Is There Really a Meat Shortage Right Now? Here’s Everything You Need to Know.

published May 20, 2020
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

There’s no section of the grocery store right now that’s more anxiety-laden than the meat aisle. For weeks, news of COVID-19-related closures at meatpacking and processing plants across the country have sounded alarms and stoked mild panic, so much so, that in some parts of the country, scoring staples like ground beef and chicken breasts can feel like striking gold.

In a recent national poll by Consumer Reports, almost half of Americans surveyed reported being unable to find certain types of meat on at least one occasion during this pandemic. In the event that shoppers are able to find what they’re looking for, they’re often instructed to limit the number of packages they purchase (read about how they’re handling this at Costco). As meat-related news continues to bewilder, shoppers are searching for clarity and direction. We’re here to help.

What exactly is going on?

COVID-19 outbreaks have forced more than 20 major meatpacking plants (where employees work in extremely close quarters) to temporarily close, halting production in some facilities altogether. Those that remain open have had to implement social distancing measures for anyone who is able to come to work, thus reducing output.

According to experts, the issue we are facing is not an actual shortage of livestock or poultry, but rather a shortage of workers who can process the typical amount of meat that our national supply chain is used to. Adam Kantrovich, an associate professor at Clemson College of Agribusiness, told Markets Insider: “If you were to look at the beginning of the supply chain, at the farm level, we have the meat.”

Much in the same way that people flocked to toilet paper back in March and April, shortage-related anxiety has caused shoppers to resort to panic-buying meat. We spoke with Brandon Hernanzez, a food supply chain expert at Whole Brain Consulting, who elaborated. “Shortages and/or lack of available meat are caused by a flux in demand. When it’s announced that a shortage will occur in a given area, everyone runs out to buy what they think won’t be there. It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy because people are buying their local grocery out of product,” Hernandez tells us.

Credit: Aleksandar Karanov/Shutterstock

Will we run out of meat?

The short answer is mostly no. “Shortages will most likely occur, however they will be regional and should be short-lived if they occur at all. I don’t think long-term shortages are of concern,” Hernandez says.

Meat plants might be limited in capacity, but they will not close altogether. (In mid-May, the Trump administration took executive measures to ensure that meat processing plants can continue operations.) Due to the “supply chain reaction,” however, you will likely continue to notice that the meat industry is not business as usual.

Shoppers will have fewer meat options to choose from and will also notice an uptick in price for the ones that are available. CoBank, a company that lends to food producers, estimates that meat supplies will be 30 percent lower and prices as much as 20 percent higher by Memorial Day, according to Consumer Reports. 

“We are seeing the affects of what happens when the top 4-5 animal protein manufacturers own approximately 70-80 percent of the market and have aggregated those processing sites to 12-20 manufacturing locations across the US,” Hernandez says.

Here’s what grocery stores are doing about it

In addition to limiting the number of packages of, say, chicken thighs a single family can purchase in one trip, grocery stores are also getting creative in the types and cuts of meat that they are offering. You’ll likely have an easier time finding a whole chicken or turkey than cuts of meat that require more time and labor to produce. You might also see fancier cuts of meat, typically sold in restaurants, that are not in the market for them right now. “What you may see is an uptick in premium cuts of meat on your store shelf, or in your ground proteins, because they don’t have anywhere else to sell it, explains Hernandez. But as restaurants start to open around the country, that will likely change.

Visible shortages will likely be most apparent in the “ready-to-cook category,” says Hernandez. “You will most likely see a reduction in items like pre-seasoned ribs or marinated chicken thighs because they’ll allocate that stock for general use so that the consumer can do what they want with it,” says Hernandez.

Where you can still buy meat right now

If this concerns you, we recommend buying (a permitted amount of) meat when you can find it, and placing it in the freezer in the event of a possible, short-lived shortage. Hernandez also recommends sourcing smaller meat processing facilities that sell directly to consumer.

One harsh reality of this shortage is that the most budget-crunched consumers will have the hardest time finding meat, while richer shoppers can turn to small farms and premium options. “While lower-income consumers are finding meat hard to come by —with Kroger Co. and Costco Wholesale Corp. rationing purchases — richer Americans have their pick of fancy offerings that often cost twice as much, or more,” Bloomberg reports.

With that in mind, here are 9 places to buy meat online right now including Omaha Steaks, Grassland Beef, Thrive Market, Rastelli’s, Mr. Steak, Vital Box, and more.

Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

What else can I do?

If you find that you’re not missing meat much at all, or are simply curious to learn more ways to reduce your meat intake (for the environmental and health benefits alike), dare we say there’s never been a better time?

This January, we leaned in hard to the wild west of meat alternatives and found that there’s a whole lot to choose from — we’re talking jackfruit, seitan, tofu, soyrizo, tempeh, Gardein Chick’n, Beyond Meat, and Impossible Burger. At the time, we didn’t know how prescient it would be that we all find our “Meatless Match” come May.

On your next trip to the grocery store, we’ve got you covered there too. There are many ways to bulk up your meals, thanks to beans, walnuts, and of course the vegetarian meat alternatives we’ve already listed.

Have you been affected by a meat shortage near you? Let us know in the comments.