Where’s The Beef? Concerns About Supply And Price Grow

Judy Kramer
County Reporter
After the Coronavirus caused a lot of meatpacking plants to close, the domino effect has been tremendous. Many local livestock farmers are not able to have their animals processed, and customers at grocery stores are saying “Where’s the Beef?” like the popular slogan used in advertisements in the 1980s by Wendy’s fast food chain.
President Trump signed an executive order on April 28 compelling meat producers to remain open to head off shortages in the nation’s food supply chains. It gives Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue the power to invoke the Defense Production Act and force companies to keep their plants going. According to a cnn.com, some plants had already begun to reopen with stricter social distancing measures in place, but others remain offline after the virus swept through employees at more than dozen major facilities across the country, including a plant in Missouri. 
Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler, (MO-04), along with Congressman Sam Graves (MO-06) sent out a press release on May 13 reporting that they had sent a letter to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding the re-opening of meatpacking plants in Missouri. Their letter ask for further clarification and common sense implementation of best practices to protect workers as meatpacking plants reopen in Missouri and across the country. They said that current uncertainty regarding CDC/Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued guidance for “Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers” (issued on April 26, 2020) leaves meat processing facilities in need of clarification so they can safely re-open their plants. They ask that the goals should be to both keep workers safe while also applying common sense to safety regulations to enable these essential plants to operate safely at as high of capacity as possible. Apparently, some meat processing plants have expressed uncertainty over being able to properly implement the guidance.
 “We must get these plants reopened safely as soon as possible,” said Congresswoman Hartzler.
Her letter asked the CDC questions about how employers should best consider workers’ individual risk factors, and whether six feet apart spacing could be calculated nose-to-nose rather than shoulder to shoulder. She also asked about areas of plants where barriers were not feasible, and the timeframe for asymptomatic employees who test positive to return to work, plus other guidance clarifications.
Congresswoman Hartzler stressed that many farmers are facing depopulating their herds because meat processing plants have been shut down or are working at reduced capacity. She said that it is imperative that workers are safe and feel confident coming back to work, while, at the same time, processors aren’t unnecessarily forced to reconfigure and re-engineer their plants when other, common sense measures could allow them to continue operating safely and efficiently.
According to Brent Carpenter, Ag Business Coach at the University of Missouri, some meatpacking plants are doing all they can to make employees safe.
“After the presidential order, Triumph Foods in St. Joseph, began testing employees and found 600 who tested positive,” said Carpenter. “Tyson Foods, with a dozen facilities in Missouri, has always (and still does) have the policy that if someone gets sick they will stay home and still get paid. A large meatpacking plant in West Kansas has been looking for housing for its employees so that they don’t have to take the virus home to their families. The official line is to try and spread people out, put up barriers and Personal Protective Equipment.  But, there is a spectrum of how successful they are.”
Carpenter said that the Missouri Association of Meat Processors has 100 meatpacking plants on their list. In 2019 the meat processing industry employed over 18,000 workers in 140 businesses across Missouri. Carpenter said that before COVID-19, we had a system that was efficient.  It was normal to work in full capacity. But, if when one large plant goes offline, we see the effects. 
In the Benton County area, there have been noticeable shortages of meat in grocery stores and prices have been rising. On the other hand, farmers are getting lower prices for their livestock, and appointments for processing are scheduled as far ahead as a year. Carpenter said that meat is still on the shelves, but we just cannot stock up on it. He said that since China’s pork industry was devastated, our country is sending pork to help them.
The Springfield Journal Star reported on May 3 that Hogs can only be raised in barns, and if they are not sent to slaughterhouses once they reach their market weight, they can grow too big, can injure themselves and take up space that needs to be turned over to newly born piglets. With several pork processing plant closures, the slaughter capacity has been greatly reduced, leading to about 200,000 fewer hogs being slaughtered per day compared to a year ago. On the other hand, many hogs are being euthanized because farmers can’t keep them for an unlimited time.
Jackman’s Meat Processing, in Fristoe, reports that there has been a shortage of beef for over three weeks, and now pork is harder to get as well as chicken. Retail prices have risen and hamburger prices have doubled.  The business is swamped with the custom side, with plenty of customers who want their livestock processed for themselves. The commercial side of the business (the store) is realizing a reduction in sales. The business owners asked the public to be patient, and say that they won’t raise their prices unless their providers raise theirs.
G&W Country Mart’s corporate headquarters released a statement about its current situation stating, in part, that “G & W Foods purchases most products through Associated Wholesale Grocers, which is one of the largest wholesalers in the United States. We have experienced product allocations regarding what we could purchase, due to shortage of available products during the COVID-19 Pandemic. In response to those allocations, we reached out to other vendors. The recent shut down of several large meat processing plants has caused a shortage of meat products and continuing cost increases.  No one knows how long these shortages will last, but G & W Foods has always, and will continue to work hard to bring you the best value possible. We understand how shortages have affected the families of our communities. Our buyers will continue to work long hours searching for ways to keep quality product on the shelves at the best retail available.”
Customers are reacting differently to shortages. Farmers like Dr. Amie Breashers and her family can process their steers so they will have the beef they need. But, they may have to wait for the processing to take place. Dr. Breashers took two steers to market on May 6 and they were taken right in for processing. However, she found out that she will have to wait until July to process any future steers because of the recent backlog.
Joe Dale Hedrick, of Warsaw, said that he and his wife saw the problem of a shortage of meat coming early in the year and stocked up at G & W Country Mart on what they thought they would need. 
“We don’t eat much,” said Hedrick. “So we are doing okay for now. But it is not enough for ever.”
Lenora Ogden said that when she shops, most of the beef is usually gone. The last time she shopped there was no hamburger, but she and her husband usually eat a lot of chicken.
Gary Smith, of Edwards, bought hamburger from a local farmer, but when he last went to a grocery store on May 1, there was not pork or chicken. He hopes his next trip will be more fruitful. 
“I like all meats and seafood, but I am going to shop for shrimp next time and hope there is still plenty of it there,” said Smith.
The Kansas City Star reported on May 13, that Missouri had 10,142 positive cases of COVID-19, and that more than half of those cases were in St. Louis and St. Louis County which accounted for 5,405 cases. The Missouri side of Kansas City has recorded 1,361 cases. These two cities have some of the largest numbers of meat processing plants in the state.