Hot demand keeps regional abattoirs hopping

Business has been booming at rural meat plants this spring as fears of meat shortages prompt consumers to stock up

Beef has become the new bathroom tissue. It’s been flying off store shelves.

“That’s what we joke about right now is that beef appears to be the new toilet paper,” said Jim Johnson of Alberta Prairie Meats in Duchess, Alta.

Ground beef sales, in particular, have been sizzling hot, selling as quickly as processors can make it.

“The demand all of a sudden was just absolutely stupid. People were in a panic and we’d see that constantly here. Whereas somebody would normally come in and grab three, four packs of burger to last them for a couple of weeks, now they want 25 pounds,” said Johnson.

“These guys can throw everything into ground beef and they just still couldn’t meet the demands.”

As the market for beef skyrocketed so too has the price.

“Inside rounds, outside rounds that were prior to the pandemic going for $4 a lb. is all of a sudden $8.50,” he said.

Much of the demand, or “pandemic buying,” was caused by Alberta’s two major meat processors either temporarily closing or reducing production, which affected sales at his regional abattoir in the southern Alberta village.

“As soon as people heard the big plants were shutting down, we got absolutely overwhelmed with huge orders. Huge freezer pack orders and long, long lists of them to the point where we just had to quit taking orders because we didn’t know if we had enough product,” he said.

“When the panic sets in, all of a sudden everybody’s trying to stock up the freezer and the meat isn’t there.”

While business is booming, it’s been a dilemma for Johnson, whose operation was already maxed out before the pandemic struck.

‘We’re all still in a little bit of culture shock with trying to deal with it and ultimately hoping it will go away, but fearing this so-called second-wave thing,” he said.

To meet social distancing guidelines, he had to initially reduce staff, which meant reducing the amount of meat his business could process. However, with co-operation from government and flexible work hours by staff, he has managed to increase production.

“I asked for an additional day inspection service and actually managed to sneak in an extra 15 percent volume by having that extra day in there and spreading it out,” he said.

Down the road at Deerview Meats in Medicine Hat, Alta., Perry Deering said his diversified processing facility has increased twofold during the pandemic.

“I’ve doubled my staff and doubled my plant production. I’m maxed. We literally do not have room to hang one more beef.”

He said increased sales during COVID-19 are comparable to those during the BSE crisis of the early 2000s.

“Basically, this is a repeat, but nowhere as drastic and nowhere on the same magnitude. In 2003 when BSE hit, the same kind of chaos happened to the feedlot and the cow-calf operator. All of a sudden there needs to be another option and they turn to provincial facilities,” he said.

However with COVID-19, he’s been fortunate to have the existing square footage to expand into.

“I mirrored some of the really good plants that I did business with before I built mine. We do full cross (de)contamination. We never changed a single thing in my building — cleaning, sanitation and hand-washing, segregation,” he said.

However, the rapid expansion has not come without growing pains, particularly around hiring more staff.

“It is massively hard to find people to work in our industry,” he said.

Like Johnson, Deering employed some out-of-the-box thinking to meet demand. Freezer packs are part of his answer.

“People are complaining of meat shortages. Well, we have the remedy. If you’re willing to sign on with us, we’ll make sure you always have what you’re looking for. So we’re really working hard on the freezer pack programs and getting people signed up. And it’s been successful. We do an average anywhere from 30 to 40 freezer packs a day,” he said.

It’s actually an old business model built on convenience for the consumer.

“It’s kind of like the milkman coming to the door. It was one of those things that was lost. We deliver directly to the people’s front door. That’s old-time service I think that’s got to come back. It has value,” he said.

Since the pandemic hit, it’s been all hands-on-deck for the small staff at Riverside Meats in Warman, Sask., who retail farmer’s sausage and deli meats.

“When this all started two months ago we were really busy, like just more people coming at once to buy. Grocery store orders were also way bigger than usual,” said Riley Wiebe.

While the number of staff at the butcher shop has not increased, the work day has been lengthened from eight hours to about 10 hours per day.

“We’re just doing as much as we can. Before it was just extreme, like running out every week. So just doing whatever we can and then stop,” he said.

But while demand is still high, all three businesses say production and pricing are beginning to normalize again.

Johnson said with normal production levels resuming at the JBS and Cargill plants in Alberta, beef prices are going down, with the exception of ground beef.

“We have a little calendar here where we place the orders. Normally it’s not uncommon to see 20 or 25 orders up there, but during this pandemic it was like wallpaper and now we’re almost back to the normal board again,” he said.

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