
Part of the problem has nothing to do with the nationwide shortage of meat but the size of portions processed by producers. Restaurants and institutions order meat by the carcass. Since many of the industrial users have shut down, the supply chain has slowly been adjusting to portions sold at retail outlets.
Consumer psychology plays a part in amplifying the shortage on supermarket shelves, he said. A herd mentality develops when people see a scarcity of product, and they then buy more meat than they need.
Sheffi also said news organizations feed the public false images of the situation, showing images of bear shelves at the end of the day, even though stores restock overnight.
"I have a beef with several of the media outlets, that I was talking to," he said. "I always tell them please take pictures in the morning and you’ll see full aisles."
This segment aired on May 1, 2020.