Gary Holland is a carnivore: He’s on a first-name basis with the meat manager at his local Market Basket, and gets special cuts put aside for him at the counter.
So when he got word from his guy this week that the store’s supply was growing thin, Holland sprung into action. “I have two big freezers, so I loaded up on things and grabbed as much of the chicken as I could,” the Stoneham-based electrician said, spending more than $200 on meat alone at the checkout. The thought of being without, he said, “was like dragging an alcoholic out of a bar.”
The novel coronavirus has brought the US meat industry to a seemingly unheard of moment in a first-world country: rationing in the grocery aisles as some two dozen meatpacking plants across the country have shuttered as infections raced through the workforce. Consumer prices have jumped, stores are limiting purchases, and farmers and ranchers are euthanizing livestock because slaughterhouses are closed.
On Tuesday, in an effort to stave off shortages, President Trump took the extraordinary step of an executive order directing US meat plants to remain open. After weeks of inaction, the executive order closely followed the administration’s release this past weekend of social distancing guidelines for plants where workers are accustomed to standing elbow-to-elbow slicing the sirloins and flanks for our dinner plates.
But many who have been watching the virus creep into the food system say that because the new CDC guidelines are not mandated, they’ll do little to stem the spread.
“The executive order allows companies to knowingly put workers at risk. It removes the few legal protections that workers have, and protects the companies from lawsuits instead,” said William Masters, a professor of economics at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition. It’s "astonishing to see the Defense Production Act used in this way, especially when the administration has done so little to use the law to fix shortages of medical supplies and PPE. ... It’s breathtaking, really.”
Food industry analysts say this crisis has revealed the vulnerabilities in the meat system. More than 3,000 workers have been diagnosed with the virus, and at least 17 workers have died. Pork and beef production is down 25 percent as result of the outbreaks, and two of the country’s largest producers, Tyson and Smithfield, have suspended operations at two massive plants. The US Department of Agriculture now anticipates beef, chicken, and pork prices to climb between 1 and 3 percent this year. This past weekend, Tyson took out full page ads in major newspapers stating that the “food supply chain is vulnerable.”
The crisis is now playing out throughout the region’s grocery chains. After weeks of having a steady meat supply, “We’ve hit a wall,” admitted Arthur Ackles, vice president of merchandising for Roche Bros. He said that he expects the chain to begin limiting meat purchases to two packages of each type per customer on Thursday.
“And prices are going through the roof," he added. "We’ve been really careful. We don’t want to put any more stress on customers, but it’s getting to the point where we’re seeing a 100 to 200 percent increase in cost, particularly in beef, and the consumer is going to start feeling that.”
So how did we get here?
“When we suddenly declared everyone working in food production as essential, it was a green light for those businesses to keep doing business as usual,” said Emily Broad Leib, head of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard University. Plants continued operating without issuing proper protective gear to their workers, she said, and once people started falling ill, it set off a chain reaction that we’re seeing now.
“This is going to get worse before it gets better,” she said.
But industry hardships are not only being borne by factory workers.
“The coronavirus pandemic has amplified all the challenges of the food system and animal supply chain,” said Jessie Deelo, a sustainable agriculture consultant based in Boston. She said modern, large-scale agricultural systems are designed to optimize efficiency, with hundreds of farmers relying on some of the largest meat-processing plants in the country to process millions of animals each week.
But that efficiency means running on the tightest of margins. So when plants slow down their processing, or close entirely, shock waves ripple through the system. Farmers who have raised livestock for slaughter are now left without options, she said, and many are now euthanizing barns full of animals and burying them.
“When the system works, consumers benefit," said Deelo. “But when the system is disrupted, the weaknesses are hurting the individuals the most. And consumers are going to see inflated meat prices and possible supply disruption.”
Adding to the disruption is the closure of restaurants and other institutions that buy meat in bulk, said John Kinnealey, president of T.F. Kinnealey & Co., which distributes meat to hotels, universities, and more than 1,500 restaurants in New England.
“If you look at the industry five weeks ago, there was a great symbiotic balance between food service and retail in terms of the different parts of animals being divided up for consumption," he said. Ground beef went to grocery stores, while the choice sirloin cuts ended up at steakhouses. But now those restaurants have shuttered and “buying habits have gone haywire" with empty nesters suddenly shopping for a houseful of kids again.
That’s exactly the scenario Patty Astuti of Tewksbury is experiencing. She’s attempting to feed seven people during the pandemic, including one son home from college and another who moved in with his wife and daughter earlier this year so they could save up for a home. She typically spent $200 a week on groceries, but now goes multiple times a week to keep stocking up due to shortages.
During a trip to BJ’s in Stoneham on Tuesday, she said, the meat department was nearly wiped out. “They had no chicken in the cooler," she said, and the entire meat section had only some rotisserie birds, some beef, and a few slabs of ribs.
Experts say they understand why consumers would choose to bulk up their meat buying, even if it’s not in their own best interest, as that may drive up prices. “Some of the gyrations at the meat counter have been due to panic buying or seeking comfort foods,” said Masters.
“We’re not going to see a scarcity, but the immediate effect is that we won’t see a wide variety of product on the shelves over the next months while the sheltering in place is happening,” said Christopher Mejia Argueta, a research scientist at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics.
He said it’s important to remember that unlike swine flu or mad cow disease, this virus is not affecting the animals. So while prices may rise slightly, the supply will remain largely intact. He anticipates that, like the virus itself, the impact on the meat supply chain will be cyclical, with the US turning to imports from other countries that may not be experiencing viral outbreaks. “While certain regions of the world are recovering," he said, "others will be helping to provide food to them.”
Many industry experts say that, while the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of the food system, they’re skeptical about whether it will affect the industry in the long run.
“I’m a bit of a cynic,” said Deelo. “If the Newtown [school shooting] couldn’t fix gun policy, I don’t know how coronavirus fixes this. Tyson can take out a full page ad, but your chicken farmers are up to their necks in debt." Until the industry adjusts and workers and farmers have a social safety net, little will change, she said.
“The deck is stacked against them.”