Ohio State expert: Lessons learned from COVID-19 pandemic likely to stem potential meat supply shortage

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COLUMBUS, Ohio—Consumer alert: There’s no need to panic and no need to stock up on meat as of now.

Despite this week’s cyberattack on JBS USA—one of the largest meat producers nationwide—beef and pork supplies could possibly avoid being in short supply at grocery stores, and consumers should not panic just yet, says Lyda Garcia, an assistant professor of meat science and an Ohio State University Extension meat specialist. OSU Extension is the statewide research arm of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES). 

JBS is one of four large-scale meat producers, accounting for an estimated 20% of beef production in the United States. The Brazilian-based company suffered a cyberattack last weekend, prompting it to shut down its plants in North America and Australia, according to published reports.

However, the company announced in a written statement that it “took immediate action, suspending all affected systems, notifying authorities, and activating the company’s global network of IT professionals and third-party experts to resolve the situation.” The company said it expects that the vast majority of its plants would be back on Wednesday.

And even if there were a meat shortage as a result of the cyberattack, it likely would only ripple down to a couple of days or so, Garcia said. 

“We still have three other large-scale meat packers that make up some 80% of the nation’s beef and pork supplies,” she said. “Retail stores may see a little hit, but there’s no need to panic. There is plenty of meat out there.” 

Garcia said that even if grocery stores start to show limited supply as a precaution to prevent any meat shortages, consumers can still purchase meat from local meat processors, who are working overtime processing meat as a result of supply chain issues stemming from COVID-19 closures from earlier in the pandemic. 

“In fact, small meat processors are still going strong. Many of them are booked until 2022,” she said.

As COVID-19 spread through the nation’s largest meat-processing facilities last spring, some temporarily closed or reduced hours because so many employees were out sick. Meanwhile, orders piled up. As a result, many local processing facilities took the orders instead.

“Small, local meat processors are still in full operation and are still running on overdrive,” Garcia said. “I don’t think consumers have to start stocking up like many did during the earlier days of the pandemic. 

“We’ve learned a lot from the hit that meat producers took from COVID-19. Because of what they learned, meat producers are doing everything in their power not to get to the point of a meat shortage again. That doesn’t mean that it can’t happen, but we’re more informed, more educated, and more prepared now because of lessons learned from COVID-19.”

One of those lessons learned from COVID-19 was the need for more local meat processors, Garcia said. In response to that increased demand, at least eight new meat-processing facilities have started up in Ohio since last fall, she said.

Garcia, as part of an effort to serve Ohioans, organized a team from CFAES that created a free online “toolkit” with questionnaires, links, and other resources to help people fully think through starting up a meat-processing facility. 

Using the toolkit, a prospective entrepreneur can discover livestock inventories by county throughout Ohio, business model options, guides to creating a business plan, contacts in the meat industry, and a host of other resources. 

“If they can go through and answer questions from the questionnaires, they’ll have a good idea of what’s involved,” Garcia said. 

The toolkit touches on several challenges regarding launching a meat-processing business, including finding land for the facility, securing a bank loan, getting commitments from enough producers, and attracting a customer base. 

“It’s a complex system and I recognize the toolkit is only 60% of what they need, but it is definitely a good start,” she said. “The other 40%, they’re going to have to learn as they go.”

To access the free meat toolkit, visit go.osu.edu/meatoolkit.

To find out about a series of meat-cutting workshops, visit go.osu.edu/meatworkshops.

CFAES writer Alayna DeMartini contributed to this report.

Tracy Turner
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Lyda Garcia