Many grocery stores finally flush with toilet paper now face meat shortages due to COVID-19-related packing plant closings nationally, a predicament that may cause even more headaches for reopening restaurants.

H-E-B grocery stores in Central Texas have announced new limits on the purchase of fresh beef, ground beef, chicken, pork and turkey, the chain announced online. Shoppers can buy five packages total, not five of each.

Brookshire Brothers, with a presence locally, has imposed no restrictions on meat purchases, but the situation remains fluid.

“At this time we have adequate meat supply, but that could change day by day, store by store. This could trickle down to all retailers,” said Sally Alvis, media spokesperson for Brookshire Brothers, in a phone message.

Fueling the shortage: meat packing plants taking steps, and shutting down in some cases, to protect employees from coronavirus contamination.

Meat cuts of nearly every stripe are becoming rare or expensive.

“I told a customer today we are fighting to get what we need,” said Brian Bauer, at Waco Custom Meats and Seafood on Lake Air Drive. “Kill numbers are down 50% across the country. We’re seeing price fluctuations of 10% to 30% in a matter of days, even hours. We have to pass that on.”

The Dallas Morning News reported, for example, that USDA Choice beef cuts selling wholesale from a whole carcass now bring $4.10 a pound, double the $2.05 from early March. The average retail price for beef patties registers $5.54 a pound this week, up from $5.17 last week and $4.06 last year, according to the Morning News article, citing USDA reports.

Bauer said Waco Custom Meats serves more than 150 restaurant clients around Central Texas, including locals such as George’s, Cupp’s and Capt. Billy Whizzbang’s. He said he hopes for their sake and his company’s, prices will begin to fall as slaughterhouse operations return to normal.

“Hopefully, that will be in just a couple of weeks,” he said. “Maybe by that time kill counts will be down only 25% nationally.”

On Monday, nearly one-fifth of Wendy’s restaurants — a total of 1,043 locations — were completely sold out of beef products, the New York Times reported.

Meat processing plants have been hit hard by COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 115 meat and poultry plants in 19 states have reported 4,913 employees with the virus. Twenty have died, according to reporting by the Dallas Morning News. Tyson Foods reported three of its six main plants are closed in Washington, Nebraska and Iowa.

“A Cargill plant closed today in Nebraska,” said Bauer.

Walmart said it continues to monitor the situation.

“Meat continues to be in high demand as customers stock up on protein,” said spokeswoman Delia Garcia in an email response.

“As we would normally do during periods of high demand, we are working through our supply chain to continually replenish items as quickly as possible to help us meet the needs of our customers,” Garcia said.

Meanwhile, Sam’s Club spokeswoman Amy Wyatt said, “To ensure access to desired products to as many members as possible, we are limiting the purchase of all poultry, beef, lamb and pork items to one per item.”

Jubilee Food Market, a neighborhood store at 15th Street and Colcord Avenue, continues to deal with supply challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Manager Robert Lopez said his Houston supplier has been unable to deliver a full order in weeks. Paper products typically run 40% below demand.

“We haven’t had toilet paper since this started, and still don’t,” Lopez said.

Lopez said meat deliveries remain steady, but the product does not last long when employees place it for sale in the freezer case.

“We buy hamburger, chicken, chicken wings, drumsticks, skinless chicken breasts and pork chops, and every package is gone in an hour or less. Our meat market personnel replace product throughout the day,” Lopez said.

He said the coronavirus pandemic and the purchase limitations imposed by “the big guys” have generated record-setting traffic counts at Jubilee.

“We place no limits on what families can buy,” Lopez said. “It breaks my heart when someone tells me, ‘We went to H-E-B, but I couldn’t buy all I need.’ It’s not fair to have them make two or three trips. Maybe one parent is working, and the family is on a strict budget with several kids at home.”

Lopez said Jubilee patronizes Waco Custom Meats and Seafood. It prefers cuts affordable to residents of the modest neighborhood.

Media reports from around the state say Costco, Kroger, Tom Thumb, Albertsons and Randalls stores have imposed limits on meat purchases.

H-E-B continues to hold the line on purchasing nonfood items.

Two items per customer are the limit for baby wipes, disinfecting and antibacterial sprays, disinfecting and antibacterial wipes, liquid bleach and trial-and-travel-size disinfecting and antibacterial sprays and wipes.

That’s also for hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, masks and first-aid gloves.

Four is the limit on hand sanitizers and hand soap.


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