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Meat sticker shock hits as the labor shortage continues

Prices for prime cuts of meat are up by as much as 25% with farmers and consumers taking the hit.

Published: December 10, 2021 1:31pm

Updated: December 10, 2021 11:21pm

(The Center Square) -

Prices for prime cuts of meat are up by as much as 25% with farmers and consumers taking the hit.

Tom Eikman, owner of Eikman’s Processing in Seward, Illinois, a small-sized, third-generation meat processor, said that a shortage of skilled meat handlers and rising costs are plaguing the industry.

“We need those individuals that can take a front quarter of a beef and can break that down into ribeyes and chuck roasts and ground beef. We’ve been constantly trying to find that labor source and striking out,” Eikman said.

Eikman has a theory that many of the longtime guys who did the skilled meat processing jobs retired early because of the pandemic. Workers make $18 an hour at Amazon. Some are not keen on standing on their feet in icy facilities, lifting 70-pound meat carcasses for less money.

The solution to the labor shortage problem in the meat industry is not simple, Eikman said. He hopes community colleges will teach meat science – not just to people seeking management level jobs. Frustrated employers are also looking to Mexico for blue collar workers, hoping that the federal government will expand work visa opportunities.

Eikman said he expects high meat prices to continue into next year. Because of big time consolidation, most of the meat in Illinois stores comes from four giant meat processing conglomerates. Mid-sized meat processors who used to provide competition have all been absorbed by the big four.

Big Agriculture dictates the meat prices, Eikman explained. His processing plant could undercut them in the short term and sell steaks below their market rates. However, word would quickly get out and Eikman would run out of the inventory.

So his hands are tied. He has no choice but to fall in line and charge market rates, he argued.

If there were eight giant meat processing conglomerates rather than just four, the situation might be a little better for farmers and consumers, Eikman said. In Southern Illinois, Saline River Processors is setting up a large meat processing plant with the power to compete with the big four. The company hopes to be up and running in the fall of 2022.

“It’s become more economical to buy half a beef and put it in the freezer at home,” Eikman said. “Then the hard part: There is no labor to do it. So we are in a continual circle.”

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