Delay in meat supply chain seen in Illinois
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Delay in meat supply chain seen in Illinois

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Virus Outbreak Illinois

Freshly cut beef is seen in a refrigerated display case at Al's Meat Market in Wilmette, Ill., Wednesday, April 29, 2020. Butchers and grocers are facing higher prices for meat due to supply chain issues amid the coronavirus outbreak. President Donald Trump has classified meat processing as critical infrastructure during the coronavirus outbreak, ordering meat processing plants to stay open. (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford)

"Where's the beef?" has been a marketing slogan associated with Wendy's for more than three decades, but customers have literally been asking the question in recent days as the Dublin, Ohio-based fast food chain fights COVID-19-related meat shortages.

Just over 1,000 Wendy's restaurants -- or nearly 20% -- had no beef items available on their online menus Monday night, according to an analysis by Stephens Inc., an investment bank.

In a statement, the company said it was continuing to supply hamburgers to its restaurants, but that "some of our menu items may be in short supply from time to time at some restaurants in this current environment."

The fast food chain is hardly alone as outbreaks of COVID-19 shutter meat-processing plants across the country, creating a critical backup in the supply-chain that is delaying meat products from reaching grocery store shelves and butcher shops and making them more expensive when they get there.

Suppliers such as Indiana Packers remain shuttered due to COVID-19 outbreaks, while another, Tyson, recently announced the limited reopening of its largest food processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa more than two weeks after it shut down.

According to a Centers for Disease Control report released last week, 4,193 cases of COVID-19, including 20 deaths, were reported among workers in 115 meat and poultry processing facilities across 19 states between April 9 -- 27.

The CDC says such facilities are susceptible to outbreaks due to the difficulty in distancing workers at least six feet apart and in implementing COVID-19-specific disinfection guidelines. The agency said that socioeconomic factors also likely contribute.

In Illinois, outbreaks of the disease led to the temporary closing of the Smithfield Foods pork-processing plant in Monmouth. The facility, which has 1,700 employees who produce bacon and 3% of the U.S. fresh pork supply, reopened last Saturday.

A JBS USA pork processing plant in Beardstown remains open despite a breakout of at least 30 confirmed cases among plant employees. The plant employs nearly 2,000 people and "has the capacity to provide meals for more than nine million Americans each day," a JBS spokesman said.

Despite these breakouts, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on April 28 invoking the Defense Production Act and classifying meat processors as essential infrastructure that must remain open. Still, some plants around the country are still closing or operating at reduced capacity.

And the backup is starting to reach consumers in the form of higher prices, unavailable products and, in some cases, purchasing limits.

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Donelan said the company was "begging, borrowing and stealing to stay the same quality" as it deals with different suppliers to get the products it needs. But, he said "a lot of the stuff isn't even available anymore."

"It's off and on," he said. "Like I couldn't get short loins this week. But last week, I could."

Though demand for meat has been higher of late, Donelan said Midstate did not have plans to impose purchasing limits.

Jenny Jackson, director of communications for the Illinois Pork Producers Association, said that farmers are "sitting on a lot of pigs" right now due to processing plants that are closing are operating at limited capacity.

"We keep calling it a disruption in the food supply chain, because that's what it is," Jackson said. "Right now, on our end, it would be a lack of processing ability or capacity."

"So it's not a meat supply shortage, it's just slowed down because we have processors that are moving slowly," she added.

A consequence of this bottleneck is it has created a scenario where farmers are saddled with too much supply while grocery stores, butchers and fast-food restaurants do not have enough to keep up with consumer demand.

It it doesn't clear up soon, it may force farmers to consider euthanizing their animals to make room, Jackson said.

While challenges still lay ahead, Jackson said the pork producers were "very thankful that all the packing plants are back up and running this week."

"Even if it's not 100%, we will take it," Jackson said. "That's better than nothing because that's more animals that get to go through the food supply chain than they have been wasted and had a different future for them. So we just need to keep the supply chain running."

Thursday updates: Coronavirus in Central Illinois


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