Price hikes & limits could last to June as meatpacking facilities react to COVID-19 outbreaks

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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Consumers are experiencing price hikes and purchase limits at grocery store meat markets as processing plants adjust their workflow to manage COVID-19 outbreaks.

The Texas Beef Council said beef processing is down 25% due to slower production at processing facilities across the country amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Some of those processing facilities started to have some infection rates in their population and their workforce, they were forced to do some things to address that and that started to slow down,” Texas Beef Council senior manager Russell Woodward explained.

Near Amarillo, the federal government is sending a strike force, which will be testing all workers at plants experiencing outbreaks.

Lara Anton with the Texas Department of State Health Services said a team of public health professionals from the CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, along with local and state officials will be visiting these particular processing plants this week.

“The team will assess the situation at the plants and make recommendations on ways that they can protect their employees and the surrounding community,” Anton said.

Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller explained this is not a supply issue.

“What we have is a labeling, processing and distribution problem all three of those are wreaking havoc with our meat supply,” Miller said, “I don’t think you won’t be able to get any meat, I think you can, but you may not get the certain cuts.”

Heidi Gollub has been purchasing her groceries online to avoid shopping in stores to reduce her risk of exposure. She said it’s become more of a process to get what she needs.

“Now I’m forced to plan meals for two weeks in advance because I need to know that I’m gonna have what I need,” Gollub said, “I can’t just send my husband to the store once a week anymore. I have to have backups and make lots of small orders to substitute for things that the store may not have had.”

Gollub is also paying more, with prices increasing across the country.

“Less supply as you know, drives prices up. So you can get ready to pay a little bit more,” TDA Commissioner Miller said.

“There is a bit of a price increase anyways with ordering curbside, and I’m also shopping for my parents and they prefer, you know, grass-fed beef organic, and that has a higher price tag than what I’m used to for my family too. So, definitely we’re spending a lot more money across the board,” Gollub said.

She said it feels like it’s been difficult to find exactly what she needs since the pandemic began, not just in recent weeks when processing plants experienced outbreaks. Woodward explained this is because there was a different problem at the beginning.

“In March, we had panic-buying that occurred. And so everybody rushed the grocery store and was buying as much as they could,” Woodward explained.

He said the processing plants finally caught up to meet retailers’ increased demands, until the facilities started experiencing problems of their own.

The higher prices and purchase limits will be around until production at the plants is able to pick up again. “It will probably be, you know, June, July before things start to really get back up,” Woodward said.

Miller explained the products coming from these facilities are still passing inspections by the USDA.

“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that our food supply is absolutely safe,” Miller said.

The slowdown is also having a big impact on producers.

“Projections for the year of 2020, were somewhere around 27 billion pounds of beef that we’re going to produce. We’ve got those animals queued up in the system to go forward,” Woodward said.

Robert McKnight, president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, said producers’ inventories keep building up.

“It’s just economics 101 we have got a big supply out there, trying to get them through the processors to the consumers. And as you know when you have a big supply, the price goes up down, and we have seen a significant price to price decrease on our end,” McKnight explained.

He explained the most concerning part is not knowing what the long-term impact will be.

“To get started, we need to see our processors running at full capacity. And I don’t know when that’s going to happen,” McKnight said.

However, he said there’s no reason for consumers to panic-buy.

“I would wouldn’t want to throw any alarm to the consumers. There is plenty of product out there,” McKnight said, “We’re just a little slower getting it to the retail level of the grocery stores.”

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