Charlotte grocers tighten restrictions on meat, poultry purchases in COVID-19 crisis

Updated: May. 7, 2020 at 8:16 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Catherine Muccigrosso/Charlotte Observer) - Shopping for meat and poultry in Charlotte grocery stores is about to get more challenging.

The novel coronavirus crisis continues to strike meat industry plants nationwide, forcing some grocery stores to limit the number of meat and poultry packages customers can buy. And some prices are rising as supplies dwindle.

“Meat supplies for grocery stores could drop 30% by Memorial Day, resulting in pork and beef price increases as high as 20% compared to last year,” industry publication Grocery Dive reported.

At Harris Teeter, meat and poultry limits at stores are the “result of what is occurring in the meat industry across the country,” spokeswoman Danna Robinson said. Currently, the meat department has a two-package per item limit.

On Wednesday, the store added more items with limited purchases, including lunchmeat, hot dogs and bacon.

The Matthews-based chain is owned by Kroger, whose CEO, Rodney McMullen, told CNBC Wednesday that stores are beginning to put limits on fresh meat purchases to prevent hoarding. Stores constantly have chicken, pork or beef available, he added.

“We’re working with all of our meat suppliers figuring out how to get products that were diverted to restaurants before to get diverted to our stores,” McMullen said. “We eliminated promotions that incentivize people to stock up.”

He said stores still offer price promotions and as long as people don’t hoard, “we’ll be able to get through this fine.”

PROBLEM AT MEAT PLANTS

There have been at least 13 coronavirus outbreaks at North Carolina meat-processing plants, the News & Observer reported last week. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Following President Donald Trump’s executive order April 28 to keep meat and poultry processing facilities open during the COVID-19 emergency, industry leaders said the order will help keep facilities open and protect workers.

“Before the order, the decision to close a plant was left to local authorities. Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be working with authorities and the plant to help keep it open while also trying to mitigate the risk to employees,” Chris Young, president of American Association of Meat Processors, said in an online letter.

Rob Handfield, a professor of operations and supply chain management at N.C. State University, told McClatchy News last week that the slowdown in meat and poultry processing, along with people hoarding food, is why some grocery stores are experiencing shortages.

That’s the same reason most grocery stores began limiting purchases on in-demand items, such as hand sanitizer, toilet paper, masks and water, when the first cases of COVID-19 hit North Carolina in March.

OTHER STORE LIMITS

Salisbury-based Food Lion placed purchase limits on higher-demand products like meat in mid-April, company spokesman Matt Harakal said.

There is a two-item limit on meats and poultry, similar to other in-demand products such as disinfectants and paper products.

“We remain in daily contact with our suppliers and are working with them in the most efficient way possible to get product into our stores and onto our shelves,” Harakal said.

Publix has a limit of two packages for chicken. Individual stores, however, may have additional limits, said spokeswoman Maria Brous. “While not every cut (and) variety of meat will be available every day, there will be options for our customers,” Brous said.

Costco also implemented limits on items of fresh meat purchases to a total of three items per customer among beef, pork and poultry products, according to the company’s website updated Monday.

Lidl, with two new Charlotte-area stores at 9318 Monroe Road in Charlotte and 4520 Margaret Wallace Road in Matthews, said the company is working with a supplier network to find new ways to get products to customers. Lidl has also opened stores in Rock Hill, Indian Trail and Concord.

Individual stores may be placing a limit on certain products, said spokesman Chandler Ebeier.

At The Fresh Market suppliers, the company is well-stocked with an ample supply of chicken and seafood, as well as many cuts of beef, spokeswoman Nicole Chabot said.

However, due to reduced processing capacities in the beef and pork industries, high-demand items such as ground beef and roasts, as well as pork, are seeing price increases.

“We are still able to offer our boneless, skinless chicken breasts at $2.99, but are not able to do so on our fresh ground chuck,” she said of the store’s weekly Tuesday promotional deal. One pound of ground chuck cost $5.99 on Wednesday, the same price since at least January when the Observer did a grocery store shopping comparison.

Walmart’s price for one pound of ground beef chuck at 80% lean has gone up 70 cents to $4.68 since the January comparison. Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.

BOOMING BUSINESS

One place that does not have a problem with supply is The Butcher’s Market On Rea Road in south Charlotte. The Butcher’s Market remains well stocked, employee Jason Newman said.

Because grocery stores have limited supplies, Newman said the meat market has been getting the overflow of customers. Most of them are looking for chicken or ground beef, he said.

However, there has been a recent price increase on ground beef and chuck roast because suppliers’ rates spiked. Newman said the price-per-pound hike is about $3, so instead of $6.99 per pound, it now costs $9.99 for either 85% or 92% lean ground beef.

Still, Newman said, “Our business has been through the roof just about every day.”