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Meat shortages feared in Maryland and elsewhere as coronavirus sweeps through packing plants

Consumers in Maryland and across the United States could see meat in short supply in the near future as the coronavirus causes widespread slowdowns, worker absences and closures at production plants.

Experts say it’s hard to predict how severely supplies of pork, beef or chicken could be affected, or for how long, amid uncertainty over the virus’ spread and timing of plant reopenings.

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“The food system in the U.S. is very robust, but it’s really being tested at the moment,” said David Ortega, an associate professor and food economist at Michigan State University. “There’s some cushion. We can do this for a short period of time. But if we start to get into a matter of weeks and months, we could really be in trouble.”

Since the start of the outbreak in the United States, 13 meatpacking or processing plants have closed at some point and 10 meatpacking workers and three food processing workers have died, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents meatpacking and food processing workers.

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The pork and beef industries have been especially hard-hit as COVID-19 has spread through some of the largest plants.

As of Sunday, Tyson Foods was stopping operations at a plant in Logansport, Indiana, and had suspended operations at its largest pork plant, in Waterloo, Iowa. JBS said it would shutter a beef production plant in Wisconsin after closing another one in Minnesota. And Smithfield Foods, which already closed a big pork plant in South Dakota, announced that it had stopped production on a rolling basis since April 19 at a dry sausage plant in St. Charles, Illinois, and that it would suspend operations at its Monmouth, Illinois, pork facility beginning next week until further notice.

In the pork industry, in which more than half of all hogs are processed at just over a dozen plants, abrupt closures have cut pork production capacity by an estimated 20% to 25%, according to figures from the National Pork Board. The UFCW estimates beef slaughter capacity is down 10%.

While a decrease in supply will push up pork prices at wholesale, what happens at retail is less straightforward, Ortega said. That’s because a big market — restaurants and foodservice — has been all but shut down.

“It is a demand shock and a supply shock,” with closings both at beef and pork plants and at restaurants, which account for a big chunk of the market, said Jim MacDonald, a research professor in agricultural economics at the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

He estimates that more than half of pork and beef is sold to the restaurant/foodservice businesses.

“There’s been a big increase in consumption in supermarkets, but the system is not set up easily to shift from restaurants and food service to supermarkets,” he said. “But you would expect over time, people in the supply chain would figure out how to reroute product through supermarkets."

Time may be on their side, to some extent, because slaughter production had been up before the outbreak. And frozen meat storage had been increasing as well. So far, MacDonald said, shortages in stores have been largely due to supply chain problems, not food shortages.

“If this keeps spreading to more plants and continues well into May, then you could start seeing shortages in stores,” he said. If that happens, “we’ll see higher prices for supermarket beef and pork products in the next few months.”

Grocers say they haven’t seen any impact from the shutdowns, though Jeremy Diamond of Diamond Marketing Group, a Baltimore-based food retailing consultant, said he’s seen stores out of meat products that are usually common staples.

“I see it already starting to affect meat departments in grocery stores,” he said Monday.

Weis Markets has secured four to six weeks’ worth of beef, pork and poultry, said Dennis Curtin, a spokesman.

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“As a result, our in-stock conditions are solid,” Curtin said. “We’re also monitoring the processing plant closures" but expect some will reopen in the near future after cleaning, sanitizing and adjusting protocols to allow for COVID-19 prevention."

In addition, he said, “alternative sources of supply remain available to us.”

Giant Food officials said the area’s largest grocer is working closely with suppliers to keep up with demand and keep products on shelves.

At Klein’s ShopRite, which has stores in Harford and Baltimore counties and Baltimore, orders are being placed as usual, and fresh product, both grocery and meat, is arriving at all stores, a spokesman said Monday.

A spokeswoman for Wegmans said the grocer does not expect to have a shortage of meat supply in its stores even though several processing plants have shut down.

“During this time, we continue to monitor the situation and make adjustments as necessary,” said Laura Camera, the spokeswoman. “We are working with additional processors to ensure there is a variety of products on our shelves for customers to choose from."

Like beef and pork processors, the poultry industry has problems with reduced capacity. But producers have been able to adjust faster because of the relatively shorter time period required to raise chickens. That has meant fewer chicks being placed on growers’ farms, and potentially less income for those farmers.

Poultry processing plants on the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes Maryland’s Eastern Shore as well as parts of Delaware and Virginia, have seen reduced attendance as the disease has spread. Some of the peninsula’s processing plants are operating below normal capacity while others are operating normally, but plant capacity can change day to day, according to the Delmarva Poultry Industry trade group.

Production has been disrupted at a few of Perdue Farms’ facilities, mostly due to the decrease in demand for foodservice and an increase in retail and online sales, said Diana Souder, a spokeswoman for the Salisbury-based poultry company. The company has made changes in its supply chain and added extra weekly shifts.

“We’ve been able to temporarily shift much of our foodservice operations to make retail and e-commerce products, and will continue to make adjustments to meet the needs of our customers and consumers as necessary,” Souder said.

Consumers who do find fewer choices in meat products may start turning to meat substitute brands, Diamond said.

To address the risks to plant employees, the UFCW urged the White House Coronavirus Task Force on Thursday to increase worker testing and give workers priority access to personal protective equipment. The union also wants the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop allowing plants to speed up production lines. And it is asking companies to put stricter social distancing measures in factories and to isolate workers with symptoms or who test positive.

Unless immediate changes are made, American food processing and meatpacking workers are in danger, and so is the American food supply,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said during a media call.

Processors have revamped plants to allow for social distancing, monitored workers’ temperatures and handed out more personal protective equipment.

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But the union said some plants still fall short, especially in the pork and beef industries, where employees often work shoulder to shoulder. Union members on the call with Perrone, who work in beef and pork packing plants in Kansas and Iowa, said social distancing is difficult and sometimes impossible at plants with hundreds of people.

Poultry plants seem to be making the transition better, said Jonathan Moyle, a poultry specialist at University of Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore Research and Education Center.

Perdue Farms has redesigned break rooms and cafeterias to allow for social distancing, in addition to installing dividers between workers on production lines. Tyson Foods has increased distance between workers on the production floor and installed workstation dividers, and it allows more time between shifts to reduce worker interaction.

Plant production on the Eastern Shore has begun to pick up as companies have done a better job communicating to employees, offering bonuses and putting social distancing measures in place, Moyle said.

“To my knowledge, they’re all taking measures,” he said. “We did a better job here [in Delmarva] than places in the Midwest. That said, there needs to be education with plant employees and how to prevent the spread among themselves.

“There seems to be good communication as companies and growers try to work through this as a team," Moyle said.

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