Where’s The Beef: At The Grocery Store — At Least For Now

Dale Stone with freshly made pork sausage at Schiavoni's Market in Sag Harbor. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

Americans are used to finding whatever they want when they go to the grocery store, from toilet paper to porterhouse steak, so the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to runs on supplies of many staples over the past two months, has resulted in some jarring new realities.

The latest fear, borne out by occasionally picked-clean meat aisles, is whether there will be enough beef, pork, and chicken available to feed hungry families in the weeks and months ahead.

Those worries have been fueled in part by reports that a growing number of meat packing plants around the country have been forced to close their doors as workers fall ill to COVID-19 or have tested positive for the coronavirus. Major meat producers have warned that the supply chain could be disrupted by the pandemic, and President Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act to order plants to remain open to head off shortages.
Stop & Shop, which has stores in East Hampton, Southampton, Hampton Bays, and Westhampton Beach, like other stores surveyed, reports that it has been able to keep shelves stocked.

“While we have been working through a small number of plant closures, none of our suppliers have been closed for a significant period of time,” said the chain’s external communications manager, Stefanie Shuman, via email. “We remain in close contact with our suppliers to ensure we have product coming to our stores each day. We’ve also transitioned to alternative sources and supplies of meat.”

But she added that customers, aware of those plant closures, have begun to hoard.
“As such, Stop & Shop has set a limit of two per customer for each item in store, and this limit may vary by store, based on availability,” she said.

At Schiavoni’s Market in Sag Harbor, where a long line of customers waiting to check out while maintaining 6 feet of space between one another stretched the length of the dairy aisle on Friday afternoon, owner Josiah Schiavoni said the store has been able to keep its meat cases well stocked.

“There are some things we’ve run low on,” he said, “but mostly we’ve noticed the prices are going up.”

Sam Mautaz, an employee of Villa Italian Specialties in East Hampton Village, which is known for its pork products, said it, too, has been able to obtain a sufficient supply.
“Our suppliers have never said they are out of something, but they have had limited quantities,” he said. “We have heard that some facilities have been shut down, so we might have a problem with deliveries sooner or later.”

Because the shop makes its sausages fresh daily, he said it cannot buy in bulk and freeze meat for future use. “We sell everything we make every single day,” he said.
It should come as no great surprise that the American food supply chain would be vulnerable, said Stephen Skrenta, the owner of Acabonac Farm, a small operation that raises grass-fed cattle on Long Island.

“There’s no secret that there are four or five companies that control 80 percent of the protein market in America,” he said. “They have consolidated the market over many years. It was once common to have a local abattoir, where farmers would bring their livestock, but not any longer.”

With the growth of agribusiness and the federal government stepping into help manage the nation’s food supply, the trend has been for food production to be split into various components, so that cattle, once raised on every farm, are now raised on specialty farms, where they are kept in tight quarters and fed large amounts of corn, growth hormones, and antibiotics before being shipped off to be slaughtered in meat-packing plants the size of a car factory.

“I think at least some people are thinking about it,” Mr. Skrenta said of the movement toward consumption of locally produced foods. He said that he had been able to expand his business, which is still tiny by national standards, to about 80 to 100 cattle in large part “because people are seeking out healthier foods.”

Peter Ludlow, who raises steers, pigs, turkeys, and chickens, along with a dairy at Mecox Bay Dairy Farm with his father, Art, said the limited amount of farmland available on the East End effectively caps the size of their business.

“But we’re very fortunate being where we are where we have the clientele who will buy our products,” he said.

Having a small farm means the Ludlows can be flexible.

“Although we aren’t as efficient as the big guys, we have little more resiliency in times of trouble,” he said. “I think most farmers would do it this way if they could.”

Mr. Ludlow says the farm works with a small slaughterhouse in Pennsylvania. “They might have 20 people on their staff instead of 1,000,” he said. “I think it’s a different culture when you are working on a line with 10 other people as opposed to 900.”

But the Ludlows have taken advantage of some modern marketing methods. The farm’s website, mecoxdirect.com, allows customers to buy many of the farm’s products online for home delivery, he said.