Barbecue grill. Beef paties. (Photo by Can Pac Swire/Flickr)

California is not likely to suffer a beef shortage as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic but the industry’s processing plants and distribution chain are already heavily strained, a group of cattle ranchers and grocers said this week.

California has nearly 14,000 ranches and is the country’s fifth-largest beef producer. However, with restaurants, stadiums and other food-serving venues shuttered or operating on a limited scale for the foreseeable future due to the pandemic, ranchers say there could be a bottleneck to process and distribute beef.

“There’s no shortage. There’s lots of meat,” said Oroville cattle rancher and California Cattle Council Chair Dave Daley. “The challenge is we have very limited processing facilities to get that to the consumer.”

Cattle ranchers warn that limited processing capacity will likely limit beef supplies as grilling season hits its peak during summer. As a result, beef prices could tick up for a sustained period of time, particularly for hamburger meat and popular cuts of beef.

Chelsea Minor, the corporate director of public affairs for the Sacramento-based supermarket chain Raley’s, said customers should avoid impulse purchases of beef to avoid a supply and demand issue similar to products like toilet paper and paper towels.

“We’re trying to communicate with our customers that the meat will continue to be in stores,” she said. “You’re going to see a different variety, you should be open to trying a new variety. You should understand and respect that these processors are moving as fast as they can.

Some small family farmers and ranchers said it could take months for them to fill orders due to processing constraints. Julie Morris, co-owner of two cattle ranches in San Juan Bautista, said her farms’ waiting list for delivery currently stretches to October.

“Most of those people understand that when you are purchasing directly from a rancher, sometimes you have to be in the queue because of the processing bottleneck,” Morris said.

Despite the supply chain constraints, Daley said he hasn’t heard of any plans in California to euthanize cattle, pigs or chickens due to a lack of processing and distribution capacity. Cattle, in particular, don’t have distribution timelines that are as constrained as pork and chicken, he said.

Cody Nicholson-Stratton, who runs a dairy farm in Ferndale, said consumers should look to recipes on cooking and social media websites like Facebook and Instagram if they are apprehensive about cooking a new cut of beef.

“If you’ve never cooked a brisket, get a brisket and find a video,” he said. “It’s an opportunity right now to recognize that we can make lemonade out of the lemons that we’re given.”