Meat shortage problem has nothing to do with livestock numbers

If you don't like seeing empty meat shelves at the store, consider making some changes in your buying habits.

Jon Christensen, co-owner and meat department manager, left, helps store employee Jacob Dumais look for a steak for a customer in the meat case at Erdman’s County Market in Kasson, Tuesday, May 5, 2020. (Ken Klotzbach /

The shelves in the meat department at your local store might not be as full as they once were. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. doesn’t have enough pigs and cattle to feed our country and others.

No, it’s a systems issue. A food chain issue. A processing issue. But it’s not a live animal supply issue.

Collette Kaster, CEO of American Meat Science Association, describes a couple of “pinch points” to the food chain.

People went very quickly from eating out to eating in their homes, causing the first pinch point. The supply chain isn’t set up to switch gears that quickly, so that led to the first problem, with too much meat prepared for restaurants and not enough prepared for grocery stores.

Then came the next pinch point. Employees in processing plants started to get sick. That revealed something that many in the livestock industry have recognized for some time: The processing industry is top heavy, with few big plants handling much of the country’s processing capacity. Take a few of them offline, and suddenly there’s a glut of animals ready for slaughter and nowhere to take them, but not nearly enough meat on the store shelves to keep up with demand from consumers who are eating at home far more often than usual.


Kaster doesn’t think we’re going to run out of meat in the short term, even with these pinch points still squeezing the chain. The industry and the government are working to get plants back on line and find ways to better protect workers. The meat industry isn’t going to grind to a halt.

However, these pinch points have shown us — producers and consumers alike — the vulnerabilities of the supply chain. So what can be done to improve the situation for the future?

Talk to your elected officials. Many officials are raising concerns that the “big four” packing plants are violating antitrust laws. Urge them to look into it.

Pay attention to what goes on in your local area. If someone suggests building a small packing plant in your area, avoid the not-in-my-backyard mentality and consider the benefits to having more processing capability. It could help give producers another market and ensure supply for consumers.

And finally, analyze how you’ve been buying meat. Consider shifting your meat purchases to a local source. If you have a deep freeze, buying from a local rancher or pork producer can be both cost effective for you and beneficial to the producer. Some producers even are set up to sell smaller quantities directly to consumers.

We all are part of the food chain, and if we get more involved, we can strengthen it and make it pinch-proof.

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