The president and CEO of Smithfield Foods Kenneth M. Sullivan issued a stark warning on Sunday that increasing numbers of closures of meat processing plants in the U.S. due to COVID-19 Chinese coronavirus outbreaks among workers has put the nation “perilously close” to meat shortages.
Smithfield Country Ham, promo photo.
Smithfield is reportedly the largest pig and pork producer in the world. While the company is an iconic American brand based in the U.S., it was bought by a Chinese company now known as the WH Group in 2013.
Sullivan made the warning about possible shortages in a press release announcing the temporary closing of a processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that employs 3,700 and is supplied by about 550 family farmers.
“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.”
In recent weeks several large meat processors including Tyson and JBS announced plant closures due to the virus.
Meat + Poultry reported on the Tyson plant closure and measures being taken to safeguard workers:
While it has suspended operations at its Columbus Junction, Iowa, pork plant, Tyson Foods Inc. is taking a proactive approach to ensure the rest of its processing facilities remain in operation while minimizing risks to employees during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The Iowa plant was closed after more than 24 employees tested positive for the virus. Approximately 1,400 workers are employed at the facility.
Noel White, chief executive officer at Tyson, said the company is taking steps to maintain social distancing in its facilities as well as equipping workers with personal protection equipment (PPE) and taking the temperature of employees before they enter plants. Some facilities have been equipped with temperature scanners. Additional cleaning and sanitizing of plants has also become part of the company’s precautions.
JBS temporarily closed a meat packing plant in Greeley, Colorado on Friday because of the virus, CNN reported.
A meat packing plant in Colorado where dozens of employees have contracted the novel coronavirus is closed for a deep cleaning and all workers will be tested before they can return to their jobs, officials said Friday.
The union that represents 3,000 employees at the JBS plant in Greeley said in a letter to state, county and company officials that two of its members have died.
The union says at least 50 employees are infected with the virus; the company, which is headquartered in Greeley, put the number of JBS workers with Covid-19 at 36.
The company said it was spending $1 million on test kits.
Vice President Mike Pence told reporters Friday his task force is moving Covid testing resources to the plant.
“And I want to encourage people in Colorado that we will work to support that effort, but I also want to emphasize that all of the people that are working in food supply, from farmers to meatpackers to distributors to truckers to grocers, continue to have our gratitude,” Pence said.
The JBS plant in Souderton, Pennsylvania is one of at least four plants to close in the state due to the virus, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Meat-processing plants across several states — Colorado, Iowa, and Nebraska along with Pennsylvania — are reporting COVID-19 outbreaks. A federal food inspector in New York died from the disease last month. And at least four meat plants in Pennsylvania have recently closed due to concerns related to the pandemic, said Wendell Young IV, president of the 35,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents workers at all four plants.
The four are Cargill in Hazleton, on the I-80 corridor connecting eastern Pennsylvania with New York, and JBS Beef in Souderton, along with the CTI Foods hamburger-grinding plant in King of Prussia and Empire Kosher Poultry Inc. in Mifflintown, in central Pennsylvania, Young said.
The Inquirer article, published Friday, also included a statement that said while there are concerns, there are no shortages of meat right now.
“Everybody has to understand that there is food out there. We don’t see any shortages,” Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said Thursday. “We are concerned, but we are not alarmed yet,” he added of the difficulties facing food-processing plants.
The World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say COVID-19 cannot be spread through food, said Martin Wiedmann, a professor in food safety at Cornell University. It’s an “unstable virus” that is mostly spread through sneezing and person-to-person contact. Stomach acids also mostly neutralize the virus if it’s eaten, he added.
Complete text of the Smithfield Foods press release:
Smithfield Foods, Inc. announced today that its Sioux Falls, SD facility will remain closed until further notice. The plant is one of the largest pork processing facilities in the U.S., representing four to five percent of U.S. pork production. It supplies nearly 130 million servings of food per week, or about 18 million servings per day, and employs 3,700 people. More than 550 independent family farmers supply the plant.
“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.
“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. 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,” he concluded.
In preparation for a full shutdown, some activity will occur at the plant on Tuesday to process product in inventory, consisting of millions of servings of protein. Smithfield will resume operations in Sioux Falls once further direction is received from local, state and federal officials. The company 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.
According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19. More information on Smithfield’s COVID-19 response can be found here.