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Is a meat shortage looming? Central Pa. grocers brace for limited supplies, price hikes

  • By Sue Gleiter/PennLive
A worker wearing a mask packages meat for sale at Broad Street Market in Harrisburg on April 10, 2020. The market is much quieter since the coronavirus pandemic effectively shut down the region.

 Kate Landis / PA Post

A worker wearing a mask packages meat for sale at Broad Street Market in Harrisburg on April 10, 2020. The market is much quieter since the coronavirus pandemic effectively shut down the region.

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It’s not time to go hog wild in the supermarket meat aisle.

As coronavirus outbreaks force the temporary closures of some of the nation’s biggest slaughterhouses, some grocery stores are bracing for limited supplies of pork, chicken and beef.

“The food chain is breaking,” wrote Tyson’s board chairman John Tyson in a full-page ad on Sunday.

In the ad published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and via a letter posted on the company’s website, Tyson warned: “There will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed.”

As plants close down, farmers with no place to sell their livestock, are making difficult decisions to dispose of their animals.

“Millions of pounds of meat” will disappear from the nation’s food supply, Tyson said.

The warning came as the company closed plants last week in Waterloo, Iowa, and Logansport, Indiana, as well as one of its beef processing plants in Pasco, Washington and its chicken plant in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

It joins others including Smithfield Foods’ Sioux Falls, South Dakota facility, where at least one worker died from the virus, as well as JBS pork processing plant in Worthington, Minnesota.

The disruptions are likely to trickle down to grocery stores already hard hit by shortages of high-demand items such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies.

However, President Donald Trump on Tuesday was expected to sign an executive order meant to stave off a shortage of chicken, pork and other meat on American supermarket shelves.

According to the Associated Press, Trump told reporters that “there’s plenty of supply,” but that supply chains had hit what he called a “road block. It’s sort of a legal roadblock more than anything else,” he said.

In central Pa., meat selection appears spotty at some stores, depending on the day and time. Grocers anticipate a few hiccups in the coming weeks related to inventory and pricing.

“There will be meat to buy. The customers may just need to make a few adjustments,” said Scott Karns, CEO and president of Karns Foods.

Specifically, he shared some pre-packaged items such as sandwich steaks, sausage and cold cuts are out of stock. In addition, he said Karns stores are setting purchase maximums on some in-stock chicken and burger items.

Karns and other grocers warn shoppers shouldn’t stockpile or hoard meat. In fact, he said the more news about potential meat shortages is reported, the more shoppers buy.

“We feel that some items will become short-supplied but only for a short term. Currently, we don’t think the shortages will be long term and customers need to limit purchases to weekly needs or more shortages will occur,” Karns said.

At Giant, limits have not been initiated, but company spokeswoman Ashley Flower emphasized while meat is available, shoppers might not always find a full assortment.

“We’re working closely with our supplier partners and even working with alternative suppliers to secure product. And we continue to encourage customers to buy only what they need,” she said.

Weis Markets’ spokesman Dennis Curtin said its stores are in good shape and have secured a significant amount of beef, pork, ground beef and poultry. He added they are monitoring the processing plant closures and heard some are scheduled to reopen in the near future.

Supply issues aren’t the only challenge shoppers will face. Meat prices also are expected to rise.

While Karns said prices are level this week, it will be a different story by next week.

He anticipates hikes on high-demand items such as chicken wings and tenders, steaks and burgers as supplies dry up due to reduced production. In addition, he said as restaurants reopen, the demand will increase pushing up prices.

Karns noted the problem will continue until plants are all back in operation at full capacity.

“Please remember, we have the product out on farms. It just needs processed and that may take a few weeks to return to normal. America has loads of meat, produce and food. We are going to get through this issue. It will just take a little creativity and patience,” he said.

Since the start of the pandemic, many shoppers have been gravitating to local purveyors, including butcher shops to buy meat.

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