Utah stores starting to limit meat purchases, but there won’t be a shortage unless 'consumers create it’

(Kathy Stephenson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Costco is limiting purchases on beef, poultry and pork to help maintain availability during the coronavirus.

Grocery stores in Utah — and beyond — are limiting the amount of beef, chicken and pork customers can buy in a single shopping trip, hoping to maintain a steady supply and preventing the panic-buying that happened with toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

The rationing comes after some of the largest slaughterhouses and processing plants across the country have been forced to close or slow production because of coronavirus outbreaks among workers.

The circumstances mean less selection and higher prices, said Dave Davis, president of the Utah Food Industry Association. “But there is not a shortage of meat, unless we have a situation like toilet paper and consumers create it.”

Davis said while the U.S. supply chain is robust, it is not built to handle a 200% jump in any one category — which happened with certain items in March.

While there should be meat in the stores, he said, consumers need to be “flexible with their tastes and choices" because what is available “may not be the exact kind or packaging you have seen in the past.”

Grocery stores are being proactive. Several already have started limiting the number of meat items consumers can buy.

There are limits on fresh pork and chicken at Smith’s Food and Drug stores, said corporate affairs manager Aubriana Martindale.

“There is plenty of protein in the supply chain; however, some processors are experiencing challenges," she said. “We feel good about our ability to maintain a broad assortment of meat and seafood for our customers because we purchase protein from a diverse network of suppliers."

Costco also has slapped limits on protein purchases.

“Fresh meat purchases are temporarily limited to a total of three items per member among the beef, pork and poultry products,” the company has posted on its website. The big-box store says it has implemented limits on certain items “to help ensure more members are able to purchase merchandise they want and need.”

Meat availability might be worse if not for record amounts of meat in cold storage, originally intended for restaurants that had been closed to sit-down service.

In late March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture eased restrictions to allow for meat that had been intended for commercial food use to be diverted into grocery store channels for consumers. The industry sought these changes after brief meat shortages caused by the coronavirus panic sent shoppers scurrying to stores.

The USDA last week reported 921 million pounds of chicken in storage and 467 million pounds of boneless beef, including hamburger, roasts and steaks. Before much of that meat could be sold at markets, it would need to be repackaged because restaurants buy in greater bulk than individuals. Some of the meat would need to be cut in grocery stores and packaged for customers to take home.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Congress is considering other ways to help.

“Fortunately, we’re still in pretty good shape in Utah as far as our availability of meat and consumer access to it," he said. "But there are some warning signs that a number of people have been pointing to, indicating that that supply chain could be in tough shape.”

He said lawmakers were debating whether to waive requirements that the USDA inspect every article of meat before it is sold commercially, instead allowing state authorities to certify meat supplies, at least for the duration of the pandemic.

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food also has stepped forward. Last week, it asked custom meat plants in the state to help farmers and ranchers reduce the large numbers of livestock waiting to be slaughtered and processed.

“We have invited the 10 qualifying custom-exempt slaughter establishments in Utah to come under official inspection by UDAF, which will allow them to handle animals that are intended for commercial sale,” Agricultural Commissioner Logan Wilde said in a news release.

Custom-exempt plants typically slaughter animals for private individuals only for noncommercial use, Wilde explained. If all the custom-exempt plants take part in this program, it could boost Utah’s processing capacity by at least 10%.

While animal-processing backlogs are not nearly as serious in Utah as other parts of the country, many of the inspected facilities have cut back their hours to limit employee exposure to COVID-19. Fewer animals are being processed, which is starting to result in a lack of feed and land for the stockpile of livestock.

“By taking this unprecedented step,” Wilde said. “we are trying to avoid having animals euthanized and not processed for meat, which is what is happening in some parts of the country.”

Meat processed by the custom-exempt facilities temporarily under state inspection can be sold only in Utah. The meat, however, can be sold to grocery stores, restaurants or directly to end users, which may also alleviate potential shortages.

“We’re grateful that when we do have the opportunity to go to stores here in Utah, the grocery stores and other stores, we still find stocked shelves," Derek Miller, CEO and president of the Salt Lake Chamber, said last week. "I cannot imagine anything that would cause more fear or panic than if went to a grocery store and were not able to find food.”

The Utah Department of Health is working with the Economic Development Corporation of Utah to identify employees who need COVID-19 testing in high-risk industries and critical infrastructure — largely in power plants and mining, but also in food production and other fields.

Nate Checketts, the health department’s deputy director, said Monday his agency aims to start testing about 3,500 employees by week’s end.

— Tribune reporters Tony Semerad and Sean P. Means, along with The Associated Press, contributed to this report.