Nationwide meat shortage will soon reach peak amid coronavirus crisis

A nationwide meat shortage is poised to worsen next month, supermarket executives warn — and the Big Apple is facing jacked-up prices and spotty shelves like everywhere else.

Supplies of steaks, chicken breasts, pork chops and cold cuts are expected to further dwindle in the coming weeks, as the full force of coronavirus-driven plant closures and slowdowns across the country hits the meat counters, industry sources tell The Post.

That’s despite President Trump’s executive order on Tuesday to keep meat-processing plants open after a slew of COVID-19 outbreaks among workers shuttered facilities. The order, which declares meat plants critical infrastructure under the Defense Production Act, also seeks to provide liability protections for meat producers.

“The last two weeks in May will be the peak of the meat crisis,” predicts Victor Colello, meat supervisor for the Morton Williams chain of supermarkets in New York City. “The plants that have remained open are only operating at 40 percent to 50 percent capacity.”

Wholesalers to Morton Williams on Wednesday raised beef prices by as much as $3 a pound, leaving the counter price of filet mignon at $10.50 a pound. Cold cuts, meanwhile, are “going through the roof,” Colello says. While some executives predict similar increases throughout next month and into June, others speculate prices could get even steeper depending on whether there’s a fresh wave of panic buying among shoppers.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have continued to produce our weekly sales circular, which we generate three weeks in advance,” Morton Williams owner Avi Kaner told The Post. “But with the shutdown of the meat plants, it’s difficult to say today what the price of our meat will be three weeks from now.”

Tyson Foods, the country’s biggest meat processor, warned this week that plant closures will spur the loss of millions of pounds of meat after it closed the biggest pork plant in the US. At least 20 workers have already died from the virus, according to labor groups, and some plants have begun euthanizing animals because of overcrowding on farms.

Trump’s executive order eased problems at plants operated by JBS, Cargill, National Beef Packing and Smithfield Foods — which have all closed facilities in recent weeks — but it will still be a while before meat production returns to pre-pandemic levels, experts say.

Stew Leonard’s seven New York-area grocery stores have been slashing their variety of meats including cold cuts, as overall meat shipments have plunged 30 percent overall since the outbreak, chief executive Stew Leonard Jr. told The Post.

“Boar’s Head used to send us 80 different items, but now we are focusing on our top sellers — turkey, ham and roast beef — instead of liverwurst, bologna and ham with olives and others,” Leonard said. “Customers who used to only buy Boars Head are less brand sensitive now and are happy just to get turkey,” he added.

“The biggest change for consumers will be brands that they used to get might not be available,” says Dan Romanoff, president of Nebraskaland, a meat wholesaler in the Bronx. “We are doing business with vendors we’ve never done business with before to fill in our inventory gaps.”

Kosher meats are also hard to buy as one of the largest suppliers, Empire Kosher, closed its plants for about two weeks this month because two of the rabbis who work there contracted the virus, according to industry executives. Empire Kosher didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Meat supplies in some supermarkets, especially in lower income neighborhoods, have grown noticeably scarcer in recent weeks. Fine Fare’s 10 New York City supermarkets, which include locations in the Bronx, Harlem and the Lower East Side, have lately been selling less meat because of the higher prices and spotty supplies, says Rudy Fuertes, president of Fteley Food Corp. which operates the 10 stores.

In response, Fine Fare’s customers have been buying more fruits and vegetables, which now account for as much as 30 percent of the stores’ sales versus 15 percent before the outbreak, according to Fuertes.

“We have 50 percent of the amount of pre-packaged cold cuts we carried a year ago,” said William Rodriguez, co-owner of several grocery stores in the city including a C-Town in Williamsburg.

Depending on how dire the shortages are, store owners say they may put limits on how much meat shoppers can buy at one time, similar to the curbs they imposed early in the pandemic — and it’s not just shoppers who have been prone to panic buying, say industry experts.

“We have corporate customers who are asking whether they should load up on their orders,” said the owner of a large meat distributor who did not want to be identified. “I’m trying to keep my customers calm but right now every protein is difficult to procure.”

The panic has spread to consumers and small businesses that are buying extra freezers now.

Chest freezers are selling out at Home Depot, which in some locations have the freezers on backorder until August 2020.

“Everyone is overbuying,” Jacob Dickson, owner of Dickson’s Farmstand Meats told The Post. “There is not a single freezer available,” Dickson said after trying to secure a seven foot freezer for his business this week. “America is primed to panic buy.”

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