Cold storage report points to lower overall levels of meat and poultry

Michael Nepveux
USDA’s latest Cold Storage Report, released Monday, shows animal protein levels are still impacted by COVID-19.

USDA’s latest Cold Storage Report, released Monday, shows animal protein levels are still impacted by COVID-19. The monthly report, provided by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, shows the end-of-month volume of commodities in freezer storage throughout the U.S. An important market-moving report, it covers most commodities that require cold transport, ranging from nuts, to fruits and vegetables, to dairy and meat.

All Meat and Poultry in Cold Storage

At the end of February, total cold storage stocks of meat and poultry (excluding duck) came in at 2.12 billion pounds, approximately 330 million pounds, or 13%, below a year ago. All meat and poultry aggregate categories except beef showed year-over-year declines in volumes, but pork and chicken led the way with a nearly 160-million-pound year-over-year decline for each protein. Since the end of May 2020, cold storage for meat and poultry has run below previous years’ levels, even though slaughter has mostly recovered from the pandemic disruptions and higher weights pushed production above previous levels. Figure 1 shows that since the initial drop in cold storage levels in May 2020, meat and poultry in storage has largely followed seasonal trends, except for this most recent report which showed a slight decline instead of the typical seasonal bump.

Beef and Chicken in Cold Storage

There was a similar drop in cold storage levels in May for beef and chicken, but some of that was in line with normal seasonal declines (in beef’s case), and both have recovered somewhat. Over the fourth quarter of 2020, we saw an increase in the levels of beef in cold storage, resulting in a buildup that ran counter to typical seasonal trends. While this report shows a decline over last month, this is a record level for beef in cold storage at the end of February. The latest report has beef in cold storage at 510 million pounds, 16 million pounds, or 3%, above 2020. This increase was mostly driven by increasing volumes of boneless beef.

As with other proteins, the volume of chicken in cold storage declined in May 2020, but largely stayed above previous years’ levels until August as a result of a slow replenishing of the stocks relative to a normal fall build up. Chicken stocks have been in decline since October, with a dramatic counter seasonal decline in this latest report. Total chicken in cold storage came in at just under 770 million pounds, over 155 million pounds, or roughly 17%, below 2020. This decline is a major contributor to the decline in all meat and poultry from 2020. 

Pork in Cold Storage

Pork was the primary driver of the overall decline of meat and poultry in cold storage last summer. The protein posted a massive drop of nearly 150 million pounds in May alone; there’s been little progress in replenishing its stores. Several factors contributed to this. First, in the early summer, animal slaughter struggled dramatically, with the first week of May marking the low point in hog slaughter for 2020. With lower pork supplies available when restaurants were reopening in some parts of the country and consumers emptying grocery store shelves, there was a draw down in pork in cold storage. After supply began to recover, the lack of replenishment hinted at stronger movement through retail and export channels. After the initial decline, pork stocks in cold storage largely followed seasonal trends, with a typical decline in the fourth quarter of 2020.

At the end of February, USDA reported 491 million pounds of pork in cold storage, down nearly 160 million pounds, or 24%, from 2020. While all pork in cold storage has declined almost across the board, the decline is not equal across primals. At 47 million pounds and 43 million pounds below 2020, respectively, pork in the “other” category (variety meats, picnics and unclassified pork) and ribs have declined the most. These are followed by bellies, which are down nearly 36 million pounds from last year, a dramatic drop of nearly 50%. 

Conclusion

USDA’s latest cold storage report shows the animal protein supply chain still struggling with the impacts of COVID-19.  At the end of February, total cold storage stocks of meat and poultry (excluding duck) came in at 2.12 billion pounds, approximately 330 million pounds, or 13%, below a year ago. Most meat and poultry aggregate categories showed year-over-year declines in volume, with pork and chicken leading the way at nearly 160 million pounds below 2020 for each category. Beef posted a monthly high for this report, showing a 3% increase over 2020, but a 2% decrease from the previous month. Pork bellies registered significant decline from last year, coming in nearly 50% below year ago levels. 

Michael Nepveux is an economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation