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Meatpackers Warn That The Coronavirus Outbreaks Might Lead To Meat Shortages

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Lately, there's been concern about meat shortages, with some grocery stores limiting purchases. That's because the pandemic has disrupted production at some meatpacking plants. But as Amy Mayer of Iowa Public Radio reports, those shortages don't appear to be widespread, and they likely won't last long.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Online shopping, you have a call on line one. Online shopping, line one.

AMY MAYER, BYLINE: Walk into a supermarket and you might see a sign instructing you that you can only buy a few packages of fresh chicken, beef or pork. Temporary shutdowns at packing plants have caused a hiccup in the supply chain. Last week, processing of cattle and hogs plunged nearly 40%. But consider this - meat processing was at an all-time high before the pandemic. A lot of that was targeted for export, but overseas demand plummeted. All that's to say there's plenty of meat out there. It appears that in most places, any limits are about preventing hoarding; think toilet paper a few months ago. Oklahoma State University livestock economist Derrell Peel says stores don't want to see that again.

DERRELL PEEL: They're sort of making, again, that somewhat limited supply, somewhat limited selection of products, in some cases, go farther across their broader consumer base.

MAYER: And keep in mind - this is only about fresh meat. The country has hundreds of millions of pounds of frozen meat in storage. That's why fast food chains, like McDonald's and Burger King, that cook frozen patties aren't seeing shortages.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1984 WENDY'S COMMERCIAL, "WHERE'S THE BEEF?")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Big fluffy bun.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: It's a very big fluffy bun.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: Where's the beef?

MAYER: Some Wendy's customers are asking that question, again, after about 20% of the chain's restaurants ran out of hamburgers. Wendy's uses only fresh beef. So does Shake Shack, which says it's facing higher beef prices. That's in part a reflection of the perceived shortage. But some critics suggest the biggest meat suppliers may not be playing fair.

TONY CORBO: We think that there needs to be an investigation into what's going on here.

MAYER: Tony Corbo is with the advocacy group Food & Water Watch.

CORBO: The companies tend to collude to manipulate the consumer prices.

MAYER: He wants a federal investigation to see if meatpackers are violating antitrust laws. And this week, 11 state attorneys general sent a letter to the Justice Department seeking just such a probe. It's not a new allegation. Last year, beef companies asked courts to dismiss several lawsuits, alleging they conspired to influence markets. In 1980, the top four meat companies controlled less than 40% of beef and pork slaughter and processing. Now Tyson, JBS, Smithfield and Cargill account for nearly 80%. The plant closures and the buying limits have sent some people looking elsewhere for their meat. Central Iowa farmer Suzanne Castello usually sells her beef, chicken and pork directly to consumers. But in the early days of the pandemic, she sold off some of her cattle, fearing customers wouldn't come.

SUZANNE CASTELLO: I now have the phone ringing off the hook because people are starting to connect the dots.

MAYER: She's hopeful her new customers will stick around long after limits at the supermarket are lifted. Meanwhile, with a mandate from the Trump administration to keep producing, meat companies are pushing hard to get their plants back online.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Mayer in Ames, Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "A CALF BORN IN WINTER")

MARTIN: Amy's story comes to us from Harvest Public Media. That's a Midwest reporting collaborative.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "A CALF BORN IN WINTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.