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Smithfield closes pork plant indefinitely; hot spot for coronavirus

Under pressure from state and local officials, Smithfield Foods said that its mammoth pork plant in Sioux Falls “will remain closed until further notice” and suggested COVID-19 cases could jeopardize the U.S. food supply. The pork plant was linked to 38% of confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Dakota.

Smithfield announced the indefinite shutdown a day after Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken asked Smithfield, the world’s largest pork processor, to idle the plant for at least 14 days “to protect your employees, their families, the Sioux Falls community and the state of South Dakota.” In a letter, Noem and TenHaken said 238 COVID-19 cases were connected to the Smithfield plant — 38% of the statewide total and more than half of cases in Minnehaha County, home to Sioux Falls.

Some 3,700 workers are employed by Smithfield in Sioux Falls. It is one of the largest pork plants in the country and accounts for 4% to 5% of U.S. pork production, said Smithfield in a statement announcing the closure. Smithfield began a three-day “deep cleaning” of the plant on Saturday.

“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,” said Smithfield chief executive Kenneth Sullivan.

In their letter, Noem and TenHaken suggested Smithfield provide full pay and benefits to employees during the closure as well as sick pay for employees who should stay home because they are infected with the coronavirus or show symptoms of infection.

Meatpackers have slowed production in some plants and shut others on occasion to allow time for thorough sanitization against the coronavirus. Still, slaughter and meat-processing plants are crowded workplaces where it is hard to carry out precautions such as spacing workers 6 feet apart. Some processors have installed barriers between work stations and erected tents as outdoor break rooms.

“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,” said Sullivan, combining Smithfield’s revenue with the public welfare. “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.”

Some 130 hourly workers have tested positive and some employees have called in sick at a Cargill plant in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, a union leader told the Philadelphia Inquirer. The newspaper said a union steward at a JBS slaughterhouse in Souderton, Pennsylvania, died from respiratory failure brought on by the coronavirus. The Cargill plant closed indefinitely last Tuesday. The Souderton plant was closed for two weeks of sanitizing.

“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,” said the Inquirer. Besides the Cargill and JBS  plants, two other meat plants in Pennsylvania, Empire Kosher Poultry at Mifflinburg and MTI Foods in King of Prussia, are closed due to the coronavirus, said a union leader.

At an estimated 15.25 billon pounds since January 1, U.S. red meat production — beef, veal, pork, and mutton — is 4.3% larger than the same point in 2019, said USDA Market News on Friday. The report, which covered federally inspected slaughter, said production of 964.6 million pounds last week was down 10% from the week ending April 4. The USDA forecasts red meat production of 56.8 billion pounds this year. Poultry would add an additional 51 billion pounds.

Farmers and ranchers could see lower bids for their livestock if slaughter capacity is constricted.

Agriculture and food production have been identified as essential industries during the coronavirus public health emergency.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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