Will coronavirus lead to less meat on store shelves?

President Donald Trump took executive action Tuesday to order meat processing plants to stay open amid concerns over growing coronavirus cases and the impact on the nation's food supply.

The order uses the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as critical infrastructure to try to prevent a shortage of chicken, pork and other meat on supermarket shelves. Unions fired back, saying the White House was jeopardizing lives and prioritizing cold cuts over workers' health.

More than 20 meatpacking plants have closed temporarily under pressure from local authorities and their own workers because of the virus, including two of the nation's largest, one in Iowa and one in South Dakota. Others have slowed production as workers have fallen ill or stayed home to avoid getting sick.

"Moving forward, there’s certain a lot of stress on the industry," said Jim Handley with the Florida Cattlemen's Association.  "Our packing capacity nationwide in the beef sector was 20% reduced,"

He said meat processing plants in Florida have also closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks.  While consumers may see empty shelves at the grocery store, Handley said longterm supplies are not threatened.  The problem is the delay in processing that meat due to a closed plants and staffing shortages.

"Anytime you have a slowdown in the packing sector, it certainly is a bottleneck and cattle start backing up," he added.

University of Central Florida professor Dr. Axel Stock is an expert on supply chains. He agrees but warns that meat companies may see this as an opportunity to tell the public there is less meat available.

"What we may expect to see is an increase in prices actually," he explained.

Handley said poultry and pork will be impacted the most, because they have smaller production windows. To be safe, experts encourage shoppers not to panic buy meat.