Meat supply chain backup causes headaches for southern Arizona ranchers

Meat supply chain back-up causes headaches for local ranchers

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - More than 20 meat processing plants have closed around the nation due to the spread of COVID-19, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. This has created a clog in the supply chain both nationally and locally.

Monday, Josh Koehn, a rancher outside of Willcox is picking up hundreds of pounds of packaged beef and pork from the University of Arizona’s Meat Science Laboratory. It is one of the only places to get his meats cut, processed and packaged locally, and just one of the many places feeling the strain from the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We had to reduce staff and spread them out so they can work with the CDC guidelines,” said Samuel Garcia, professor at College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and manager of the Meat Science Laboratory. “But, we have actually increased in the number of animals processed.”

This decrease in workers, slows production. Koehn said he had to pick up a shipment a week later than anticipated.

“The U of A does a great job, there’s just too many who want to use them,” Koehn said.

It’s a similar problem to what national meat suppliers are feeling. The USDA released that, nationally, pork production is down 15 percent and beef down at least 25 percent from the year before, as meatpacking plants have closed in the US during the pandemic. According to Stefanie Smallhouse, president of the Arizona Farm Bureau, people will likely see fewer selections of meat, limits on purchasing and higher prices at grocery stores.

“It’s a domino effect that we haven’t seen at any other time,” she said.

Smallhouse said to avoid the limits at stores, more people are going to local ranchers, like Koehn, for their meat cuts directly - putting another strain on a strained system.

“Demand has at least doubled,” Koehn said.

With only a handful of meat processing plants in the entire state, it’s difficult to get large quantities processed. Smallhouse said many ranchers in Arizona send their meats out to other states where there are larger meat packing and processing plants. Now, with the closures and reductions, more will need to rely on local plants.

“The challenges here in Arizona is we don’t have a lot of feedlots here, and we don’t have many packing plants,” Smallhouse said.

The Arizona Farm Bureau said there is plenty of meat supply in Arizona and across the nation, just the supply chain has been clogged. They are also recommending people just eat and shop like they normally would.

Fry’s sent us a statement saying they have put limits on ground beef, fresh pork and chicken. Bashas’ has also put purchase limits on meat items and asks for folks to only buy what they need.

“We are working with our suppliers and vendor community to assess the ongoing changes across the industry, locally and nationally. We have implemented purchase limits on certain items in our meat departments to help ensure all customers have access to what they need. We ask and encourage everyone to practice responsible shopping habits by purchasing only what is needed, and remembering to be kind to each other during these challenging days, ” said Ashley Shick, Director of Communications & Public Affairs, Bashas’ Family of Stores

At Kroger/Fry’s, we feel good about our ability to maintain a broad assortment of meat and seafood for our customers because we purchase protein from a diverse network of suppliers. There is plenty of protein in the supply chain; however, some processors are experiencing challenges. So at this time, we’ve added purchase limits on ground beef and fresh pork,” said Pam Giannonatti, Kroger Corporate Affairs Manager.

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