Here’s why COVID-19 made it harder to find beef in Utah grocery stores

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) This Aug. 27, 2019, file photo shows ranchers before they moved 1,200 head of cattle through Logan Canyon.

Last month — in an effort to maintain supply — grocery stores in Utah put limits on the amount of beef customers could buy in one shopping trip.

While some Utahns may have worried about the state’s beef supply, Brent Tanner, executive director for Utah Beef Council, told lawmakers Monday that there’s plenty of cattle available.

“It’s not that we have a shortage of animals,” he told the Retirement and Independent Entities Interim Committee. “[The pandemic] has created a situation [that] … changed the dynamic of our marketing and our transportation and processing.”

Tanner said the problem lies in the food supply chain and the fact that three of Utah’s meat processing facilities have either closed or reduced capacity after employees tested positive for COVID-19.

At peak levels during the pandemic, processing plants were reduced to 50% capacity, resulting in less beef at grocery stores.

Tanner said there were also transportation issues, which the Beef Council has continued to discuss with the Department of Agriculture and Food and with the state Legislature.

“It’s brought to our attention that we do need to have local processing,” he said in the virtual meeting. “We do need to have local production because in these emergency situations we don’t want to be relying upon international [facilities] or food products that are at great distances from where we are.”

Reduced processing capacity increased bidding, which led to a dramatic increase in beef prices for Utahns.

Tanner said prior to the pandemic, boxed beef was about $200 per hundredweight. For about a week that price increased to over $400 per hundredweight but is now returning to the normal range.

He made it clear that the price difference has not meant increased profits to ranchers and livestock producers. The Utah Beef Council has requested that the Department of Justice investigate the steep price increases. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has also requested that.

While some plants have closed or reduced production, Tanner said he’s not aware of any cattle or beef products that have been wasted in Utah. However, he did estimate that over 1 million head of cattle throughout the United States haven’t been processed as they normally would have been. This can happen if the animals are taken to a processing facility that is closed and they can’t return to farms to avoid spreading diseases.

The pandemic also meant a lot of lost revenue for the cattle industry. The beef council had Dillon Feuz, department head of agricultural commodity marketing at Utah State University, analyze a research project conducted this spring that gave insight into the scope of the economic damage.

The study showed that nationwide the cattle industry is projected to lose about $13.5 billion, and Utah could lose as much as $120 million.

“That’s pretty devastating to cattle producers and the beef industry in state of Utah,” said Tanner.