WASHINGTON — The turkey industry is working every day to mitigate any lingering effects of the pandemic on the supply chain, including labor and transportation, and ensure a supply of lean protein is available, the National Turkey Federation's Beth Breeding said.
Based on the successful completion of the industry’s highest-demand period, she is optimistic about that continuing in 2022.
“Moving product through the supply chain is an intricate process, and NTF members continue navigating these issues to make sure retail customers are served,” Breeding said. “Every American who wanted a turkey at Thanksgiving was able to find one at an affordable price, and we’re confident that momentum will continue into the new year.”
Like most industries in the United States right now, chicken processors are grappling with a tight labor supply, said the National Chicken Council's Tom Super. But labor challenges are nothing new to the industry – processors have been adapting to meet those challenges for years.
Processing plants, he said, have been embracing more automation, offering even more competitive wage rates and attractive benefit packages, creatively managing shifts, offering flexible work schedules, and hosting job fairs, all in an effort to attract more workers.
Based on the most recent USDA data, it seems some of these strategies are paying off. A 9% year over year price increase for chicken is barely outpacing inflation and that’s despite the fact that chicken’s main input costs like corn, soybeans, gasoline, packaging and transportation are all up double and triple digits.
“This is all on top of the tight labor supply, truck driver shortages, backlogs at our ports, shipping delays, and government policies that are exacerbating inflation,” Super said. “Despite having to continually overcome these unprecedented obstacles and challenges, chicken producers have proven their remarkable resiliency by producing a record quantity in 2021 and are slated to increase output even more in 2022, according to USDA. The accomplishment of positive production is remarkable, especially when viewed against the production disruptions in other food categories, and many other industries in the US and around the world.”
While it hasn’t been easy, ever since the start of the pandemic, the industry has pulled together to deliver meat to America’s tables, said Anne-Marie Roerink of 210 Analytics.
“It’s been incredible to watch how the meat industry has worked through crisis after crisis and somehow has kept the supply flowing. Between the ports, trucking, labor, packaging shortages, CO2 shortages, feed prices and of course COVID and much more, buyers are often chasing ghosts trying to source enough products, and at times headquarter personnel are rolling up their sleeves working the stores where needed.”
Industry members have ramped up their communications efforts alerting consumers to possible out of stocks and offering alternate suggestions. Retailers have reshuffled their cases to fill holes left by out-of-stocks and are backfilling with items they were able to source.
“I would say flexibility has been a key word ever since March of 2020,” Roerink said. “Industry partners throughout the supply chain are working together to see what’s possible during times of unprecedented allocations and low fill rates.”
The fresh meat industry hasn’t been as hard-hit by the global supply slowdown as other food categories, said Rick Stein of FMI – The Food Industry Organization. For starters, most meat consumed in the United States is produced here — or in neighboring countries reachable by truck. The boats languishing off Long Beach don’t apply.
That said, the industry is not immune. Demand is high and will likely get higher — for fortunate Americans, their savings accounts are higher than ever. And for the less fortunate, SNAP benefits are up, spurring additional demand.
“That demand is going to be hard to fill, especially with the labor force we have now,” Stein said. “I think it will be a rocky road for at least another 18 months.”