America could be ‘perilously close’ to meat shortages as slaughterhouses shut down and hundreds of workers test positive for COVID-19

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Nancy Reynoza, director of Que Pasa Sioux Falls, who organised a protest in solidarity with Smithfield Food employees after workers complained of unsafe working conditions amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Associated Press
  • A Smithfield Food plant that supplies about 5% of the pork in the US closed indefinitely after 293 workers were diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • “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 CEO Kenneth Sullivan said.
  • Meat-industry giants Tyson, Cargill, and JBS have also closed facilities across several states because of the coronavirus, with hundreds of workers testing positive for COVID-19.
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Hundreds of workers at a South Dakota plant that supplies up to 5% of all pork in the US caught the coronavirus. Now the facility has become one of a number of meat-processing plants to close, and that’s helping to spark fears of meat shortages.

Smithfield Foods – the largest pork supplier in the country, which produces brands such as Smithfield and Nathan’s Famous as well as supplying ingredients for fast-food chains including McDonald’s – announced on Sunday that it would close its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, facility.

As of Sunday, 293 of the 730 people in South Dakota who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 work at the Smithfield plant. Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken wrote to Smithfield and asked the company to close the plant for a minimum of 14 days to allow workers to self-isolate.

Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan said the company was crucial to stocking grocery stores across the US.

“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,” Sullivan said in a statement. “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running.”

Essential workers in the meat industry are sick and dying of COVID-19

Tyson meat
A worker at Tyson Foods. AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

The New York Times reports that JBS USA, the largest meat processor in the world, has had one worker at a Colorado facility die and closed a Pennsylvania plant for two weeks. Cargill also closed a facility in Pennsylvania.

Tyson closed a pork plant in Iowa after more than two dozen workers tested positive for COVID-19, The Times reports. Three people who worked at a Tyson plant in Camilla, Georgia, have died, including 55-year-old Annie Grant who continued to work while ill.

“My mum said the guy at the plant said they had to work to feed America. But my mum was sick,” Grant’s son Willie Martin told The Times.

Closures have sparked concerns about shortages. Supply-chain disruptions and the closure of commercial buyers, such as restaurants, cruise lines, and theme parks, have already prompted some farmers to destroy massive amounts of product such as milk and vegetables, even as stores like Costco and Walmart face shortages.

“These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation’s livestock farmers,” Smithfield said in Sunday’s statement. “These farmers have nowhere to send their animals.”

Smithfield and other companies in the meat-supply chain have rolled out new safety measures, including sanitizing, personal protective equipment, and plexiglass barriers.

Companies also said they were working with the federal government to get tests for workers at affected plants.

Last Tuesday, US Vice President Mike Pence urged people working in the food industry to “show up and do your job,” shortly after news broke that two workers from the Camilla, Georgia, Tyson plant had died.