10 ways to prepare for a meat shortage
Inspection could be slowed or temporarily halted if the government sequester takes effect. These tactics will minimize the impact on your food bill.
Reports of possible furloughs for all U.S. meat inspectors have meatpackers and processors very, very nervous. This MSN Money article quotes Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack as saying that while temporary layoffs would be "the least desirable option," the law does not include exceptions for members of the Food Safety and Inspection Service.
The U.S. government sequester means automatic spending cuts as of March 1, unless Congress finds a way around it. Vilsack has previously mentioned furloughing meat inspectors for up to 15 days.
That could lead to shortages of certain products and/or higher prices, according to the American Meat Institute, which estimates that the nation has an eight-day supply of meat and poultry products in cold storage at any given time.
This does not necessarily translate to widespread shortages of animal protein. What's more likely is that "something you particularly care for may not be as available," says Tom Dopp, the AMI's senior vice president of regulatory affairs.
If that product is one your household uses lots of, that could mean groceries will take an even bigger bite of your monthly budget.
Dopp doubts the USDA will idle all its meat inspectors simultaneously, since federal law prohibits meat and poultry products to be transported or sold without inspection. Instead, he believes it will be something akin to the one-day-a-week furloughs predicted for civilian workers at the Department of Defense (as reported by The Washington Post).
Again: No one is forecasting a total absence of animal protein. But why not be prepared? You can take a few steps to reduce the possible impact without significantly affecting your current grocery budget.
Preparation and experimentation
1. Buy a little more, starting now. Ground beef on sale this week? Buy one of those "value packs" and wrap it in smaller portions for the freezer. (Hint: Brown some of it first -- it'll take up less room that way and also be ready for quick meals like chili or sloppy joes.)
Food budget too tight to allow many additional purchases? There's a way around that, namely . . .
2. Shopping the "manager's special" bin. Meat or poultry gets reduced by up to 50% as it nears its sell-by date. Use or freeze it promptly and it'll be fine.
3. Look elsewhere for animal protein. Suppose the meat case does look a little thin with regard to affordable fresh protein? Head to the deli department for smoked sausages or the grocery aisle for canned meats, poultry and fish, then search for recipes using these items. A single can of poultry will become chicken or turkey enchiladas, and plenty of kids would be delighted to hear that dinner will be franks and beans. Speaking of looking elsewhere . . .
4. Pursue your dinner. Ice fishing shanties appear on U.S. lakes every winter, and in some states you can drop a line in the water all year. (For example, Arizona has a thriving urban fishery.) Rabbits and squirrels are fair game (so to speak) at any time in some places. (Plenty of pioneers fed themselves this way. So did more recent generations: My dad ate a lot of rabbit while growing up.)
This tip doesn't apply to everyone, obviously. But maybe your neighbor is an avid ice fisherman -- next time he offers you a few perch, why not take him up on it?
Change the way you use it
5. Serve reasonable portions. Meat doesn't have to be the star of every meal. Often we hear that 3 ounces of meat -- about the size of a deck of playing cards -- is the ideal serving size. Maybe your hollow-legged teen doesn't agree, but you're the one footing the grocery bill. Provide enough healthy side dishes and he'll manage to fill himself up. (Hint: A skillet of cornbread or a pan of biscuits are easy ways to help turn a stew or chili dinner into an occasion.)
6. Seek recipes that use less meat. Spaghetti and meatballs instead of slabs of meat loaf. Stir-fries, stews, chili, soups and casseroles. Thin slices of roast chicken or grilled flank steak along with a protein like quinoa or beans and two vegetables instead of one. Search online for recipes. You could find you like eating this way.
8. Have breakfast for dinner. A supper of pancakes (maybe with a side of that smoked sausage, thinly sliced and skillet-browned) or of scrambled eggs and fried potatoes (hint: bake a few extra spuds for dinner the night before) is satisfying and easy to prepare. Or buy a loaf of day-old French bread from the markdown shelf at the in-store bakery and turn it into French toast (which is as good with cinnamon and sugar or a bit of jam as it is with syrup).
9. Go meatless more often. The "Meatless Monday" meme is popular on personal finance and money-saving blogs. Once you've found some intriguing recipes, why not go meatless several days a week? A large part of the world's population survives quite nicely with little to no animal protein in its diets. Or you could . . .
10. Ditch meat altogether. Been flirting with vegetarianism? Maybe it's time to commit.
Worst-case scenario: There is a disruption in supply of/increase in price for the ground beef or chicken drumsticks you like to cook. But you'll have a plan B in place.
Best-case scenario: Nothing changes, and you'll have extra food stored plus a bunch of new recipes to try.
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