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Meat prices expected to climb in North Bay as COVID-19 disrupts large US meatpackers

As nearly two dozen big meatpacking plants nationwide have shuttered due to coronavirus outbreaks, Sonoma County shoppers can expect to see temporary spot shortages of certain cuts of beef and pork, along with higher overall meat prices at North Bay grocery stores, according to local grocers, butchers and meat processors.

While some large retail food chains like Costco have started limiting customers’ meat purchases, independent area grocers and butchers with close business ties to local ranchers say they are equipped to make up for national shortfalls.

For example, Sonoma County Meat Co., a processor in Santa Rosa, already is helping fill supply chain gaps for regional grocers.

“There’s definitely been a trickle-down effect when it comes to larger-scale meat production,” co-owner Jenine Rinn said. “We’re doing our best to work overtime and meet demand, while prioritizing the health of our staff.”

Last week, total beef production nationwide dropped 25% compared with the same time last year, while pork production fell 15%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s weekly livestock report. That was the result of big meat processors scaling back as workers were stricken with COVID-19.

On Sunday, the meatpacking giant Tyson Foods bought a full-page advertisement in national newspapers warning “the food supply chain is breaking” due to closures of plants that process up to a quarter of the country’s supply of beef, pork and poultry.

In response to shortage fears, President Donald Trump on Tuesday designated meatpacking plants as “critical infrastructure,” a move seen by some to help keep consistent meat output as the coronavirus disrupts production and by others as protecting meat processors from liability for workers who become sick on the job. Even so, it’s unclear how many production employees - who often work shoulder to shoulder on assembly lines at meatpacking plants - will return to work after 20 have died and more than 6,500 have been infected by the coronavirus, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

David Dewey, president of the California Association of Meat Processors, said increasing consolidation of the meatpacking industry means that shutdowns at even a handful of plants can have significant effects on the national supply. Over the next few weeks, he expects there to be spot shortages of a variety of beef and pork items, and retail meat prices in general to increase because of the production decline.

At the Safeway supermarket on McDowell Boulevard in Petaluma on Wednesday, meat and butcher sections appeared mostly stocked. But shopper Jim Palmer said he’d noticed higher pricing.

“Prices are creeping up on you slowly but surely,” he said, while picking up a pack of veal cuts. “People are going to stop buying because it’s too expensive.”

The Costco warehouse store in Santa Rosa, where members go to stock up on large quantities of food, has begun limiting customers to three packages of fresh meat per shopping trip, according to a store worker who declined to be identified.

Dewey of the state meat processors’ association is optimistic that as long as California shoppers are willing to pay more, they should be able to find enough meat.

“There are plenty of live animals, so (grocery stores and butchers) can go directly to the source and use a small meat processor,” he said.

Todd Davis, meat and seafood coordinator for regional grocer Oliver’s Markets, is doing exactly that. After a major pork plant in Iowa closed for two weeks following a virus outbreak last month, he shifted his pork orders to Sonoma County Meat.

For chicken, Oliver’s orders exclusively from Petaluma Poultry. Davis said the local suppliers have had little trouble meeting his needs.

As for beef, Davis is keeping an eye on a plant that he buys from in South Dakota, which has experienced a COVID-19 outbreak and therefore cut production.

“The good news is I have local suppliers that I can call if that plant closes,” Davis said. “In Sonoma County and Humboldt County, there’s quite a few ranchers raising beef.”

One of them is Cheryl LaFranchi, an owner of Oak Ridge Angus near Calistoga. LaFranchi said the 105-year-old family ranch is still operating at near full capacity, sending 12 to 15 animals to slaughter each month. It contracts with a slaughterhouse in Eureka and sends carcasses to be processed at Sonoma County Meat, which delivers the meat to local grocers and restaurants.

“Not only is it good for the community economy, it’s a fresh source of food and it’s raised locally,” LaFranchi said of the local beef supply chain.

Across the country, as meatpacking plants close and demand from restaurants and food-service businesses dry up, struggling farmers are reportedly considering euthanizing animals they can’t send to slaughter.

To keep ranchers afloat, the Trump administration last month announced a $19 billion farm aid program that includes buying unsold meat and sending it to food banks.

The problem hasn’t been as pronounced for North Bay ranchers who rely on smaller, regional distribution channels. Even so, Marin Sun Farms, a ranch, meat processor and distributor headquartered in Petaluma, has been hurt by restaurant and food-service closings. Its wholesale revenue has dropped by 30% since Sonoma County public health officials issued a stay-at-home order on March 18 and the governor followed with an indefinite statewide directive, said co-owner Claire Herminjard.

Herminjard said strong demand from Bay Area grocery stores and more direct sales to consumers are helping offset the lagging wholesale business. Like many local ranchers, she’s also working with food banks such as the Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa, which is rushing to feed thousands of laid-off workers in the area.

“We’re trying to figure out how to donate more - to have customers buy product at cost and then process it and donate to food banks,” Herminjard said.

Another way Sonoma County residents can get local meat is through home delivery offered by North Bay butchers, including Victorian Farmstead in Sebastopol.

Owner Adam Parks said he has seen delivery sales explode as shoppers worry about meat shortages and also make fewer trips to the grocers and supermarkets to protect their health during the coronavirus pandemic.

Parks expects that delivery trend to continue if national meat supply chains continue to falter.

“As these news stories get more and more intense, the demand for what I do will ramp up dramatically,” he said, adding he’s scrambling to find enough freezer space to fill his orders. “At some point, we’ll meet capacity.”

Sonoma County Meat is also expanding delivery service. At the same time, the company is enhancing safety protocols around hygiene, social distancing, face coverings and temperature screenings for its 20 employees, Rinn said.

In addition, the butcher is joining other meat processors nationwide in pressuring the USDA to allow their facilities to stagger shifts so fewer employees are working at once. That way workers would be able to stay at least 6 feet apart and fully follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pandemic guidelines.

“Otherwise, we’re going to have curtail production, in which case we’ll have the same kinds of issues as larger plants,” Rinn said.

Rinn is confident her company can continue servicing the local grocers, markets and consumers, but cautioned that “everything could change overnight” if an employee started displaying COVID-19 symptoms.

She pointed to area ranchers that had planned to participate in the recently canceled Sonoma County Fair who will still need their animals slaughtered and the meat processed. She worries what would happen if her company wouldn’t be able to fill that need.

“No one wants animals that need to go to slaughter be euthanized,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

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