Coronavirus Cases at Meat Plants Put Supply in Danger

The U.S. is getting “perilously close” to a meat shortage following the closure of a major plant over coronavirus, reported Time (April 13).

Smithfield Foods will idle its Sioux Falls, SD, pork-processing facility, which accounts for 4% to 5% of U.S. production. The move follows state officials reporting more than 200 cases of COVID-19 for plant employees, adding to a growing list of infections in hundreds of American meat workers.

“The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply,” Smithfield’s CEO Ken Sullivan said in the statement. “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running.”

Smithfield originally planned to shutter the facility for three days, but South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem asked for the closure to be extended to at least 14 days, saying the company needed to “do more.” The facility’s 3,700 employees will receive pay for at least two weeks during the shutdown.

The company said it will reopen the plant when it receives further direction from local, state, and federal authorities. “Unfortunately, COVID-19 cases are now ubiquitous across our country. The virus is afflicting communities everywhere. The agriculture and food sectors have not been immune,” Sullivan said. “We have continued to run our facilities for one reason: to sustain our nation’s food supply during this pandemic.”

Additionally, as many as 50 people at a JBS SA facility in Colorado tested positive for coronavirus, adding to more than 160 cases at a Cargill Inc. meat packaging plant in Pennsylvania, reported Bloomberg (April 10).

Although the Cargill and Smithfield plants are being shuttered, JBS will continue operations. Two more worker deaths were reported by union officials on April 10, one at the Greeley, CO, plant and one in Pennsylvania—both facilities owned by JBS SA.

The deaths bring the total reported for JBS employees to three. On April 7, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, which represents thousands of poultry workers, said two of its members working at a Tyson Foods Inc. plant in Camilla, GA, died from the virus.

JBS said there were 36 employees who work at the Greeley facility with the virus, fewer than the 50 positive cases reported by the local union. JBS also confirmed “increased absenteeism” at the beef production facility. The company is working to secure COVID-19 tests for all team members at the Greeley, CO, plant, and will expand its deep cleaning efforts.

Meanwhile, some companies also had to slow down facilities that are set up to supply restaurants. Sanderson Farms Inc. said earlier this month that it would run plants that process big birds for the foodservice industry “well below capacity,” according to CEO Joe Sanderson.