CORONAVIRUS

Where's the beef? is becoming an increasingly relevant question as stores, restaurants set purchase limits

Attorneys general call for price fixing probe

Wendy's has dropped burgers from its menus in some states. (Dreamstime/TNS)
Wendy’s has dropped burgers from its menus in some states. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Meat shortages caused by COVID-19-related meat processing facilities shutdowns — and subsequent demand by consumers — are showing up at grocery stores, a local eatery and a national fast-food restaurant chain, and with Iowa’s Tom Miller and other attorneys general urging a federal probe of alleged price fixing.

A spot check of Cedar Rapids supermarkets by The Gazette earlier this week found customers limited to 2 pounds of ground beef at the Hy-Vee Food Store on Johnson Avenue NW and 5 pounds at the Hy-Vee Food Store on Edgewood Road NE at the Fountains.

Hy-Vee said in a statement the West Des Moines-based chain, effective Wednesday, will begin limiting each customer to four packages of a combination of fresh beef, ground beef, pork and chicken.

“We have product available at our stores, but due to worker shortages at plants as well as an increase in meat sales, customers may not find the specific items they are looking for,” the company said.

Aldi in Cedar Rapids is limiting customers to two packages of beef, pork or chicken, while Walmart is asking customers voluntarily to limit their purchase to one package each of beef or pork.

Fareway, Sav-A-Lot and Target have no restrictions on beef, chicken or pork purchases, as of Tuesday.

On Monday, QDogs BBQ in Marion posted on Facebook it has decided to delay its reopening, after being shuttered due to the orders of Gov. Kim Reynolds for restaurants in the state.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“We are sorry to say we will not be opening May 7,” the post read. Citing the meat processing plant closures, it added, “ ... we will have to delay opening until we can get the deliveries we need at a cost that is manageable.”

Wendy’s, the Dublin, Ohio, fast-food chain that uses fresh beef, is encountering supply shortages and said has been unable to sell hamburgers and other beef items at about 20 percent of its locations.

“We’re working diligently to minimize the impact to our customers and restaurants, and continue to work with our supplier partners to monitor this closely,” a Wendy’s spokesperson told CNN Business.

The severity of Wendy’s shortages depends on the “geographic nature of processing plant closures,” Stephens analyst James Rutherford wrote.

In states such as Ohio, Michigan and New York, around 30 percent of Wendy’s are out of fresh meat. Other states, such as Arizona, Nevada and Louisiana, are not affected.

Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s has not indicated any fresh beef supply issues. That chain uses fresh beef in its quarter-pound hamburgers, but relies on frozen beef for the rest of its menu items.

Cattle prices

Tyson Fresh Meats on Monday postponed the reopening of its Dakota City, Neb., beef plant as the meatpacker awaited complete results of COVID-19 tests for its workers. The plant, which has been idle since Friday, had been scheduled to restart production on Tuesday.

As of Thursday, 669 of the 4,300 workers at the plant had tested positive for COVID-19,

Amid the packinghouse shutdowns and shortages, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and attorneys general of nine other states have urged the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue a federal investigation into suspected national price fixing by meatpackers in the cattle industry.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, the attorneys general expressed concern over the likelihood of manipulation of the market for processed beef.

The four largest meatpacking companies control more than 80 percent of the beef processing in the United States.

“The shelf price of beef is exceptionally high, while cattle prices are low and continue to dive,” the attorneys general said in their letter. “Concern over market manipulation has increased with beef prices reaching record levels as consumers stockpile meat in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but cattle prices remain low and are decreasing.”

The attorneys general contend the pricing margins are a sign that meatpackers are using their ability to control the market for processed beef and taking advantage of the situation in a manner that could violate the federal antitrust law.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.