Community feeling the effects of packing plant shutdowns

By 
Hunter Herbaugh
Thursday, May 21, 2020
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As several meat packing plants shut down as a result of COVID-19 outbreaks, the livestock industry has been disrupted and meat shortages for consumers are a concern. Ranger-Review file photo

As some of the nation’s largest meat processing plants are forced to close down due to outbreaks of COVID-19, communities are left facing shortages of meat on grocery store shelves. The shortages have prompted more people to seek local beef or pork sources and have caused concern for area cattle producers.

Currently, the nation’s four largest meatpacking companies – Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill Meat Solutions and National Beef – have had to close roughly two dozen processing plants between them due to outbreaks of COVID-19, as reported by the Associated Press. The four of them combined control about 80% of the total amount of slaughtered beef in the United States, meaning that the closures of processing plants are placing a strain on the supply of slaughtered meat, especially as restaurants begin to reopen and demand increases.

With the larger packing plants closed, people are having to turn to their local butchers for meat, however many of these small butchers are being kept extremely busy with the influx of customers and are facing months worth of orders. According to the co-owner

According to the co-owner of Triple T Meats, Patty Hochhalter, they have experienced a surge of orders recently.

“We are booked out until the end of October,” she noted.

Furthermore, Triple T Meats only provides butchering services for private individuals and not for resale. In this way, the business acts more like a “middle man,” as one employee described it, taking the meat that their customers them specifically provide and butchering it for them specifically.

Any meat sold for commercial use must be approved by a United States Department of Agriculture licensed inspector. However, the nearest USDA licensed inspector to Glendive is in Miles City. Only sales between two private parties can be made without USDA inspection, the rancher can even butcher the meat themselves in such a case if they have the tools and know-how.

With fewer options to slaughter cattle and so much cattle to be slaughtered, most ranchers in the state are worried about prices falling much further. The Department of Livestock informed state legislators last week that the price of cattle had already dropped 30% due to the disruptions in the meat supply chain and expressed concern that many ranchers could go out of business as a result of the “pandemic-pinched market,” according to the Associated Press.

 

According to the Glendive Livestock Exchange president Vaughn Hoffer, a majority of the ranchers in the Glendive area are worried about what the cattle prices will be for them when it comes time to sell.

“They’re just concerned what the prices are gonna be this fall,” Hoffer said. He added that he was hopeful that the larger national processing plants would open before the lower kill numbers put a strain on the cattle supply.

This has been a problem that farmers and ranchers across the nation have been facing due to the ongoing pandemic. Unable to send enough animals to slaughter, they have had to find ways to conserve their resources. There are reports that some producers in the United States have had to euthanize animals.

With the lower butchering capacity, the overall supply of commercial meat is also lacking. Those going to the grocery store may find that select items are harder to find.

According to Jason Bunn, assistant manager at Reynold’s Market, there has been a noticeable uptick in the demand for meat in the store and a bit of a struggle to keep meat stocked on the shelves. Reynold’s has not been able to get their usual orders from their traditional sources. This situation may have been different prior to the remodel of the store that was completed last year, since the market at that time had its own equipment for cutting meat. According to Bunn, that equipment hasn’t been reinstalled.

“We don’t have the systems to cut our own meat. That equipment was removed in the remodel,” he said.

According to Geri Cullinan, store director at Albertsons, her store has been experiencing some similar problems with some of their stocks of meat products.

“Some things have been hit and miss, chicken and some lunch meats,” Cullinan said.

However, despite the “hit and miss” nature of some meat items, Cullinan stated that they are so far managing to meet the demand, though they’ve had to turn to other national suppliers because getting meat locally for business use can be so difficult.

“It can be pretty tough to get local stuff with the way things are,” she said.

With so many factors limiting the availability of locally butchered meat, it may be a relief to some that a new slaughterhouse is being planned for construction in Sidney. According to Richland County Commissioner Duane Mitchell, the owner of the planned slaughterhouse, Steve Lunderby, has asked for a tax abatement from the county of about $1M. According to early information that Mitchell could provide, the planned business would be capable of processing 50 heads of cattle a day and would employ roughly 30 workers as well as its own USDA licensed inspectors.

Lunderby could not be reached for further details.

Reach Hunter Herbaugh at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.

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