A shopper at this Sam's Club looks over a nearly bare meat display in Maplewood, Mo., on March 15. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo
EVANSVILLE, Ind., March 26 (UPI) -- Consumer demand for meat is surging across the United States this month as the coronavirus pandemic is forcing families to stay home.
New data from the Chicago-based analytics firm IRI shows retail purchases of all meat were up 77 percent during the week of March 15. More recent data is not yet available, but industry groups say sales have remained high.
"This is the most substantial shift I've ever seen," Chad Martin, the group president of poultry for Tyson Foods, said Wednesday. "And it's hit all our proteins -- chicken, beef, turkey."
According to the IRI report, fresh chicken sales climbed 76.5 percent, while beef was up 73.1 percent and pork was up 89.2 percent.
Ground meats were among the most popular items. Ground beef purchases doubled, bringing in the highest sales in absolute dollars of any meat product, according to the report.
"We're selling everything. You can see that by looking at the empty store meat cases," said Colin Woodall, CEO of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "But right now there is a lot of demand for ground beef."
Woodall quickly added that no shortage of beef exists. Chicken and turkey industry groups have said the same about those meats.
That's because the surge in retail demand has been accompanied by an equally drastic decrease in demand from the food service industry.
The problem is simply getting the meat to the right places. The potato industry is experiencing a similar transition.
Diverting meat from food service to retail is not a quick ship to turn. The meat industry is set up to supply roughly an equal mix of retail and food service providers, and those two types of customers require different treatment.
The food service industry needs products in larger volumes than retail outlets. That requires different packaging, which sometimes is performed in different places.
Meat packers across the country are adjusting their production to accommodate the shifted demand, industry representatives said.
Tyson, for example, has halted production lines that were packaging food for restaurants or other food service providers, and switched them over to churn out retail supplies.
"An example of that would be, we may make chicken nuggets for a fast-service restaurant," Martin said. "We might package those chicken nuggets in a 40-pound box. Well, to make it retail friendly, we'd need to switch to putting them in a 1-pound bag that consumers can take home and put in their freezer."
Meanwhile, Perdue Farms has reduced the number of products it's making to only the most basic items -- chicken breast, thighs, drums and nuggets -- to push more food out faster, said Diana Souder, a company spokeswoman.
"We've simplified the mix of what we produce so we can get it sent out as quickly as possible," Souder said.
For now, meat packing plants are working overtime, adding extra shifts and running on weekends, to restock the nation's grocery stores.
Meat industry groups say they don't know how long retail demand will remain high. At Perdue, officials believe they'll be caught up and have stores restocked within the next couple of weeks, Souder said. Other groups are less sure.
"Hopefully, the initial 'panic buy' is behind us," Tom Super, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Chicken Council, said in an email. "We would encourage people to buy only what they need. There is nothing about COVID-19 that makes people eat five times as much food."
Packing plants are stepping up sanitation efforts and monitoring employees for signs they might be sick.
"The workers are screened for illness, mostly by taking their temperatures," said Joel Brandenberger, president of the National Turkey Federation, an industry group based in Washington, D.C.
"If there is a concern, the worker can be sent home. But, as part of normal food safety procedures, workers wear a lot of protective clothing in plants anyway."
The Food and Drug Administration has said there is no evidence that coronavirus spreads through food or food packaging.