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Some holiday hams may be harder to find because of the pandemic

Some grocers are reporting that meat companies are restricting purchases of certain types of ham, but major meat processors say they can meet demand.
Voraciously Christmas
Some grocery chains and food distributors are warning of potential shortages and higher prices of certain types of ham ahead of Christmas due to the pandemic. Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post / The Washington Post via Getty Im
/ Source: TODAY

Finding your favorite ham for the holidays may be a little trickier this year due to the pandemic.

Certain varieties and flavors of ham could be tougher to find this year as grocers report that some meat suppliers have placed limits on what stores can order, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal, because meat companies are having their workforce prioritize basic processing over carving bones out of hams.

With ham a perennial favorite for Christmas dinner across the country, this is usually one of the busiest seasons of the year for meat producers, along with Easter.

The pandemic hit meat-processing companies and their employees hard when it began in March. Tyson Foods, on of the nation's largest meat companies warned in April that the "food supply is breaking," which came as several large meat processing companies like Tyson and Smithfield Foods either shut down or dramatically reduced output after COVID-19 outbreaks among the workforce in several major processing plants in the Midwest.

The closures and reduced staffing then caused issues with farmers being left with an abundance of livestock.

“Every time one of these plants goes offline, it's a huge hit to the supply chain,” Olga Isengildina-Massa, an associate professor of agribusiness at Virginia Tech University, told TODAY Food in May. “It creates this hourglass kind of pattern, when we have a lot of supply on the bottom, we have a lot of demand on top and all this is constrained by the ability of these huge processing plants to keep running.”

Tyson Foods announced in July that it would administer several thousand coronavirus tests each week in all 140 of its U.S. production facilities after previously introducing daily health screenings, workstation dividers, face masks and social distancing in its processing plants.

Smithfield Foods, which is the biggest pork processor in the country, told TODAY Food that it has invested more than $700 million for COVID-19 safety measures, including on-site testing and screening facilities, air purification systems, physical barriers and protective equipment for employees.

The company expects to meet the demand for its hams during this holiday season, including more labor-intensive cuts like boneless hams.

"We have continued to meet customer demand and orders for hams without interruption," Keira Lombardo, Chief Administrative Officer for Smithfield Foods, told TODAY in a statement. "At this point, we expect to provide more boneless hams to customers this year than last year. Final reports are not in, but it certainly looks like hams are in greater demand this year, compared with last, and we have been able to adjust as necessary."

The president of Nebraska-based B&R Stores Inc. told the Journal that the grocery chain may have to sell boneless hams at a 25% markup because of inventory restrictions from its supplier, Hormel Foods. Hormel did not respond to a request for comment from TODAY.

Boneless hams, which are more suitable for feeding a small group of people compared to larger bone-in hams, have been in higher demand, grocers told the Journal. The CDC is recommending that people only gather in small groups for Christmas as the coronavirus continues to surge across the country. According to an NBC News tally, on Tuesday, the U.S. saw the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in a single day: 3,350.