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Area grocery stores setting limits on how much meat people can buy due to processing challenges

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MILWAUKEE, Wis. (CBS 58) - The CDC reports nearly 5,000 COVID-19 cases among meat processing facilities in the U.S. with nearly two dozen deaths. Those cases are now affecting how much meat can be bought in the Milwaukee area.

Roundy’s Foods, with 106 stores in Wisconsin, tells CBS 58 each customer is only allowed to buy two pork products, two beef products and two poultry products each visit. They say it’s because processors are facing challenges, but it’s not just the large grocery store chains that are affected.

Outpost Natural Foods, with just four stores in the Milwaukee area, are also limiting their customer meat purchases.

“It’s two per product, per person,” said Lisa Malmarowski, Director of Brand and Store Development for Outpost Natural Foods. “We’re limiting chicken, beef and pork products.”

Malmarowski says it’s not because they are short on supply, it’s because they want to make sure there’s enough for everyone.

“We haven’t been seeing a lot of shortages from our suppliers, because we typically work with small, mostly local and regional companies, but it’s because we were concerned that the market in general may see a rush in general of people buying meat,” she adds.

Still, the meat shortage is real. Experts say there’s more than enough chicken, hogs and cattle, but a number of plants have either been shut down, slowed down or workers are simply not showing up.

Nearly 600 meat processing workers in the state have the coronavirus and it’s caused shut downs at plants like JBS Packerland in Green Bay and Patrick Cudahy.

“These processors are only able to produce about 40-percent lower than what we were producing at the same time last year and that’s why we’re seeing limited availability in the grocery store,” says Jayson Lusk, Agricultural Economics Department Head for Purdue University.

In turn, prices of meat may rise. The USDA expects meat prices to increase slightly over the year as a whole. Lusk says wholesale prices for beef and pork have skyrocketed.

“They’re both up more than 60 percent over the last two weeks, and consumers are already starting to see that in the grocery stores,” said Lusk.

“Either producers are raising prices or stores have to go to producers that are farther away,” said Val.

“There’s just so many different factors within the supply chain that can make the prices go up,” says Christopher Young, Executive Director of American Association of Meat Processors.

Some restaurants are also affected. Wendy’s tells CBS 58 some of their menu items may be in short supply, because their products require fresh protein sources.

 “I think Wendy’s is kind of an outlier, because if we’re going to see shortages on the food supply chain as far as for proteins, I think the first place you’re going to see it is on the fresh side,” said Young.

Experts say with uncertainty, there’s no telling when purchase limits will be lifted.

“We really don’t know how long we’re in for in this, what we can see in the last several weeks is there’s been a steady decline in the amount of animals that can be processed,” adds Lusk.

Even with uncertain times, the American Association of Meat Processors say consumers don’t have to worry in the long run.

“I think overall we’re in a good spot and the industry’s been in a good spot,” said Young. “I think overall for consumers there’s a good outlook moving forward.”

Lusk says even with fresh meat purchase limits there is still plenty of frozen meat that will be distributed. In fact, he says at the beginning of the month there was more meat in cold storage than there have been the last several years.

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