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Coronavirus-related plant closures strain Wisconsin meat producers

Red and processed meat are OK to eat, controversial new guidelines claim. Don't believe it, leading experts say
Posted at 9:16 PM, Apr 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-27 23:50:09-04

Consumers could see fewer meat products on the shelves as coronavirus outbreaks at processing plants force closures across the country.

Here in Wisconsin, outbreaks have shuttered JBS in Green Bay and the Patrick Cudahy Plant.

On Sunday, Tyson took out a full-page ad in the New York Times and the Washington Post, writing, "The food supply chain is breaking," and "millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain."

Matt Ludlow is a cattle backgrounder near La Crosse and is feeling the pinch. He also heads up the Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association.

"We have cattle that we own that are in a feedlot in Iowa right now that need to go to the processing plant, but we can't get them sold," Ludlow said. "It's been really tough to see this good demand, but we can't get things through the supply chain."

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union say 13 plants have closed nationwide since the pandemic, and meat processing has gone down by 10 percent for beef and 25 percent for pork.

"As an industry we've been altering diets, reducing the protein in the diets, trying to slow them down a little bit, but at the end of the day, once they outgrow their pens and their buildings it's hard to find alternative options," said Wisconsin Pork Association President James Magolski.

Producers believe it's only a matter of time before consumers start to see fewer meat options on the shelves at grocery stores, or even higher prices. Brandon Scholz, the president of the Wisconsin Grocer's Association, says he's in contact with retailers, and they say the supply is ok right now.

"They are conscious as each week goes by, talking to their suppliers as to whether or not they will be able to meet consumer demand," Scholz said. "So, it is a week by week watch."

A spokesperson for Roundy's, the parent company of Metro Market and Pick 'N Save, sent this statement: "There is no shortage of meat in the U.S. The shortage of workers at meat processing plants due to COVID-19 closures has caused a slowdown in output. We source from various plants in the U.S., and our stores continue to have a good supply of beef, chicken, and pork products. However, until meat processing plants are running at full production output again, customers might experience limits on certain items and less variety in various cuts and product options."

Consumers don't seem too worried.

"I mean, I don't love that. Meat's a pretty big part of my diet, but I'm sure I'll be able to find something to substitute it for," Harrison Vangello said.

The Tyson ad calls for the government to help the plants safely open again.

"The faster these processing plants can get workers to be better, be healthier, get back to work, the quicker we'll work through it," Ludlow said.

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