Shoppers at grocery stores across the Calumet Region have been greeted with signs in the meat departments apologizing for any increases in price, saying their suppliers are now charging more.
The coronavirus pandemic disrupted production at meat processing facilities nationwide, which has resulted in shortages, more limited selection and higher prices across the country. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said the state was working to "make sure our meat and medicine pipelines remain flowing."
Northwest Indiana retailers and restaurants in some cases have increased prices and limited purchases as customers flock to stockpile meat, fearing it might become unavailable or harder to come by. But they continue to keep meat stocked.
"We're seeing an impact in our meat business from plants closing," Strack & Van Til Chief Marketing and Merchandising Officer Michael Tyson said. "We’ve seen product availability tighten up and costs have been escalating at a rapid rate. Our meat director has done a great job keeping us in stock, so no limits are in place at this time."
Nationally, beef and pork production fell as much as 35% compared to last year, as 22 beef, pork and poultry processing plants have shut down nationwide after at least 5,000 workers fell sick and at least 20 died, according to a report from Steiner Consulting Group.
Even a few plant closures cause major disruption in the industry, since just 50 plants in the United States handle 98% of the slaughter of cows, from more than 768,000 cattle operations. That beef goes to 40,000 grocery stores and more than 1 million restaurants across the country, as well as to thousands of buyers in export markets.
Major meat producers like Smithfield, Tyson and JBS warned America may soon face a meat shortage, even taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times.
"There’s a number of reasons why there has been a higher incidence of coronavirus infections in meat packing plants," Steiner Consulting Group said in the report. "Working elbow to elbow on the line makes social distancing impossible. Many of the workers in these plants are immigrants. They live in close-knit communities and they often share apartments and drive to work together, making them more susceptible to infection when there is an outbreak."
Meat plants have been doing deep cleans, changing production protocols and doing testing, but getting workers to show up has become a challenge. That's been creating backlogs on livestock farms that operate in a just-in-time fashion.
"Finished livestock needs to keep moving to make space for the young animals that follow behind. Some producers have found that they simply cannot get their animals slaughtered and converted into meat," according to the report. "So while meat prices continue to move sharply higher, livestock prices remain depressed."
Wholesale meat prices have soared, according to the report that was commissioned by Associated Wholesale Grocers. Coarse ground beef is selling for around $4.06 per pound, up from $1.91 a pound at the same time last year. Boneless center cut pork loins are selling for $2.51 a pound, if you can find them, up from $1.84 a pound in early April.
Amid the escalating stresses on the supply chain, Meijer, which has local stores in Highland, Merrillville, Portage, Valparaiso and Michigan City, is not limiting the overall amount of meat customers can buy, but is limiting some in-demand items.
"We work with multiple suppliers and vendors, so we are currently stocked with most meat options," Meijer spokesman Joe Hirschmugl said. "We have placed purchase limits on some meat products and we’ll continue working hard to keep as many fresh and frozen meat options as possible available for our customers in the coming weeks."
Meat is the new toilet paper. Fears of shortages have led customers to stockpile many meat products that they worry might not be available later.
“Meat continues to be in high demand as customers stock up on protein," a Walmart spokesperson said. "As we would normally do during periods of high demand, we are working through our supply chain to continually replenish items as quickly as possible to help us meet the needs of our customers.”
Despite the run on meat, Target, which has superstores across Northwest Indiana, is not currently placing any limits on purchases.
"We are in close, daily contact with all of our vendors to understand what is happening with their operations and currently do not have any concerns about material supply issues," spokeswoman Angie Thompson said.
The meat availability issues have hit area restaurants as well. Eateries like Romano's Pizza in Griffith and The Librarium in Hobart have had difficulty procuring the meat they normally buy.
"Meat is hard to come by, and now because of that, there is inflation. And also butcher shops and locally sourced meat is becoming scarce and hard to find, making it hard for restaurants to even offer some of their menu options," said publicist Monica Jimenez Susoreny, who works with a number of Northwest Indiana restaurants and organizes food-related events like the NWI Food Truck Fest and the Ramen competition at Zorn Brewing. "The same is happening with corn tortillas."
Many wondered "Where's the beef?" amid startling national news reports that as many as 1 out of 5 Wendy's restaurants across the country were temporarily not serving burgers because of a shortage of beef. That has not yet impacted the fast food eateries in Northwest Indiana, according to a local Wendy's franchisee who stressed she was not speaking on behalf of the brand.
"It is widely known that beef suppliers across North America are currently facing production challenges," Barney Enterprises Management Services President Julie Bieszczat said. "We continue to supply hamburgers to all of our restaurants, with deliveries two or three times a week, which is consistent with normal delivery schedules. However, some of our menu items may be in short supply from time to time at some restaurants in this current environment. We’re working diligently to minimize any potential impact to our customers and restaurants."
Experts said consumers should be flexible and not expect to get their typical brand of chicken or a specific cut of beef in the short term, instead making do with whatever they can find.
Relief may be on the way. Smaller farms and processing plants may be able to step up and supply restaurants and consumers, according to Consumer Reports.
“What this pandemic has shown us is that we need a robust local and regional food system that connects farmers with consumers because it is able to be more resilient in times of crisis,” policy analyst Charlotte Vallaeys said.