Hundreds of Wendy’s restaurants have run out of hamburgers. Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the United States, is limiting the amount of ground beef and pork that customers can buy at some stores. And Costco, where shoppers typically buy in bulk, has placed a three-product cap on purchases of fresh beef, poultry and pork.
Over the last month, dozens of meatpacking plants across the country have shut down because of coronavirus outbreaks, raising concerns about the country’s meat supply. Now, the impact of those disruptions is reaching customers at fast-food drive-throughs as well as grocery stores like Wegmans and Hy-Vee, where certain meat products are becoming harder to find.
On Monday, nearly one-fifth of Wendy’s restaurants — a total of 1,043 locations — were completely sold out of beef products, including burgers, according to analysis by the financial firm Stephens, which examined the online menu at every Wendy’s in the United States.
“It is widely known that beef suppliers across North America are currently facing production challenges,” a Wendy’s spokesman said in a statement on Tuesday. “Some of our menu items may be temporarily limited at some restaurants in this current environment.”
The problems at Wendy’s are most likely only the beginning of fresh beef shortages that may reach their peak around Memorial Day, when many Americans will be firing up grills. (Analysts say there is no shortage of frozen beef in cold storage.)
Last week was the fourth week in a row that the number of cattle slaughtered fell below 500,000, down more than 35 percent from average beef production, according to Cassandra Fish, a meat industry analyst.
And while many grocery chains have not publicly acknowledged they are running low on meat, Ms. Fish said retailers were starting to experience stock shortages caused by the constrained supply, not simply because of hoarding by consumers.
“It is shocking,” Ms. Fish said. “There is not one person in the meat industry who was not caught off guard.”
Over the last few days, a series of grocery stores have announced limits on meat purchases. In addition to Costco and Kroger, Hy-Vee said on Tuesday that it would restrict customers to four packages of fresh beef, ground beef, pork and chicken.
Stores are also anticipating that certain products may become more difficult to find. A Wegmans spokeswoman, Laura Camera, said on Tuesday that the chain “may not have every product cut or variety available for the next few weeks.”
The impact on the fast-food industry has been more uneven. McDonald’s said on Tuesday that it had not experienced any beef shortages. But Shake Shack executives warned this week that the price of beef had “significantly increased.”
“We do not, today, expect a supply issue,” the company’s chief executive, Randy Garutti, said during an earnings call on Monday. “However, costs have really jumped.”
Wendy’s reliance on fresh beef — a major selling point for the brand — may make it more vulnerable to shortages than some rivals, which use frozen hamburger meat.
“It impacts them more quickly, as opposed to some restaurants that have a little bit more frozen options on the menu,” said James Rutherford, an analyst at Stephens who wrote the report on Wendy’s.
The report also found geographic differences in how significantly Wendy’s was affected by the shortages. In some states, including New York, Connecticut, Ohio and Michigan, 30 percent or more of the chain’s restaurants were out of beef, whereas other states like Nevada and Arizona did not have any shortages.
Food industry executives have warned of looming supply issues since April, when outbreaks at some of the country’s largest meatpacking plants brought production to a halt.
After a Smithfield pork plant closed in Sioux Falls, S.D., the company’s chief executive, Kenneth M. Sullivan, said the country was “perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.” Last week, the chairman of Tyson Foods took out full-page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post warning that “the supply chain is breaking.”
It can take about three weeks from the time cattle are slaughtered for the meat to be sold in the grocery store. And cattle producers are hopeful that as plants begin to reopen, the number of animals being harvested will begin to return to more normal levels in the next week or so.
But in a call with investors on Monday, Tyson executives said that more meatpacking plants were likely to shut down for cleaning as the virus continues to spread. The union that represents plant workers estimates that pork production has fallen by as much as 25 percent, with beef down 10 percent.
“There is a lot of volatility” in the meatpacking plants, said Ms. Fish, the meat analyst. “They think they are getting things under control and then there are more issues.”
Still, grocery executives say the shortages are only temporary and that most meat remains available, even if certain products have become more scarce. And some major meatpacking facilities have reopened, including the Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls.
When he arrived at a Wendy’s outside Minneapolis on Monday, Taylor Boyte, 30, noticed that several items on the menu were crossed out in marker. Then he ordered a burger.
“They were out of beef,” Mr. Boyte said. “I just kind of chuckled. Being in the middle of the pandemic, it’s pretty understandable. People aren’t prepared for what’s going on.”
But there was other food to eat. Mr. Boyte got lunch at Taco Bell instead.