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What's being done to prevent a meat shortage after hundreds of meat processing plant workers test positive for COVID-19

Four meat processing plants in Pennsylvania have temporarily closed, raising concerns that a shortage of beef, pork and poultry in supermarkets is on the horizon.

The coronavirus pandemic has temporarily shut down four meat processing plants in Pennsylvania, after hundreds of workers tested positive for COVID-19. The closures are feeding concerns that there will be a dramatic shortage of beef, pork, and poultry in supermarkets.

In some areas, grocery store shelves have already been stripped bare.

“Anybody who’s been in the supermarket knows that you’re being limited on how much meat you buy in a lot of cases, if there’s meat on the shelf. It’s everything from meat to toilet paper,” said Wendell Young IV, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents workers at all four plants.

The impacted plants include Cargill in Hazleton, JBS Beef in Souderton, CTI Foods hamburger-grinding plant in King of Prussia, and Empire Kosher Poultry Inc. in Mifflintown, Juniata County.

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Young said CTI Foods has since reopened and the other three plants are expected to resume operations next week.  Company owners of the meat processing plants have beefed up safety measures, undergoing deep cleans and providing PPE to plant workers.

“We sent shields out for everybody at the plant, including the management team, to make sure everybody has one because this virus doesn’t distinguish between management or labor workers,” Young said. “It’s indiscriminate and workers can take it home to their families.”

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Even brief closures have a domino effect. The closure of two poultry processing plants limited options for poultry farmers.

“There’s no home for them. We have seen this with other animals as well, that there really isn’t a secondary market to go with these birds,” explained Dr. Gregory Martin, Extension Educator in Poultry at Penn State Extension. “It’s created some hardships for the local farms.”

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Many people fear the coronavirus pandemic is pushing the country’s meat supply close to the edge. Industry leaders are warning against panic buying, saying they can manage—at least for now.

“Because we can move food throughout the United States fairly easily with trucking, I don’t think we are going to see a large impact, other than there might be spot shortages,” said Dr. Martin. “But for the most part, there’s plenty of eggs, for example. There’s plenty of chicken and there’s plenty of beef out there. It’s just, things need to move around.”