Meat shortage on the horizon? Here’s what consumers could face when packing plants close

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HUNTINGTON COUNTY, Ind. (WANE) — With the closure of several meat processing plants in Indiana, chicken, pig, and cow farmers, as well as butcher and meat shops, are having to make tough decisions about the products they have. The ripple effect is leading to a shortage of meat and that could last for weeks and months to come.

Indiana is the eighth largest agricultural exporter in the nation, exporting just over $4.6 billion in 2017, according to the Indiana Department of Agriculture. However, with the spread of the coronavirus, several aspects of the agriculture industry are being affected.

Meat Producers and Farmers

Processing plants across Indiana, the Midwest, and the country are continuing to shut down due to outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers. But when the facilities shut down, it leaves farmers in a difficult position.

“There are two plants that I am personally aware of that are affected by the COVID-19 outbreak and that’s Delphi and Logansport, and those two plants are closed for what we’ve been told is three weeks,” Huntington County hog farmer Ted Trout said. “They are very crucial and essential to the success of our business and the success of having food available to the consumer.”

Trout took to his Facebook page, The Informative Farmer, to help residents understand farming, the agriculture community, and what farmers are facing. In a typical year, Trout says he produces about 16,000 hogs. That number is not likely to change. However, how many make it to market and processing plants could change.

Courtesy of Ted Trout: The Informative Farmer

“It takes very many, many people to get our product from our farm to your fork,” Trout said. “The problem is, when they are not able to do their job, we are still producing pork, and so when there is no place to take our animals for harvest, that becomes a problem with what do we do with our animals.”

Trout says that the process of raising hogs is never-ending, with new babies coming all the time. If the plants don’t stay open, farmers like himself will have to make difficult decisions.

“Every aspect of the agriculture company is struggling,” Trout said. “There are vegetable farmers who are plowing under and mowing off their crop because the restaurants aren’t open. There are milk farmers who are dumping milk because the school is closed and we are just dumping milk down the drain. And for the first time that I’m aware of, we are importing beef from countries (around the world).”

Meat and Butcher Shops

If local farmers have to discard their excess produce down the road, that could lead to shortages in grocery stores. But what about the local butcher shops? A majority of the locally owned shops don’t have the capacity to slaughter hundreds of animals at once.

WANE 15 reached out to local shops to see how the coronavirus has impacted them. A handful of places say the number of consumers in their shops and how much they order changes day by day. However, a majority of the butcher shops said they have seen an increasing volume of consumers buying and ordering meat, many saying it was hard to keep produces on their shelves. Meat shops are also seeing a high volume of consumers.

“We saw it about the same time as the grocery stores, all the rush, the panic buying,” owner of Feders Meats, John Federspiel, said. “March 12th is when it really started hitting us, which I believe is when the governor was talking about shutting down. That brought a lot of people out.”

Federspiel says their stores have been really lucky with some of their suppliers and had the foresight to stock up on items like, ground beef and chicken breast, that were going to fly out the door. Though the wave of panic buying is over, the store has seen a steady stream of consumers coming in and buying products.

“We’ve gone through a lot of product, probably three or four times as much as we normally do,” Federspiel said. “But we’ve been able to continue that supply up until now.”

In the wake of the processing plants and slaughterhouses reducing production and even closing facilities due to the virus, store owners are starting to see some shortages. Federspiel says some of his suppliers are telling him they don’t have fresh meat to supply him, and that everyone is being affected across the board. With the shortage, the price of meat is going up.

“From last week to this week some things have gone up two dollars a pound,” Federspiel said. “They can only promise us those prices through the first half of the week. So our suppliers, the wholesalers, can’t even promise prices to us. They are basically telling us to look at the bill when the product comes and you know what you get charged.”

Right now Federspiel says that the stores have a healthy stock of items and are going to try not to raise their prices more than what they need to. When prices do rise, he believes the staples, like ground beef and chicken breast, are going to rise in price quicker than steak or similar meats, and those prices will rise across the shops and stores. His advice to consumers: don’t panic buy, but instead buy smart. Buy what you need and items that will go up in price in the upcoming weeks.

Government’s Response

This week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order stipulating the nation’s slaughterhouses continue running as critical infrastructures. On Wednesday during a state press conference, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said he agreed with the president’s order and went into how the state plans to open processing plants and keep workers safe.

“I don’t want to be a hypocrite, I said a few weeks ago that we need to make sure that our meat and our medicine supply chains are kept open,” Holcomb said. “We need to do everything we can to make sure that business is safely conducted.”

Though government officials are for the reopening of producing plants, many have raised concerns about the safety of the workers. Holcomb and Indiana Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said they are working with companies to reopen the plants, but not at the expense of workers. That means deep cleaning at facilities and frequent tests to make sure that both employees and the environment they work in are safe.

Both Federspiel and Trout agree the plants should reopen and stay open, but the well-being of employees and safety must be a priority.

“I want to be an advocate for the packing plants,” Trout said. “I want our state, county, and local officials and even our federal officials to put them on the same page or the same level as our very important doctors, nurses, and first responders because these people are also very important so that the American consumer has enough meat to eat.”

With the president’s executive order, no timeline has been released on how soon the facilities will reopen.

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