Is There a COVID-19 Meat Shortage?

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There is a lot of misleading information floating around about livestock systems and a “meat shortage”. There are a few things that consumers should understand before spreading misinformation and feeding into the unknown and fear caused by the current COVID-19 pandemic.

First, there is currently no shortage of meat. The United States is self-sufficient when it comes to providing fresh protein for the nation as a whole and we are not producing less animals now due to the coronavirus. COVID-19 is, however, causing difficulties and disruptions in our meat supply chain.

The main issue is having an alternate place to send market-ready animals when there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in a processing plant, and they have to shut down. This has been the case with the Smithfield Foods processing plant in South Dakota. It is a matter of trying to reroute animals to plants that are still operational, while still abiding by the strict regulations and biosecurity measures (keeping animals and humans safe and not spreading disease) and not overloading other processing plants that are still operational.

With schools and dining rooms closed at restaurants, there is plenty of product that would normally be going to these facilities, but they’re having to be rerouted to grocery stores, which can take some time. It is a balancing act that the food chain supply companies are doing their best to work out.

What does all this mean for the farmers? Farming is not an easy way of life. It requires dedication, hard work and loyalty to the land and livestock. Farmers are now having to hold animals on their farms longer, which means spending more money on feed, housing and labor for animals that should already have been transported to processing plants. Farmers can’t receive new animals on the farm until the finished (ready for processing) animals have been transported off the farm, and this is causing a backup in the animal agriculture production system. Again, this backup does not mean there is a currently a meat shortage; it just means that fresh protein is taking longer than normal to get to your local grocery stores.

That said, there could be a shortage of meat in the next few weeks – 18 months – due to many variables including processing plants having to take more time to sanitize and disinfect and spread workers further apart to maintain social distancing standards, as well as trying to get fresh meat distributed to retail outlets. That doesn’t mean you should go to the grocery store and purchase more meat than your family needs, but it is suggested that you purchase quantities of meat your family will consume on a regular basis when you can find it readily available at your grocery store. Families can also purchase meat and freeze it for future use.

Things that you can do to help animal ag production systems with the current COVID-19 situation are buying only what your family needs, spreading factual information, and supporting agriculture at every opportunity (for example, local strawberry farms have an excellent crop this year). Farmers are doing their best to continue supplying American families with fresh, safe, and quality products. You should also be aware there is no threat of contracting COVID-19 from eating meat. Here is some information on proper food handling and safety:

It is not recommended to wash poultry before cooking it. Research from the U.K. Food Standards Agency shows that bacteria from chicken can travel up to three feet from where it was washed. This means when you wash raw poultry, you’re more prone to spread germs rather than eliminate them. The safest way to remove bacteria is by cooking the chicken to the correct temperature, which is 165° Fahrenheit.

Buying meat in bulk and freezing in meal sized portions is a great way to save money and meal plan. If using a freezer bag, make sure to get as much air out as possible. From a food safety standpoint, meats can be cooked frozen or thawed. In preparation for mealtime, pull meat from the freezer and set in the refrigerator for one to two days before cooking. Or thaw your meat under cool running water. Be sure to cook meat to the proper temperature before consumption.

At this time the CDC and the USDA are not aware of any reports that COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging. The virus needs a living host to grow in and cannot grow in food. There are no significant findings regarding the spread of the virus on produce or packaging. It is recommended to wash produce with cool water before consumption. Do not use disinfectants, cleaning wipes, or soap on produce. Following proper hygiene practices such as: washing hands and surfaces, separating raw meat from other foods, cooking to the right temperature, and promptly refrigerating foods is as important as always.

When shopping for food, use hand sanitizer and cart wipes, shop alone, go with a plan, maintain social distancing, and only touch what you will buy. Handling of food packaging and produce can be followed with handwashing and/or using hand sanitizer.

Discover more information on COVID-19 food safety resources. If you have any food safety questions, feel free to contact Sarah Ware at Sarah_Ware@ncsu.edu. If you have any questions on livestock or poultry and the current meat supply, please contact Katie Carter at Katie_Carter@ncsu.edu or Margaret Ross at Margaret_Ross@ncsu.edu.

Written in collaboration by:
Katie Carter – Livestock Agent for Jones, Craven and Pamlico Counties
Margaret Ross – Extension Area Specialized Agent for Poultry (Eastern Region)
Sarah Ware – Extension Family and Consumer Sciences Agent for Jones and Onslow Counties