With Covid-19 sickening meat plant workers and forcing the shutdown of processing plants, consumers in the Buffalo Niagara region now are facing purchase limits at supermarkets.
Tops Markets has limited fresh chicken, beef and pork to two packages per shopper. The tightening fresh meat supply is also spilling over into frozen and processed meats, such as cold cuts, bacon, hot dogs and sausage, according to Kathy Sautter, Tops spokesperson.
Wegmans put two-per-customer limits on meats back in March. It has raised prices in line with its increased costs, according to Michele Mehaffy, a Wegmans spokesperson.
At the same time, customers who are staying home and cooking more have an increased appetite for fresh beef, chicken and pork.
The high demand and low supply have left customers facing higher prices on the shelves. Meat suppliers' upfront costs have soared. They've passed those higher prices on to retailers who in turn have passed them on to consumers.
And as word gets out about the decline in meat production and possible shortages, spooked consumers have crowded stores to stock up. That is worsening the problem.
"The supplier relationships we have built have allowed us to remain consistent with the items most sought after by our shoppers," said Sautter, the Tops spokeswoman.
According to a worker in Tops' frozen food warehouse, suppliers are shorting company orders. While the warehouse is receiving enough frozen meat to meet stores' usual demand, suppliers are not keeping up with the newly increased requests.
Customers at Federal Meats haven't succumbed to panic buying the way they have at grocery stores, according to Tom Benzin, the company's supervisor of stores.
"I understand the supermarkets' problem because people are coming in just piling stuff in carts. But our stores are one on one," he said. "We don’t have customers coming in trying to buy everything. They come in buying what they need, maybe a little bit more."
So far, the supply of chicken and beef at Federal has been steady. Pork has been more of a challenge, but just certain cuts, Benzin said.
Though the company's nine stores don't have the same buying power as the major supermarkets, its small-store values give it a leg up, he said.
"We've been dealing with the same plant for 20 years," Benzin said. "We have a relationship with them. We kind of watch out for each other."
That kind of loyalty will be a deciding factor when it comes down to who wins the fight for product, according to the Fresh Communicator, a grocery trade newsletter from C&S Wholesale Grocers.
Suppliers will take care of "primary customers" first, those who do business with them year round, according to the newsletter. New customers who usually deal with other suppliers that suddenly can't meet their needs in the tighter market, will be low on the list of a supplier's priorities.
"Loyalty really matters," Jay Pooler, inside sales manager at C&S, wrote in the newsletter. "In the many years I’ve done this food thing, there is one inevitable base truth, the circle of trust runs strong in the food world. "
Grocers said meat sales are up overall, and so are prices.
"We are seeing some items almost double in cost from where we were a couple weeks ago," said Nicholas Kusmierski, co-owner of Market in the Square, which has stores in North Tonawanda and West Seneca.
Since Market in the Square cuts its own meat in stores, it's able to get fresh products onto shelves faster, he said. The grocer also has a large network of suppliers and is working with all of them to keep stores stocked.
Market in the Square has limited purchases of boneless chicken and ground beef to one per customer, and temporarily suspended its discounted bulk meat assortment packs due to a lack of inventory and higher prices. It may also have to begin limiting other meat categories, depending on how its suppliers hold up, Kusmierski said.
The meat shortage is "very real," he said.
Kevin Connelly owns Save-A-Lot franchises in Lackawanna, Hamburg and Dunkirk.
"Right now we can't get pork but we aren't too bad on chicken and beef," he said. "Although, I had asked one of my meat managers to get some beef filets for Mother's Day for my own family cookout. Couldn't get them, he tells me."
Dash's Market cuts meat in its stores, and its stock is pretty stable – for now, said Mark Mahoney, the company's director of operations. So far, its stores have only put a limit of four packs per customer on chicken.
"I think in another week or two we will see the real effect," he said.
Beef production is down 25% compared to last year, while pork is down 15%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Corporate consolidation has made meat processing vulnerable, analysts said. Roughly 50 beef plants slaughter and process as much 98% of the cattle in the United States.
Until the supply chain returns to normal, Benzin at Federal Meats urges customers to take it easy.
"I get it, I really understand why they’re doing what they're doing, but don’t panic. It will all work out," he said.