COVID-19 is causing meat shortages in supermarkets and grocery stores

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USDA officials say things should be back to normal in the next few weeks

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken another bite out of the availability of meat at grocery stores across the U.S. 

First, some meat processing plants were forced to close -- including a key plant owned by Smithfield, the largest pig and pork producer in the world. The ripple effect of those closures cut into the number of chickens processed and cattle and hogs slaughtered. 

Now, the chain of events has produced a shortage in the types of meat cuts supermarkets usually have a good supply of, like pork ribs and sliced chicken breasts. 

Supply vs. demand and efficiency

FoodMarket reports that at B&R Stores Inc., a Midwestern grocery chain, meat sales have rocketed some 30 percent over the past month, yet suppliers are filling only about 75 percent of meat orders. 

Cargill and Tyson, two of the largest U.S. meat suppliers, told FoodMarket that some meat products are currently in limited supply because some of those cuts are in lower demand or aren't as efficient to produce as other products. 

Case-in-point is the Stew Leonard's chain. It stopped offering sliced chicken breast altogether, and it moved its priority toward selling whole breast parts. That move paid off, too. Chicken-breast sales are up about 60 percent, Chief Executive Stew Leonard Jr. told FoodMarket.

The lack of meat is putting grocers in a tight spot. In B&R’s situation, it’s limiting customers to a single 10-pound roll of ground beef and cutting back to a limited variety of lean meats. 

"We are very concerned about fresh meat," Mark Griffin, the president of the B&R chain said. "We have fresh meat today, but there are indicators that it will be a problem in the future."

USDA says things will be alright soon

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) wants consumers to know that, yes, there is a shortage, but the agency claims that it was a direct reflection of consumers rushing to stock up when COVID-19 was in the early panic stage.

“Producers and retailers typically plan for steady demand increases and were not prepared to deal with the rapid surge we saw with the onset of the crisis,” wrote the USDA’s Chief Economist, Robert Johansson, in a blog post.

“But over the next few weeks, as retailers restock their shelves and demand from overstocked consumers decline, we will see fewer empty shelves and prices should stabilize or even decline.”

Overall, Johansson says, the supply and demand factors the market is seeing right now points to stable -- and perhaps lower -- market prices in the next few weeks.

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