Many people are stocking up on extra meat and grocery store shelves might look pretty empty right now—but do we need to worry about a meat shortage due to the coronavirus? Here's what experts say.

Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., R.D.
May 12, 2020
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After being unprepared for the toilet paper shortage, I've been closely watching inventory of meat and poultry at my local grocery ever since producers warned of an impending shortage in mid-April. However, the inventory at my local stores has stayed fairly well-stocked. Granted, purchases of the same meat or poultry product are limited to two per customer, but I've started to wonder if there's reason to be concerned about a meat shortage (and if I should be stocking up).

I recently took a closer look at federal food production and safety guidelines, including COVID-19 updates. I also got a better understanding of production, as well as what's being done to keep workers, consumers and livestock safe, thanks to Colin Woodall, CEO of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA). Here are the basics you need to know about the meat shortage.

Is there really a meat shortage?

Certain areas of the country are finding a lack of meat and/or poultry inventory at local stores. However, this shortage isn't nationwide, and, more importantly, this lack isn't due to a shortage of livestock. Rather, it stems from a breakdown in the supply chain at packing plants, those facilities that harvest, package and then distribute meat and poultry to retail outlets.

Due to cases of COVID-19 causing temporary closures at key plants, overall production decreased in mid-April, and some plants continue below their usual production level's capacity as plants adjust to new spacing and worksite guidelines.

Why are coronavirus outbreaks happening at meat packing plants?

Meat-packing plants are considered "critical infrastructure," which means they remained open while most other plants and businesses temporarily closed earlier this spring. And while only employees without symptoms were allowed to work, close contact among employees led to the spread of the virus within some plants.

The CDC and OSHA issued guidelines several weeks ago to provide additional protection equipment to these essential workers and to implement additional cleaning procedures. Guidelines also require plants to increase space among employees, and many plants continue to operate slightly below capacity as they adjust worksites for these distancing requirements.

Is it safe to eat meat and poultry during COVID-19?

All meat and poultry is considered safe to eat. According to the USDA, there are no known cases where COVID-19 has been contracted through food or food packaging. The primary method that COVID-19 appears to be spread is from human to human, usually through respiratory droplets, so the usage of additional protective gear and heightened cleaning procedures further decreases any potential risk of transmission through food or packaging.

Also, remember to use food safety guidelines when prepping and cooking raw meat and poultry like washing hands, preventing cross-contamination with proper handling and maintaining proper temperatures when storing and cooking.

Why haven't I felt the effects yet?

Location, distribution routes and demand are all variables that can influence when and where meat and poultry shortages are felt. This is why one store may briefly have little to no inventory, yet a store two hours away has plenty.

Not having felt any shortage effects at your local store doesn't necessarily mean you won't experience any either. But because any shortage of inventory is due to supply chain disruptions—not a lack of livestock—the shortage is expected to be temporary. Production will increase as plants re-open and as they learn how to increase production within the distancing guidelines.

Should I stock up on meat and poultry during the coronavirus pandemic?

Shortages at local stores are temporary, and inventory levels will become more stable as production levels resume. Because of this, industry experts don't advise excessively stocking up. Freeze extra meat or poultry that you don't plan to use immediately, and be prepared to adjust cuts of beef, pork or chicken based on availability. Both Beef. It's What's For Dinner and the National Pork Board offer online guides for using different cuts based on cooking method.

Also, look for ways to make ground meat and poultry go further by incorporating plant foods like beans or grains (we love this hack for getting twice as many meals from ground beef), and use a temporary shortage as an opportunity to try new recipes with plant-based proteins like tofu. This doesn't mean going to vegetarian or vegan, but rather adopting a flexitarian approach to eating that includes all protein types. Need some inspo? Try our delicious flexitarian recipes that even serious meat-eaters will love.

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is author to the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100 Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.