Most of us have changed our grocery shopping and eating habits while stay-at-home orders have taken effect. We’re not eating out as often and cooking at home is taking hold. Even as states reopen for business, we will feel the lasting effects of COVID-19 on our shopping and eating habits. But we all need to eat and some of the headlines are frightening…from meat processing plants shutting down, to essential food service and food industry workers becoming sick or losing their health and livelihood, to potential shortages of our favorite foods in the grocery store.
While there is agreement that our farmers and ranchers can produce enough food for us, the problem lies with the just-in-time distribution system. Normally, we don’t think much about how an ear of corn got from the field to our table or how the pork loin we plan to grill for dinner gets from a pig farmer to our grocery store. But, in times like these, a break in any link in the supply chain causes disruption that affects us all.
The Big Picture
Let’s start with a big picture look from Christi Dixon, Agriculture Engagement & Advocacy Manager for Bayer. Bayer’s Crop Science Division is an agriculture company that supports farmers around the world. Christi breaks down four major points:
- There are disruptions in all segments of the industry. “Most of the time our supply chain is a well-oiled machine, but it is delicate and is not quickly adaptable,” says Dixon. The food supply chain is meant to deliver, not just to our retail stores, but to institutions and restaurants. With most of us at home and restaurants closing and food service operations at schools, colleges, office buildings, and other institutions not ordering the amounts of foods they normally would, it is not possible to quickly pivot to move those foods and supplies to retail. “Not many of us can store a side of beef in our freezer or take delivery of a tanker truck of fresh milk,” explains Dixon.
- There are disruptions in the labor force. From closing borders to keeping the labor force safe, farmers and ranchers are challenged to get their crops or animals out of the fields and into the food chain. “People who don’t know about farming have a hard time understanding why unemployed restaurant wait staff can’t be hired to pick crops, but it is a specialized skilled job, performed under difficult environmental conditions, and training is needed to get the job done correctly,” Dixon explains. Switching to unskilled labor is a challenge faced by many farmers.
- There are disruptions in row crops and fruits and vegetables. In the Midwest, row crops, like corn, cotton, soy, and canola are in the field, but farmers will face hard decisions come harvest time. Dixon explains that our “import/export systems in are in flux and farmers operate in a global marketplace, and when markets usually open to farmers close or disappear, it puts them at a disadvantage.” Foods can linger in ports unable to be shipped to traditional markets.
Fruits and vegetables will face a similar problem. Dixon explains that “90% of our U.S. produce comes from California, and fruits and vegetable distribution will be impacted as states determine what can be transported across state lines.” And, fruits and vegetables are highly perishable so moving them quickly from the field to market is imperative.
- Transportation disruptions hurt farmers. Farmers have to pay transportation costs and with profit margins already razor thin, some farmers make hard decisions to mitigate financial loses by plowing under a crop or using raw milk to fertilize their fields than pay for transport. Crops like potatoes are really hurting…. from French fries to baked potatoes, as restaurants aren’t using potatoes in the quantities they used to.
This all sounds pretty grim, but Dixon says farmers and ranchers are resilient and are learning to pivot. “Working with local food banks, connecting farm bureaus to organizations such as Feeding America, selling direct to consumers via social media…. farmers and ranchers are trying to find markets for their products.” And, while the USDA doesn’t have the capacity to store all the fresh produce, milk, and meat, they are moving quickly to purchase some products to deliver to communities in need.
“One thing consumers can do is continue to purchase fresh produce….it is safe and healthful and we need not fear consuming fresh produce,” adds Dixon. And, let your retailer know that you want to purchase milk, produce, and fresh meats, “retailers need to have a pull from consumers so those running the grocery stores know that it will be purchased.”
What about beef?
Another consumer concern is “where’s the beef?” Fresh beef was quick to disappear from grocery store shelves early in the pandemic, so I reached out to registered dietitian, Caitlin Mondelli, Director of Food and Health Communications for the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff, and asked her a few questions. Our discussion expanded to a virtual briefing on all things beef with Colin Woodall, CEO of National Cattleman’s Beef Association and several other experts in the beef industry.
Is there a shortage of beef?
It is important to note that there is not a shortage of cattle supply and there is beef available at retail and food service. However, disruptions to the supply chain may temporarily limit the availability of certain cuts or lead some retail and restaurant chains to limit purchases to ensure the continued availability of beef for all consumers. ”
The disruptions to the supply chain result in slow downs and reduced efficiency at packing plants. There are four major U.S. packers, and all are facing logistical challenges as they struggle with COVID-19. CDC and OSHA have provided guidelines to keep workers safe and the guidelines are being used to support the health and safety of the workers while providing beef to consumers at retail and food service institutions. Plants vary on how they monitor compliance with the safety guidelines.
As the slow downs at plants occur with increasing the distance between workers and slowing the production lines, it means that some areas of the country may find certain beef items out of stock while others may not. At the beginning of the pandemic there was a surge in consumer demand and panic buying. Now, consumers may find restrictions on the amount of product they can buy, and with summer grilling coming upon us, favorites like ground beef and certain steaks may be temporarily harder to find in some places.
Consumers can opt for other cuts of beef and there are helpful tips for how to use the various cuts of meat on the website, Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.
Some advocacy groups say that the beef industry is encouraging the USDA to remove food safety precautions to increase the speed at which meat is processed. What is the beef industry response to those claims?
The beef industry is not asking or encouraging the USDA to take down any food safety precautions. USDA inspections are critical to the safety of the product that gets to the consumer.
Should consumers be concerned about the safety of beef or packaging?
There are currently no reports of cattle testing positive for COVID-19. Additionally, the USDA is not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging. However, it is always important to follow good hygiene practices (i.e., wash hands and surfaces often, separate raw meat from other foods, cook to the right temperature, and refrigerate foods promptly) when handling or preparing foods.” (for more on food safety in the time of COVID-19, check out this post by clicking here.)
We’ve seen reports of chicken and pork producers euthanize animals when they can’t be processed. What about cattle?
The industry term is “depopulation,” but that is not an issue for cattle. Ranchers can move cattle into a “holding pattern,” by providing maintenance feed and moving them to pasture. With spring comes more green grass and pasture lands for cattle to graze; poultry and pork producers often don’t have that option.
Consumers often ask me grass-fed beef is healthier or safer to eat than other beef; what is the best response?
Most people don’t realize that cattle spend the majority of their lives grazing on pasture. On average, over their lifetime, grain-finished cattle consume less than 11% of their diet as grain and close to 90% of their diet as forage (e.g., grass and hay) and other human-inedible plant leftovers (e.g., dried distiller’s grains). While grass-finished beef tends to be a little leaner (1-2 grams less fat per 3 ounce serving), in general, all varieties of beef are equally nutritious as all are a natural source of more than 10 essential nutrients, like protein, iron, zinc and many B vitamins.
The only significant nutritional differences between the various beef choices relate to the fat content of grain-finished beef versus grass-finished beef. Grass-finished beef tends to be a little leaner, but other variables contribute to leanness, including breed, age, grade and cut. In other words, lean cuts of grain-finished beef are plentiful too. Cuts with the word “round” or “loin” in the name typically meet the USDA definitions of lean. As far as type of fat, beef’s primary fatty acid source, whether grass- or grain-finished, is monounsaturated fat, the heart-healthy fat found in olive oil, followed by saturated fat. Polyunsaturated fats, including conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3, can be influenced by forage cattle graze on, but because of cattle’s unique ruminant digestive system, these types of fatty acids are usually low in beef.
For a good read on understanding disruptions on the food supply, especially the cattle supply chain, check out this article by Temple Grandin, published on May 3 on Forbes.com.
For more information on the food supply chain and industry response to COVID-19, check out these resources.
Click here to learn more on keeping your food and family safe.
Click here to get the most recent updates on beef and worker safety from National Cattleman’s Beef Association.
Click here to learn more about fresh produce safety and fresh food partnerships.
Click here to learn more about the USDA Farms to Families Food Box.
Click here for more on food supply chain disruptions.
Dr. Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Along with Dr. Bob Murray, she is the author of Food & Fitness After 50.
Copyright © 2019 [Christine Rosenbloom]. All Rights Reserved.