USDA Pushes to Normalize Meat Supply in Supermarkets

While major supermarket chains across the country are limiting the amount of meat each customer can buy in the store, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is pushing for a normalization of the meat supply, urging the prompt resumption of operations in processing plants affected by outbreaks of coronavirus among workers.

The beef, pork, and poultry supply chain has been severely impacted by meat processing plant closures due to the large number of workers infected with the coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of last Friday, 115 meat and poultry plants in 19 states reported 4,913 employees with coronavirus and 20 deaths.

Meanwhile, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue sent letters to governors and meat processing company leaders on Tuesday night, setting out USDA’s clear expectations for implementation of President Donald Trump’s Executive Order signed last week.

The President’s Executive Order directs plants to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) specific to the meat processing industry to keep these critical facilities operating in order to normalize the meat supply to the supermarkets while maintaining worker safety.

“USDA expects state and local officials to work with these critical meat processing facilities to maintain operational status while protecting the health of their employees,” Secretary Perdue said. “Meat processing facilities are critical infrastructure and are essential to the national security of our nation. Keeping these facilities operational is critical to the food supply chain and we expect our partners across the country to work with us on this issue.”

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Meanwhile, supermarket chains such as Kroger, H-E-B, Albertsons, Wegmans, Costco, and Sam’s, among others, have set limits on the amount of meat their customers can buy to avoid shortages in their stores due to growing demand and reduced meat supply from processing plant closures.

During a conference call about Tyson Foods’ second quarter earnings, the company’s CEO Noel White said that pork processing has been reduced by nearly 50%, affecting not only consumers but also farmers who have limited markets for their livestock.

In letters to the governors, Perdue said the Department of Agriculture ordered meat and poultry processing plants currently closed and without a clear timetable for near-term reopening to submit to USDA written documentation of their protocol, developed based on the CDC/OSHA guidance, and resume operations as soon as they are able after implementing the CDC/OSHA guidance for the protection of workers.

To the leaders of the meat processing companies, Perdue urged them to comply with the guidelines so they can resume operations in the shortest time possible, noting that further action under the Executive Order and the Defense Production Act is under consideration and will be taken if necessary.

For the time being, supermarket chains will temporarily maintain restrictions on the sale of animal protein until the meat supply process returns to normal.