Possible meat shortage has customers asking: 'Where's the beef?'
For people in the Berkshires, the answer is right in their backyard
Many of the nation's top media have been reporting that production at U.S. meat-packing plants has been disrupted by employee cases of COVID-19, leading to possibly higher prices and scarcity for popular items like ground beef and chicken breasts in supermarket meat cases. Many grocers, seeking to head off panic buying — as was previously experienced with items like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, flour and yeast — have begun limiting purchases and say they are preparing for shortages.
According to a report in The Wall Street Journal on May 6, these shortages may intensify in the coming weeks given the lag between production at the slaughterhouses and distribution to stores. Shoppers can expect higher prices, slimmed-down selections and nudges to choose plant-based meat alternatives or less popular cuts of meat.
However, some meat experts in The Berkshires are optimistic. Tom Nichols, co-owner of Harry's Supermarket on Wahconah Street in Pittsfield, said meat sales at the store have tripled since the state-mandated quarantine in mid-March, but added, it's starting to calm down.
"It's a supply issue. We have a better advantage than the chain stores do," he said in a phone interview Wednesday. "They usually have one warehouse they deal with. I have three or four suppliers I can call. If one doesn't have an item, I can call another one. My variety is better."
But that doesn't mean customers can always get what they want when they want it. He explained that a truck of grocery items that were supposed to arrive that morning was not going to get there until later Wednesday night, resulting in the items not being on the shelves for Wednesday's customers as the store currently closes at 6 p.m.
"We're taking what [the suppliers] are offering. Beggars can't be choosers," he said. "I'll take what they've got. I explain to the customers the meat is there, just maybe not the cuts they're looking for. We may be out of T-bone steaks, but we may have Delmonicos." He said meat prices have increased by 15 percent or more since the pandemic shutdown began.
"[The meat shortage] should start easing off in a few weeks, by mid-June [as the meat-packing industry returns to normal]," he said. "It's manageable. We've got to go with the flow. It should start straightening out. Be patient. It will get better."
Mike Dolle, owner of Mountain Top Country Meats on Main Road in Savoy, said business at his store has quadrupled since the coronavirus pandemic.
"I've been stocking the shelves regularly, twice as much more than I ever have," he said in a phone interview Tuesday. "I've been getting customers from Connecticut, Rhode Island, Winchester, Boston and from all over Western Massachusetts," he said. "There aren't any butcher shops anymore."
He said he has recently sold six beef, 12 pigs and 160 chickens and has just ordered two organic beef cattle.
Dolle believes there will be a meat shortage, but that it won't be that bad in The Berkshires.
"There's one [virus-affected meat-packing facility] in Iowa that processes 1.3 million pounds of pork per day, so that will become an issue," he said, adding he thinks major metropolitan areas like New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia, will be impacted more than small rural areas.
"Small-time butchers are still operating," he said. "There's no issue in Western Massachusetts. In the long run, it's not that bad."
Dolle said most of the meat at his store comes from local farms.
"I look at the animals and choose what ones I want, and the ones that are acceptable," he said, adding "acceptable" includes knowing what the animal eats and, if it is grain-fed, what the ingredients in the grain are.
He said right now, he can easily get beef, lamb, goat and chicken. He said he having a hard time acquiring processed pork — pork belly and pork butt — and doesn't have them currently available. He said pork processing plants in Canada are still operating and are unaffected by the coronavirus.
"If I can't get it there, I know people locally who breed pigs. Ninety percent of my shop is local," he said.
Dolle advised people to buy a freezer, although "you can't find a freezer to buy. There are none available [as people stock up fearing a meat shortage] and that's becoming an issue."
Sean Stanton and his wife, Tess Diamond Stanton, raise beef cattle, chickens and pigs on more than 500 acres of land they own or lease in Great Barrington. They have a herd of 70 beef cattle, 2,000 laying chickens and 200 pigs per year, in addition to a herd of 15 milking cows on their dairy in Monterey.
Prior to the onset of the coronavirus quarantine, Diamond-Stanton said 50 percent of their meat and chicken went to Blue Hills Restaurant in New York City and its sister restaurant in Westchester, N.Y., and 20 percent at the Great Barrington Farmers Market. (The farmers market reopened last week, she said, and is doubling the value of SNAP benefits.)
"Ninety percent of the business is now to consumers through our farm store," she said. "We had a huge spike in business before March 15, when everyone hunkered down, People were panic-buying." She added sales reached levels usually not seen until the summer.
"People are coming and buying less now; there seems to be less panic buying. It was the kind of moment where there is a real reckoning how fragile the food system is. People are looking toward local food and want to see reconciliation in our communities."
Diamond-Stanton said the farm currently has no beef, but it's not due to any issues with the meat-packing factories in the Midwest. North Plain Farm uses a small slaughterhouse in Eagle Bridge, N.Y., which she said is "a conscientious facility. They take care of the animals and their employees." She added the facility was small and wasn't seeing any COVID-19 cases and was able to control any resulting issues.
The farm's current shortage of beef comes from the increased sales this spring. She explained they plan their beef supply about 18 months out, with the pull slated for the end of August, and of course, they had no way of foreseeing the pandemic.
"People were buying it so quickly," she said. "We'll have more in August. We have plenty of pork and next week we'll have chickens available."
She suggested that one way people could get through any meat shortage was to buy high-quality meat, but eat less of it.
"People don't need to eat a lot of meat," she said. She also assured customers the farm can supply them with high-quality meat through the summer, just maybe not what they are used to, and urged them to try new things. For example, she said, the farm has stew hens, retired chickens who are no longer laying eggs.
"They are really nutritious and have dark yellow fat, but they need to be cooked longer."
She also said if there is no ground beef available, ask what can be used in its place. "It may take longer to cook, but look at the odd bits, and look to the farmers for tips."
Diamond-Stanton advises consumers to ask as many questions as possible when it comes to buying meat.
"What are the animals fed? Where are they coming from? How were they raised?," she said. "Make friends with the farmers and know where they can be found."
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