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

In this Thursday, April 9, 2020 photo, Nancy Reynoza, director of Que Pasa Sioux Falls, who organized a protest in solidarity with Smithfield Food, Inc. employees after many workers complained of unsafe working conditions due to the COVID-19 outbreak in Sioux Falls, S.D. The pork processing plant in South Dakota is closing temporarily after more than 80 employees tested positive for the coronavirus. (Erin Bormett/The Argus Leader via AP)

  • A Smithfield Food plant that supplies 4 to 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," said Smithfield CEO Kenneth M. Sullivan.
  • Meat industry giants Tyson, Cargill, and JBS have also closed facilities across multiple states due to the coronavirus pandemic, 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 across the US to close, sparking fears of meat shortages.

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

As of Sunday, 293 of the 730 people in South Dakota who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 work at the Smithfield plant. South Dakota 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, allowing workers to self-isolate.

In a statement on Sunday, Smithfield CEO Kenneth M. Sullivan emphasized that 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. "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

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.Advertisement

"My mom said the guy at the plant said they had to work to feed America. But my mom was sick," Grant's son Willie Martin told The Times.

Closures have sparked concerns regarding possible 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 products 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." Advertisement

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 are working with the federal government to get tests for workers at impacted plants. Last Tuesday, Pence urged people working in the food industry to "show up and do your job," shortly news broke that two workers from the Camilla, Georgia Tyson plant had died.