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As meat plants idle, California has no shortage of fish, dairy

The state, which Gov. Gavin Newsom calls the world's breadbasket, has its own food ecosystem.
Posted at 10:29 AM, Apr 30, 2020

The coronavirus lockdown has reduced fisherman Pete Grillo's operation to a folding table and Igloo coolers under a blue canopy at the foot of a rickety wood pier along Driscoll's Wharf.

Even as restaurant suppliers have all but disappeared as customers, the purveyor of yellowfin tuna on Wednesday sold out of yellowfin that hit the dock Friday. "This is the last of 30,000 pounds," said seller Ben Stephens, 24.

California isn't immune to pork, beef and chicken supply issues, but it does have its own food ecosystem, which includes an abundance of fish and the availability of regional beef and chicken, experts say. That could keep the state's appetite for protein satiated in the weeks to come.

California is "the breadbasket of the world," Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday.

The direct-to-consumer approach along San Diego Bay is a very small part of the state's food chain as national pork, beef and chicken processors hit by coronavirus outbreaks have shut down processing plants in the Midwest.

Some analysts predict a coast-to-coast meat shortage in days. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump ordered processing plants to stay open as a matter of national security. But California, with its own fishing fleet, chicken processors and a dairy industry that serves the nation, is somewhat sheltered.

"There's plenty of protein," said David Dewey, president of the California Association of Meat Processors. "You just have to look for it in different places."

Demand for California-produced meat, vegetables and dairy has plummeted by about 50 percent because of the coronavirus lockdown, Newsom said at his daily briefing Wednesday.

"They have excess produce. They have excess commodities," he said in announcing a program that will pair food producers with food banks.

California produces about 20 percent of the nation's milk, and it has a large poultry processor in Foster Farms, but it is otherwise dependent on the Midwest for pork and much of its beef, according to Daniel Sumner, director of the University of California's Agricultural Issues Center.

The state slaughters dairy cows for hamburger and raises calves for beef. But the 1-year-old livestock is sent to the Midwest for corn and soy feeding before being processed for beef there, he said. "We've never produced any hogs to speak of," Sumner added.

California producers fill nearly half the state's chicken and egg demand, he said.

Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, said, "All of our plants are operating as usual and producing enough chicken to meet the market."

Mattos said many poultry plants were at maximum capacity while practicing social distancing and using dividers to separate workers. "We have masks. We check temperatures," he said.

Regional beef suppliers might also be able to fill niche demand. Jonathan Tse, the meat department manager at Encinal Market in Alameda, uses Petaluma Poultry and Harris Ranch. "I try to stick local, help the local farms out," he said.

He said he's been able to keep his counter stocked, although he believes customers have begun to panic buy because sales have doubled in recent weeks.

"I do believe a lot of people are filling their freezers just in case," Tse said.

Dewey, of the California Association of Meat Processors, said small processors, slaughterhouses and local butchers will still have meat.

"You might not be able to go to a grocery store and buy the exact cut of meat you want," he said. But "I don't think anybody is going to go hungry."

The state's fishing industry, meanwhile, has an oversupply of product as its network of restaurant buyers has dried up, said Sherry Flumerfelt, executive director of the nonprofit Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust. "Fisheries are looking for a market," she said.

In San Diego, Grillo is part of a five-boat cooperative that is hoping to shift sales from restaurant wholesalers to everyday consumers, at least for the duration of stay-at-home orders. A Facebook page advertising his yellowfin now has thousands of followers.

"Now we're going direct off the boat" to consumers, he said.

Customer Gigi Burke, 44, said she bought 2 pounds of yellowfin for poke at home. "We're usually going out to eat," she said. "It's a good deal."