Smithfield Foods is shuttering one of the largest pork processing facilities in the United States after it was revealed that hundreds of workers there have tested positive for COVID-19. But this closure, at Smithfield’s South Dakota location that supplies nearly 130 million servings of pork per week, came with a chilling warning about the American meat supply.
“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,” said Kenneth M. Sullivan, president and chief executive officer, for Smithfield.
The Associated Press reported Sunday that 293 of the 730 people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in South Dakota work at the plant.
The Sioux Falls plant represents four to five percent of U.S. pork production and employs about 3,700 people. More than 550 independent family farmers supply the plant. Smithfield Foods is headquartered in Smithfield, Virginia, but is owned by Chinese parent company WH Group. The meat that goes through Smithfield’s facilities is raised in the U.S., and some of it is exported to China.
In preparation for a full shutdown, which began last week, some activity will occur at the plant on Tuesday to process product in inventory, consisting of millions of servings of protein. The company will resume operations in Sioux Falls once further direction is received from local, state, and federal officials. It will 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.
“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. “Numerous plants across the country have COVID-19 positive employees. 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.”
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19.