The world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, recently shut down a major United States plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The indefinite closure is in response to hundreds of employees testing positive for coronavirus. The company has warned that it could close many of the processing facilities, which could dramatically decrease U.S. meat supplies.
This is not the only meat plant, where employees have tested positive for coronavirus. Up to 50 people tested positive at a JBS SA beef facility in Colorado’s Weld County, and more than 160 cases were confirmed at Cargill Inc., a meat-packaging plant in Pennsylvania. Of the 730 people that have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in South Dakota, 293 of those people work at the Smithfield Foods plant, which employs 3,700 people.
Kenneth Sullivan, CEO of Smithfield Foods, announced that it is impossible to keep grocery stores stocked with meat if the plants are not up and running. He said, “These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation’s livestock farmers.” Sullivan also said that the company had continued operations during the coronavirus outbreak to sustain the country’s food supply. “We believe it is our obligation to 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,” Sullivan said.
The Sioux Falls facility is one of the largest pork processing plants in the United States, supplying about 130 million servings of food per week. It is unclear whether the meat-employee infections had anything to do with workplaces. We should also point out that the meat from a plant that had infections does not pose health concerns because COVID-19 is not a food-borne illness. This does, however, expose the vulnerability of global food supply chains. Situations are changing by the day and the plant will comply with state and federal regulations before reopening its doors. As for now, deep cleaning measures were put in place and the Smithfield plant is installing physical barriers to enhance social distancing measures for when it reopens.
It is likely that the number of coronavirus cases will continue to increase in all areas of the food supply chain, from meat plants and warehouses to farms and factories all over the world. The need to keep people safe is of the utmost importance, but companies also have to worry about supplying people with enough food. Every food company has announced that they have increased sanitation practices and put additional safety measures in place to protect employees. The coronavirus has caused a huge demand for certain foods, which has only made this more difficult on food suppliers. It’s difficult to say how things will play out if plants are forced to idle and the supply falls short.