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Higher prices, fewer choices: Meat plant outbreaks could affect your shopping

Last Updated Apr 29, 2020 at 11:06 am PST

(Source: iStock)

An expert expects to see meat prices rise and fewer options be available at grocery stores in the coming months

Change is being driven by outbreaks of COVID-19 at meat processing plants, professor at Guelph University explains

Expert expects more people to give plant-based alternatives a try

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – You can expect to see higher meat prices and perhaps fewer options on grocery store shelves in the coming months, according to an expert as meat processing plants struggle with coronavirus outbreaks.

Two major plants in Alberta are responsible for more than two-thirds of Canada’s beef. Both of them are dealing with outbreaks of COVID-19, and at some point, the bottleneck in production being seen at the plants will mean less meat getting to market.

“I don’t think there will be, sort of, a collapse of Canada’s food system as a result of this, but I think this is really problematic for low-income Canadians, perhaps people who have lost their jobs recently or seen their incomes decline … We could see a further increase of food insecurity in this country,” Professor Evan Fraser, the director of the Arrel Food Institute at the University of Guelph, explains.

“In the longer term, absolutely we will see a reduction probably in Canada’s and North America’s meat inventory, specifically affecting the pork industry, more than anything else, I think.”

Based on the Food Price Index, released by Dalhousie University earlier this year, Fraser expects to see price increases in the range of four to six percent for beef and pork.

The most immediate impact, Fraser explains, will likely be on farm income, with more farmers struggling to reach markets. This struggle can even force them into difficult situations, Fraser adds, including decisions to euthanize animals.

“Because they can’t hold or store animals, or maintain animals for long periods of time,” he says.

He’s urging us not to panic buy, warning that can deplete inventory and lead to shortages quickly.

“Our system, as a whole, is remarkably robust. It has actually adapted quite well, given the scale of the challenges presented by COVID-19 over the last month and a half, or so,” he explains.

Scrambling to adapt

Meanwhile, as meat products take a hit, Fraser expects more people to give plant-based alternatives a try.

“I would imagine, or take a guess, that one of the legacies of COVID will be a significant investment and increased interest in alternatives to livestock, which would again allow a level of resilience and diversity in the system,” he says.

Fraser also foresees the supply chain will scramble to adapt to changes coming for meat products, but he also believes some creative solutions will come out of this.

That could include finding new vendors, suppliers, or even trade arrangements, he says of the next couple of months.

Longer term, yes, he notes we’ll likely see producers producer lower volumes of meat at higher prices, but that’s also due to social distancing measures.

“Meat packing workers work very close together on a cutting line,” Fraser explains. “If you spread them out to two metres apart and put Plexiglass between them, that would really slow a plant down.”

When it comes to a couple of years from now, he notes we’ll probably see bigger interest in smaller plants.