Meat industry

Employees butcher meat Wednesday at High Desert Meat Processing in Twin Falls. Custom meat processors in the Magic Valley have never been busier, as customers scramble to stock their freezers in case grocery store supplies dry up.

On a typical day in May, Don Scarrow gets a handful of calls from customers looking to have a pig or cow processed. The spring is usually the slow season for custom processors in the Magic Valley.

Last Friday, the owner of Scarrow Meats in Jerome got 146 calls — on his personal phone. Hundreds more have been calling his store every day for the past three weeks, hoping to buy an animal and have it butchered so they can stock their freezer with meat.

“Normally this time of the year my average employee gets 32 hours a week,” Scarrow told The Times-News. “Right now, I have approximately 20 employees staffed and they’re all getting 80 hours a week.”

Closures or slowdowns at some of America’s largest meatpacking facilities are causing shortages and limited supplies at grocery stores, which is driving many to custom processors like Scarrow.

Some major processors have struggled to stay open, or closed outright, after workers became infected with COVID-19. The American meat industry is dominated by four companies, and a huge percentage of the country’s meat comes from just a few massive plants, so even a few disruptions have big impacts on supply.

The Magic Valley’s meat industry has been turned upside down. While grocery stores are paying processors dramatically higher prices for products, processors are paying producers dramatically less. Magic Valley ranchers are likely to see their profits either shrink or disappear entirely if they sell now. There’s a chance that low beef prices could run some out of business.

“It depends on how financially stable they were,” Twin Falls Livestock owner and manager Bruce Billington said. “If it doesn’t change by fall, there will be people who will go out.”

Closures and slowdowns at the big processing plants because of the pandemic appear to be the main reason for the meat shortage.

On top of that, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on supply chains for most of the agriculture industry. Grocery stores and restaurants each rely on largely separate supply chains. That means food that would have gone to restaurants generally can’t be rerouted to grocery stores.

Supply chain problems and shortcomings in processing capacity have simultaneously meant low prices for producers trying to sell cattle and high prices for grocers: On one hand, the amount of meat available to grocery stores is reduced, while the number of animals ready to be slaughtered is increased. Swensen’s Market owner Ben Swensen said for some types of meat he’s had to pay 50 percent more — if there’s even meat available to buy — and he’s had to lower his margins.

“The beef is high priced, but the cattle are extremely cheap,” University of Idaho Extension Educator Joel Packham said. “There’s no beef because there’s no way to get (cattle) killed.”

Eleven state attorneys general, including Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, recently asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether the country’s four biggest meatpackers — Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, Cargill and JBS — are colluding to set prices, since they’re both paying less for cattle and charging more for beef. Those four companies control 80 percent of the U.S. meat market.

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