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Grocers limit purchases as COVID-19 hits Pa. meat industry

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

Pennsylvania's meat and poultry processing facilities have been hit harder by the coronavirus pandemic than those in any other state in the country, says a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And York County grocery stores are among those struggling with a supply chain that has been hindered by facilities' mitigation efforts, forcing them to limit purchases and pull some products from the shelves.

Meat and poultry processing plants have been epicenters of coronavirus infections. 

In a study released Friday, the CDC noted that workers at meat-packing plants are particularly at risk because of crowded workplaces, cramped living conditions and the fact that some share transportation to and from work.

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Difficulties maintaining proper hygiene are also an issue, the report states.

The CDC found that 22 meat- and poultry-processing plants in Pennsylvania had employees who tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

There were 858 confirmed cases of the coronavirus reported in Pennsylvania processing plants, with one death linked to the virus, the most in the country.

South Dakota was the second-most affected state, with 794 cases and two deaths.

The meat counter at Weis Markets on Roosevelt Avenue in West Manchester Township, Tuesday, May 5, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

However, there was no data showing what percentage of the workforce in Pennsylvania had tested positive for COVID-19. Of the available data, Iowa ranks first with 18.2% of workers testing positive.

Virus concerns have caused some meat-processing facilities, such as Cargill Meat Solution in Luzerne County, to shut down completely to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Other facilities, such as Plainville Farms facility in Adams County, have drastically cut their workforce. That company has operated with less than 25% of its staff since early April, according to a news release provided to The York Dispatch.

Plainville has touted its strict safety measures during the pandemic.

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But public scrutiny has surfaced in some other cases. For example, protesters gathered outside Bell & Evans in Lebanon County last week, accusing it of unsafe working conditions and demanding transparency, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

The resulting supply shortage has forced some grocers to impose limits on how much meat customers can buy in an effort to keep their shelves stocked. 

"We’re working closely with our supplier partners and even working with alternative suppliers to secure product," said Ashley Flower, a spokesperson for Giant Food Stores. "And we continue to encourage customers to buy only what they need."

Weis Markets, ALDI and Giant have implemented various restrictions for customers:

  • Weis: The company has implemented a limit on its London broil, only allowing customers to make one purchase.
  • ALDI: Signage shows that "some fresh meat items are not available."
  • Giant: Customers are limited to two purchases per day on select meat, poultry and pork categories.

Walmart has not yet placed restrictions on meat and poultry purchases, but it has streamlined its meat selection to temporarily halt the sales of products that take a long time to process, such as marinated meats.

All of the companies that responded to requests for comment noted that purchasing restrictions and limiting what cuts of meat are available have kept them above water and still able to meet demand.

Some said they are in better positions than others, though, such as Weis Markets.

"Since we cut in-store and in our processing facility, we have considerable flexibility when we’re sourcing various proteins," said spokesperson Dennis Curtain.

The meat case at Weis Markets on Roosevelt Avenue in West Manchester Township, Tuesday, May 5, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

And as buyers are left with limited meat options — and in some cases, empty shelves — they have turned to other sources, such as butchers.

An employee from Godfrey Bros. Meats, in Springfield Township, who declined to give her name, said there has been a sharp increase in demand in recent weeks. 

"We've just had to up our inventory as far as slaughtering goes. So it's overwhelming us. We've been slammed," she said. "My guys are working 50 to 60 hours a week to keep up with demand."

As of noon Tuesday, York County had 716 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 11 deaths linked to the coronavirus.

There have been 50,957 confirmed cases statewide and 3,012 deaths.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.