One of the biggest suppliers of pork in the U.S., Smithfield, announced on Easter Day that it will close its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant indefinitely due do COVID-19 concerns.
Kenneth M. Sullivan, Smithfield’s president and chief executive officer, said in a statement:
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.
According to Sullivan, these closures are “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.”
Smithfield produces 4% to 5% of all the pork in the United States, which translates into 18 million servings of pork per day, the statement said.
Other Meat Production Plants Have Had to Halt Production Due to COVID-19 Infected Workers
The Pittsburg Post-Gazette reported on April 10 that Cargill, a producer of meat products, closed its plant in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, indefinitely after 130 workers tested positive for COVID-19. Heavy reached out to Cargill for confirmation of those numbers and is awaiting a reply.
On April 6, the chicken production giant Tyson Foods announced that it suspended its pork production plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, after “more than two dozen” employees tested positive for the virus at that facility.
JBS, a beef producer in Greeley, Colorado, released a statement on April 10 saying 36 employees had tested positive for COVID-19. Rather than suspend production indefinitely, JBS planned to deep clean over the long holiday weekend and work on ensuring more testing for employees.
The statement from JBS said, “We’re working hard to protect our team members during this ever-changing situation, while also ensuring we continue fulfilling our critical role of helping feed people across the country.”
The Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union Is Calling Out Poultry Production Facilities for Not Doing Enough to Protect Workers
In a statement titled “Poultry Industry’s Delayed COVID-19 Response is Killing America’s Essential Workers – Protect Them Now,” the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union called out chicken production companies for being slow to implement safety precautions in an environment where workers “work elbow to elbow with no access to masks.”
The letter specifically called on “Tyson Foods, Equity Foods, JBS/Pilgrim’s Pride, Koch Foods and Wayne Farms to implement critical standards to protect workers’ safety and to secure the food supply chain.”
The RWDSU said the response from the industry is bordering on too-little-too-late, limiting its efforts to only certain locations. The union said workers have continued their jobs even with a lack of protective gear or precautions taken by leaders, and, because of that, “Poultry workers at their plants have been dying.”
At the time the statement was written on April 7, the RWDSU said two unionized Tyson Food workers in Camilla, Georgia, had died from COVID-19.
The FDA Says There Is No Evidence COVID-19 Is Spread From Food or Food Packaging
Even though food handlers are testing positive for the virus, according to the Food and Drug Administration it is unlikely the public will catch coronavirus through food. According to the FDA, the virus is believed to spread from person-to-person contact rather than foodborne exposure.
The FDA says it’s possible COVID-19 could be spread by touching a surface where the virus is living and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes, but from what is understood about the virus, that is not the primary way the virus spreads.