Photo by Oliver Sjöström from Pexels

By Glenn Townes

As a number of meatpacking and processing plants across the country have reduced or ceased operations at some point in the past three months, consumers are echoing a cry that harks back to a familiar lament more than thirty years ago, “Where’s the beef?”

Back then, the simple question was asked by a feisty and some might say crotchety, yet lovable octogenarian named Clara Peller in several classic and enormously popular Wendy’s fast food restaurant television commercials in the mid 1980’s. While Peller is long gone, her trademark catchphrase has made an unexpected resurgence of sorts among shoppers at grocery stores and supermarkets during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While it’s no surprise that meat processing plants may continue to be a casualty of COVID-19—as most workers tend to be huddled together, elbow to elbow, and in some cases, face to face at assembly lines and conveyor belts—social distancing guidelines are near impossible to maintain. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers, a union representing thousands of grocery and food service workers, pork production has shrunk by 20 percent and the output of beef has dipped by about 10 percent since late March and April. The grim figures which are predicted to increase as COVID-19 fears linger on, have forced some retailers to limit meat purchases and, in some cases, increased prices of various meat products. For example, Kroger, the nation’s largest supermarket chain, based in Ohio, imposed strict limitations on the amount of pork, beef and chicken customers can purchase. In most cases, only two items of each are allowed.

In New Jersey, mega-chains like Shop Rite and Stop and Shop have implemented similar restrictions in an effort to protect supply and demand chain and prevent customer hoarding. And Warehouse club chains with a wide presence in New Jersey like Costco have also restricted purchases of beef, pork and poultry products. In a media release last month, the company acknowledged limitations and restrictions were necessary in order to meet customer demand and satisfaction. “Our buyers and suppliers are working hard to provide essential, high demand merchandise as well as everyday favorites,” the company announced. And upscale and privately owned grocers like Wegmans and McCaffrey’s Markets are asking shoppers to limit purchases on various items, including meat.

Lastly, the limitations are in response to growing fears of nationwide meat shortage, 

mostly sparked by the closing in the past month or two of a meatpacking plants, including Tyson, Foods, Smithfield Foods and Cargill, The plants have been closed for inspection, sanitation and safety precautions following outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers. To ensure worker safety and proper food processing and handling during the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has mandated meat and poultry processing plants to continue operations. The edict was underscored when President Trump signed an Executive Order in late April providing the authority to continue the supply of beef, pork and poultry to consumers.

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