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This is why you're finding fancy meat cuts at your local grocery store -- but maybe not ground beef

Butcher Jeff Green expects Northwest meat prices to rise even higher in the near future, as disruptions to Washington's food supply chain continue.

"The prices have pretty much doubled across the board on almost all meat in the last few weeks," Green said. "The bigger problem is, even if you were willing to pay that price, there may not be anything out there to buy. I’m talking about the wholesale side. We’re well stocked out right now and we are not going to run out for quite a while. But there are certain cuts that will run out at some point.”

Green runs B&E Meats and Seafood, which serves the retail side of meat sales. They do not supply restaurants, which have been mostly shut down amid Washington's stay home order. B&E has been in operation for three generations now, and currently has four locations in the Seattle area.

Like other butcher shops in the region, all four B&E locations are busy these days -- more so than under normal conditions.

“People have really stocked up," Green said. "I think there are a lot of freezers that are far more full than they’ve been in many years."

There are a few reasons for that, starting with anxiety over potential meat shortages. But to fully understand why the Northwest's complex food supply system has suffered a shock, and how that affects your trip to the grocery store, there are a few key things to know:

  • There are two sides of the food supply chain: the grocery store side being the first, and the food service side -- that includes restaurants and school cafeterias -- being the second. The food service side has mostly been wiped out under the stay home order. This has caused backups, financial shortfalls, and other problems.
  • The pandemic has shocked the system, with food service suppliers having difficulty converting to retail. Some areas, such as meat, are having trouble meeting demand. Other areas, like potatoes, are experiencing a massive oversupply.
  • Covid-19 outbreaks have slowed or entirely halted production at meat processing plants. That has caused inconsistent meat supply. The plants were never set up for social distancing, and accommodating the practice has slowed them down. One expert estimates that beef plants are running at about 50-60% capacity.
  • Consumers have responded by making fewer trips to the store, but when they do make a trip, they buy more than usual. Also, they are cooking at home more than they are eating out. This clears out shelves much faster.

The disruption in Washington's food supply chain is not due to one particular issue, but is the result of many factors -- sometimes driving prices higher. That is not expected to stop any time soon. And at butcher shops like B&E Meats, they see the impact.

"Instead of coming in and buying two or three pounds of ground beef, they are buying 20 or 30 pounds of ground beef," he added. "Part of that is they are eating at home more. But part of it is they are making sure they have some if there is more of a shortage."

“I think this is all temporary," Green added. "I think it will all come back down as fast as it went up. It’s just a matter of getting the plants going again. People don’t have to stock up like this is a year-long event, or even all summer.”

Washington's food supply chain

While all these factors add up to limited meat selections at the grocery store, there is no actual meat shortage in the Northwest. The problem rests with getting the products into stores.

“It’s not that there isn’t beef -- there is plenty of cattle waiting. But the industry is trying to find the balance between making sure cattle can come to market and making sure employees are safe," said Patti Brumbach, executive director of Washington State Beef Commission.

Brumbach said that before the pandemic, about half of the beef produced in Washington went to restaurants -- cuts like bone-in ribeye wouldn't usually go to a grocery store.

Washington has two large meat processing plants that supply food throughout the Northwest region, including parts of Montana and Northern California. One plant outside of Pasco, Tyson Fresh Meats, suffered an outbreak of Covid-19 in April and was forced to shut down. It has since reopened, but work is slow.

“Really what is impacting us right now is the bottleneck at packing plants and making sure employees can process the product," Brumbach said.

“If the plants are not running at capacity -- and they are not, I think we’re running at about 50% to 60% capacity -- that means cattle are not able to go be harvested at an efficient rate [due to] the combination of needing to have plants open, having employees being confident and safe at work."

At your grocery store

At grocery stores like Safeway or Albertsons, managers have responded to the problem by limiting the quantity of beef, pork, and chicken that customers can buy.

“I don’t want to be flippant, and I don’t want to say there is not a problem," said Karl Schroeder, president of the Seattle division for Albertsons companies. "But it’s not something that I would change my shopping pattern for if I was a customer. I just think you've got to be flexible when you come in.”

Schroeder said that meat selection is going to be "spotty" at grocery stores over the next few weeks. How long exactly? No one really knows. It depends on when plants can ramp up production. So while hamburger meat might not be available today, it might be tomorrow or the next day.

“I think the challenge for retailers, if you think ahead, three weeks to six weeks as restaurants start to open up, that will put pressure on the supply chain as well," Schroeder said. "Particularly in meat, which is probably going to lead to price increases."

He noted that the time frame for this is his own personal guess.

Safeway and Albertsons have implemented a policy of pushing back on price increases during this time. The company will require an explanation as to why suppliers are raising prices.

“Somethings might have gone up, but fuel has gone down," Schroeder said. "So shipping is cheaper; we think there are some offsets there, so we will push back on any cost increases.”

Having store brands has also helped this particular company. For example, Safeway gets its grass-fed beef from Australia, which hasn't been as affected by the pandemic. That is still coming in.

And despite the "spotty" meat supply, Schroeder said that the food supply chain has remained strong during this tense time. In fact, to meet the increased demands in its Seattle region stores, his company recently hired 5,000 new employees. Warehouses have also adapted by conducting health screenings during each shift.

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