MIami Meat Shortage Unlikely But Butchers Predict Price and Stock Fluctuations

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Empty meat boxes at Publix.

Photo by Laine Doss

In a now iconic advertising campaign from 1984, the Wendys fast food chain asked, “Where’s the beef?”

Today the company is asking itself the same question – seriously. On Wednesday, CNN reported that around 1,000 Wendy’s restaurants are facing meat shortages, with roughly one in five hamburgers temporarily taking off the menu. In a call to shareholders that day, Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor said the chain will “experience a few weeks of challenging tight quarters that we will have to work through” before it can resume operations.

Pandemic common, that is.

The meat packaging industry has been hard hit by the coronavirus, according to USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. To date, more than 10,000 workers at more than 170 plants in 29 states have tested positive for COVID-19. At least 45 workers have died and about 40 plants have ceased operations, despite orders from President Donald Trump to keep them open.

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If there is a serious local meat shortage, it does not seem to have reached catastrophic proportions.

A trip to a local Publix found the beef shelves well stocked. Fresh chicken and pork were in short supply, but signs led customers to the freezer area, where poultry, sausages, and bacon were in abundance.

Local meat supplier Michael Saperstein advises carnivores in Miami not to panic.

“There is no shortage of cattle or pigs. There is a shortage of the people who process them,” notes the Hallandale Beach co-founder of Sunshine Provisions. While Saperstein has not seen any shortages in the cuts he has bought, he has seen fluctuations in beef prices. “This is almost like a correction that has had to take place for a while,” he says, noting that restaurants may start replenishing their supplies for a possible reopening and the news of health crises as meat processors may have resulted in some hoarding .

He also predicts a short-term increase in the price of fresh cuts. “Consumers want fresh meat,” he says. “You want to see that bright red color.”

Saperstein, who opened his trading company to the public in response to the pandemic, sources sources from smaller ranches that have seen little to no disruption in their supply chain. “People should try to find their own sources like a local butcher they can trust instead of trusting the big stores,” he suggests.

Jason Schöndorfer has also kept an eye on the situation. The co-owner of Babe’s Meat & Counter in Palmetto Bay has spoken to the ranchers he deals with. “We had to change our burger mix because the beef shoulder was running out, but we didn’t find any real shortage with premium sources,” he says.

Schöndorfer agrees with Saperstein that the combination of COVID-19 outbreaks in Smithfield and Tyson and consumer hoarding has temporarily derailed the factory farm distribution chain.

He predicts Miamians may run out of products like ground beef and rock steak – but that just means it’s a good time to try other cuts. “We propose to replace people,” says Schöndorfer. For example: “If you like rock steak, we offer sirloin.” And he agrees that now is a good time to see a local, independent butcher, noting, “It is beneficial to keep your money in the community.”

He gave another piece of advice – one that might sound counterintuitive from a meat dealer: eat less meat.

“We have always preached moderation,” he says. “We sell meat, that’s our business. But we don’t eat it every night.”

Otto Othman relies on minced meat to keep his Pincho restaurant chain running. Its supply dwindled when employees at its main supplier did not call for work. “You weren’t sick,” he says. “They were just afraid to go in.” He was wrong and found another supplier, but continues to monitor the situation. “I just had a call to our new meat dealer to ask if we should be concerned that we don’t have enough products or if prices are going up,” he says.

At the moment, Othman is not worried. In fact, he is more concerned about a different type of deficiency. “I can’t get enough disposable plates and vegetables,” he says. “I can’t find zucchini anywhere.”

As for Wendy’s, there were plenty of burgers during a visit to a local drive-thru on Thursday.

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