Unprecedented demand for produce amid surfacing COVID-19 fears in spring of 2020 resulted in barren shelves and a disruption to the supply chain, but it also prompted a look into future growth for the Utah beef industry by Utah State University researchers.
From toilet paper to canned goods and all the fresh produce in between, grocery stores across the country witnessed their shelves become vacant as lockdown and work-from-home orders were initiated in many states toward the end of March.
Beef products quickly joined the ranks of produce cleaned out during the pandemic rush, prompting the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food to collaborate with USU Extension in researching the shortfall within the meat industry and highlighting potential for increased processing in Utah.
The “Potential for Growth in Local Processing and Sales of Utah Beef” study report reads, “[COVID-19] highlighted the need for increased capacity and resiliency in our meat supply chain, with bottlenecks resulting from decreased production.”
The researchers attribute the pandemic’s lack of beef products not to a lack of cattle or even ranchers looking to sell their cattle, but rather a disruption to the meat processing industry and large plants.
Cattle ready to be harvested continued to build, but the lack of meat processing plants resulted in this “bottleneck” phenomenon that ultimately limited the supply of beef that was able to be pushed through the supply chain.
Decreased and limited labor during the pandemic as well as COVID-19 outbreaks at some large meat processing plants nationwide not only impacted the supply of beef to consumers, but limited the options for ranchers to market and harvest their animals.
The result was a surplus of cattle to be sold and ranchers being “forced to consider other options, including diverting livestock to approved small to mid-sized facilities.”
Utah meat processing plants were among those that the ranchers turned to, resulting in “approximately double” the processing numbers from the previous year.
As backlogs grew at meat processing plants, the UDAF implemented a “Temporary Grant of Inspection” that allowed custom exempt plants in Utah to market their product “wholesale and retail” within the state.
Custom exempt plants are traditionally barred from selling products commercially due to UDAF standards. These plants are authorized to provide private slaughter and processing for the owner of the animal and the products produced are not allowed to be marketed in stores.
However, with the strain on the beef supply created by the pandemic, these processing plants “provided an important service to consumers” by filling the void in availability of beef products.
The increased supply of beef processed in Utah plants and sold to Utah consumers at this time demonstrated the potential growth for the state’s beef processing and sales.
“Utah consumers desire local beef products,” the study reads, “and a significant portion are willing to pay a premium for it.”
Using a survey, the researchers discovered a positive trend in Utah consumers’ willingness to purchase Utah beef, even at mark-up prices.
This willingness of consumers demonstrates a potential market for Utah beef to be marketed as a premium product that would open doors for many smaller-scale meat processing plants throughout the state to recognize a new revenue stream.
The study ultimately concluded that there is “potential growth for Utah beef processing and sales” and building brand awareness could help to unlock this potential.
Story by: Mikyla Bagley
Photos by: Mikyla Bagley