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Supermarkets Limit Meat Purchases As Critics Call For Investigation of Big Meat Companies

Amy Mayer
Hy-Vee, Costco and other stores have started limiting how much fresh meat customers can buy at once.

Walk into a supermarket and you might find that you can only buy a few packages of fresh chicken, beef or pork.

Costco, Hy-Vee and other grocery stores blame the move on industrywide shortages brought on by the closing of some meat-packing plants because workers became infected with COVID-19.

The temporary shut downs have caused a hiccup in the supply chain: last week, processing of cattle and hogs plunged nearly 40 percent.

But meat processing was at an all-time high before the pandemic and a lot of that was targeted for export. Overseas demand has plummeted.

All that’s to say, there’s plenty of meat out there.

Many observers say stores are imposing limits to prevent hoarding. Remember the run on toilet paper early in the quarntine? They don’t want to see that again.

“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,” says Oklahoma State University livestock economist Derrell Peel.

Credit Amy Mayer / IPR
Hy-Vee has made 5-pound packages of ground beef available. But customers ordering from the counter are limited to 3-pound packages. There are other limits on fresh meat, but not on frozen.

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 McDonalds and Burger King that cook frozen patties aren’t seeing shortages.

In the 1980s, Wendy’s gained notoriety for its “Where’s the beef?” commercials, and now it’s their own customers asking that question. About 20 percent of the chain’s restaurants ran out of hamburgers this month. Wendy’s uses only fresh beef, as 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.

"We think there needs to be an investigation into what’s going on here,” says Tony Corbo, senior government affairs representative with the advocacy group Food and Water Watch. “The companies tend to collude to manipulate the consumer prices.”

He wants a federal investigation to see if meat packers 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 percent of beef and pork slaughter and processing. Now, Tyson, JBS, Smithfield and Cargill account for nearly 80 percent.

The plant closures and the buying limits have sent some people looking elsewhere for their steaks and chops. 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. She took a hit on price to prevent even greater losses if she held onto the animals longer.

“I now have the phone ringing off the hook because people are starting to connect the dots,” she says. “But they didn’t connect the dots soon enough, thank you very much, from my perspective, because I already had to … poop or get off the pot.”

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 on line.

Follow Amy on Twitter: @AgAmyinAmes