How Washington has managed to avoid food shortages during crisis

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With beef and chicken plants closing around the country because of coronavirus outbreaks, are people going to be panic hoarding meat like we saw with toilet paper? More than that, should we be concerned about potential food shortages?

While you might see some spot shortages of particular meats, there is no reason to go out and start hoarding hamburger, steak, chicken or pork. Brad Haberman is head of the Washington Farm Bureau. He doesn’t see shortages of anything coming.

“We are still farming,” he told Seattle’s Morning News on KIRO Radio. “We’re still raising cattle, pigs and chickens. We’re still raising all of our crops. It looks like it is going to be an excellent year for crops in Washington state.”

Then why are we seeing dairy farmers dumping milk they can’t sell, poultry farms killing chickens they can’t get to processors, and a billion pounds in excess Washington potatoes?

“The processing part is slowing down,” Haberman said. “They are trying to limit how much milk is going out, but that is not helping the dairymen or the farmer because they are producing more than what is being processed and put on the shelf.”

Washington cherry harvest in coronavirus crosshairs

Haberman said the problem isn’t the supply of food as there is plenty. The problem is getting that food to processors and markets. Some processors have closed because of outbreaks. Others have reduced capacity to meet social distancing guidelines. Others still have cut production because restaurants are closed. That means the food isn’t moving as fast as it used to.

And it’s not just processing. Haberman said there’s an issue with trucking as well. Drivers aren’t finding the services they are used-to open right now. They can get fuel but not necessarily meals or food. Some truck stops have closed their convenience stores.  Most have closed their dining room facilities.  So trucking isn’t rolling at full capacity.

While there might not be food shortages, there is still a very strong possibility that some Washington farmers could lose their farms. Prices have plummeted for many crops, including corn.

To prevent food shortages from happening, I have been seeing some evidence that stores are preemptively rationing meat purchases to avoid empty food cases, like we saw with empty toilet paper shelves.

I have also seen signs at a northwest Costco limiting meat purchases to three per visit.