Skip the steak, buy the brisket: Consumers need to be flexible amid beef bottlenecks

By Kevin Rector
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Skip the steak and buy the brisket. Start going for those big, bone-in options. And if you still want prime cuts and can afford it, consider buying directly from a local butcher.

That’s one message from California cattle ranchers and suppliers as the closure of big meat processing plants across the country creates a bottleneck for processed beef. As they work hard to get their animals to market, buyers can help steady the supply chain by branching out.

One message from California cattle ranchers and suppliers as the closure of big meat processing plants across the country creates a bottleneck for processed beef: Skip the steak and buy the brisket. (Dreamstime/TNS)

“I always tell people, ‘Why don’t you want roasts?’” said Julie Morris, co-owner of T.O. Cattle Co. and Morris Grassfed in San Juan Bautista, which normally does brisk trade in steaks but has been overwhelmed by recent orders. “They are easy to cook. They are delicious. They feed a family. They leave leftovers.”

As the coronavirus crisis continues to disrupt normal food supply chains, those in the beef industry are looking for new ways to sell animals, and stretch each one that gets to market further.

Nationwide, dozens of processing plants have shuttered because of outbreaks of the coronavirus among employees. Unions are calling for more protections for workers, even as President Donald Trump has demanded processors keep operating to feed the nation.

Some fast-food outlets have struggled to source enough meat for their carry-out and drive-through customers. Groceries are working around the clock to stock shelves, but are seeing some shortages.

In California, which is one of the biggest beef producing states in the U.S., cattle ranchers are not immune to the fallout. For large operations in particular, the reduction in processing has meant a sharp decline in the number of cattle they can get to market.

Reshuffling is going to take some time, and supply might fall short as long as the bottleneck is there, said Dave Daley, a fifth-generation cattleman in Butte County and chair of the California Cattle Council.

“The most important thing we can do is to get those processing facilities open and working and safe,” because local butchers can’t make up for shuttered processing plants that normally handle thousands of cattle per day, Daley said.

Luckily, cattle can be held onto longer than chicken and pork, and Daley said he does not expect California ranchers to begin killing off unused animals. They will keep herds on green pastures and keep looking for ways to sell more animals into the market, he said.

Still, the outlook is cloudy.

Buyers of ranch cattle are unsure of what demand will look like in coming weeks, and how many animals they will be able to move into market due to processing slowdowns, all of which has held down the price per head even though grocery demand is high, Daley said.

“Logically, if people want to buy it, the price would go up. The problem is we can’t get it through the process,” he said. “There is a lot of frustration in the agriculture community.”

Some critics of the meat industry say a drop in meat consumption would be a good thing, given the industry’s contribution to climate change, the health impacts of a meat-heavy diet and ethical concerns about eating animals. But meat producers say it’s hardly the time to let such a vital supply of food shrivel.

To help, customers shouldn’t hoard meat, because that frustrates efforts to reach a new balance between supply and demand and adds volatility to pricing, those in the industry said. Shoppers also shouldn’t fear that suddenly there will be no meat, because there is a lot of it in California. But they will need to be patient.

Until the processing facilities are up and running again, buyers can expect less variety, fewer brands and more reliance on frozen products, Daley and others said.

“We’ll get you the beef, but we gotta get time to get it through that processing facility,” Daley said.

Buyers should also get more creative, said Chelsea Minor, corporate director of public affairs for Raley’s, a family-owned grocery chain with 127 stores in Northern California and Nevada.

Some processing facilities are looking for ways to speed up production, and one way to do that would be to spend less time deboning cuts of meat. Shoppers could help facilitate the shift by increasing demand for those cuts, Minor said.

“Don’t be afraid of a bone,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to try something different.”

Cody Nicholson Stratton, a dairy farmer who also sells meat from his family’s land in Ferndale, said big processors are important because they help feed big urban populations cheaply. But the current crisis has highlighted the lack of diversity in processing in California, as smaller butcheries have gone away and large processors have grown in market share.

That makes everyone in the industry more vulnerable to sudden shutdowns of big processing facilities, he said. “We need more butchers. We need more independent processors,” he said.

But it also shows how important smaller producers are in the market, especially now.

From his family’s farm, which he helps run alongside his family and husband Thomas, Nicholson Stratton has continued providing dairy for partner Rumiano Cheese Co. And on his own website, under the Foggy Bottoms Boys brand, Nicholson Stratton has continued offering up meat, including beef tongue for $20, a pound of ground beef for $10 and marrow bones for $15.

“More people are shopping closer to home, buying directly from a farmer right now when they maybe hadn’t in the past,” he said.

Belcampo, which sells organic meats at a premium in boutique butcheries in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, has seen in-store butcher shop sales nearly quadruple, and online sales explode.

Anya Fernald, Belcampo’s CEO, said her company was able to handle the surge because it farms its own animals in Yreka, Calif., and owns its own small slaughterhouse, sparing it from the broader industry turmoil.

“We control our own supply chain,” she said. “This is a time when local butchers can really shine.”