Is Miami Facing a Meat Shortage?

Empty meat cases at Publix.
Empty meat cases at Publix.
Photo by Laine Doss
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In a now-iconic 1984 advertising campaign, the Wendy's fast-food chain posed the question, "Where's the beef?"

Today, the company is asking the same question — for real. On Wednesday, CNN reported that about 1,000 Wendy's restaurants are facing meat shortages, with about one in five temporarily pulling hamburgers from the menu. In a call to shareholders that day, Wendy's CEO Todd Penegor said the chain would experience a "couple of weeks of challenging tightness that we'll have to work through" before resuming business as usual.

Pandemic usual, that is. 

The meatpacking industry has been hard hit by the coronavirus, with more than 10,000 workers having tested positive for COVID-19 to date, at more than 170 plants in 29 states, according to USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. At least 45 workers have died and about 40 plants have suspended operations, despite President Donald Trump's executive order to keep them open.

If a serious meat shortage is imminent locally, it appears not to have approached anywhere near dire proportions.

A trip to a local Publix found the beef shelves well-stocked. Fresh chicken and pork were in short supply, but signs directed customers to the freezer section, where poultry, sausages, and bacon were available in abundance.

Local meat purveyor Michael Saperstein advises Miami carnivores not to panic.

"There's no shortage of cattle or pigs. It's a shortage of the people who process them," notes the co-founder of Hallandale Beach-based Sunshine Provisions. While Saperstein hasn't seen a shortage in the cuts he buys, he has seen fluctuations in beef pricing. "This is almost like a correction that needed to happen for a while now," he says, noting that restaurants may be starting to restock for possible reopening and the news of health crises as meat processors may have led to some hoarding.

He also predicts a short-term increase in the price of fresh cuts. "Consumers want fresh meat," he says. "They want to see that bright red color."

Saperstein, who opened his trade-only company to the public in response to the pandemic, sources from smaller ranches, which have seen little to no interruption in their supply chain. "People should try to find their own sources, like a local butcher they can trust, rather than trusting the big-box stores," he suggests.

Jason Schoendorfer has been keeping an eye on the situation as well. The co-owner of Babe's Meat & Counter in Palmetto Bay has been speaking with the ranchers he deals with. "We've had to alter our burger blend because beef shoulder has been getting scarce, but we haven't seen any real shortage with premium sources," he reports.

Schoendorfer agrees with Saperstein that the combination of COVID-19 outbreaks at Smithfield and Tyson and consumer hoarding have temporarily derailed the factory-farm distribution chain.

He predicts that Miamians might see stores run out of products like ground beef and skirt steak — but that just means it's a good time to try other cuts. "We suggest that people substitute," says Schoendorfer. For example, "If you like skirt steak, we offer sirloin flap." And he agrees that now is a good time to seek out a local, independent butcher, noting, "It's beneficial to keep your money in the community."

He did offer one other piece of advice — one that might sound counterintuitive coming from a meat retailer: Eat less meat.

"We've always preached moderation," he says. "We sell meat, that's our business. But we don't eat it every night."

Otto Othman relies on ground beef to keep his Pincho restaurant chain running. His supply dwindled when employees at his main supplier didn't report to work. "They weren't sick," he says. "They were just scared to go in." He scrambled and found another supplier but he's continuing to monitor the situation. "I just had a call with our new meat distributor to ask if we should be worried about not having enough product or if there's a hike in pricing," he says.

For now, Othman isn't concerned. In fact, he's more worried about another kind of shortage. "I can't get enough disposable plates and vegetables," he says. "I can't find zucchini anywhere."

As for Wendy's, during a visit to a local drive-thru on Thursday, there were plenty of burgers to go around.

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