Fresh Food

Smithfield Plant Closure Pushes U.S. Meat Supply ‘Perilously Close to the Edge’

Pork plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., epicenter of COVID-19 outbreak
Smithfield Foods
Photograph courtesy of Smithfield Foods

The indefinite shutdown of one the largest U.S. pork processing plants due to an outbreak of the coronavirus could have “disastrous” effects on farmers and the U.S. meat supply, Smithfield Foods warned this week.

Smithfield last week said the plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., would close for three days for an extensive cleaning after a number of workers there tested positive for the coronavirus. But after calls from Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem for a 14-day shutdown, the company on April 12 said the facility would remain closed indefinitely as it awaits further directions from local, state and federal officials.

“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. It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running. These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation’s livestock farmers. These farmers have nowhere to send their animals,” Kenneth Sullivan, president and CEO of Smithfield, said in a statement.

The facility supplies nearly 130 million servings of food per week, or about 18 million servings per day, and employs 3,700 people. It represents about 4% to 5% of U.S. pork production. More than 550 independent family farmers supply the plant. State officials said April 12 that 293 of the 730 people who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus in South Dakota work at the plant.

“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. Numerous plants across the country have COVID-19 positive employees,” Sullivan added. “We have continued to run our facilities for one reason: to sustain our nation’s food supply during this pandemic. We believe it is our obligation to help feed the country, now more than ever. We have a stark choice as a nation: We are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19.”

In preparation for a full shutdown in Sioux Falls, some activity will occur at the plant early this week to process product inventory, consisting of millions of servings of protein. Smithfield said it would continue to compensate its employees for the next two weeks “and hopes to keep them from joining the ranks of the tens of millions of unemployed Americans across the country,” the company said.

The Smithfield, Va.-based meat producer last week said it was taking additional measures to keep its facilities sanitized and workers safe, including mandatory 14-day coronavirus-related quarantines and relaxed attendance policies to eliminate punitive effect for missing work due to COVID-19 diagnosis or quarantine.

In addition, Smithfield said it was taking measures to minimize team members’ risks of catching the coronavirus through added hand-sanitizing stations; boosted personal protective equipment; continuing efforts to stress personal hygiene; enhanced cleaning and disinfection; expanded employee health benefits; thermal screenings at its facilities; increased social distancing in common areas; installation of plexiglass barriers; and restriction of nonessential visitors to its plants.

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