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Many major meat producers in North America have been forced to shut down operations as the number of employees infected with COVID-19 rockets. These companies have been presented with the paradox of trying to ensure the safety of their employees while securing demand for the rest of the country.
Smithfield Foods Inc. will idle its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, pork-processing facility, which accounts for 4 to 5 percent of all US production. This move was taken after state officials reported more than 200 cases of COVID-19 among plant employees.
“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,” Smithfield’s Chief Executive Officer Ken Sullivan said in a statement. “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running.”
Smithfield, owned by Hong Kong-listed WH Group, originally planned to shutter the South Dakota facility for three days. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem asked for the closure to be extended to at least 14 days, saying in a letter to the company that it needed to “do more.”
The company said it will reopen the plant when it receives further direction from local, state and federal authorities. But this leaves uncertainty for the employees who may not receive pay should the plant remain closed for a month or more.
“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. “We have continued to run our facilities for one reason: to sustain our nation’s food supply during this pandemic.”
Beef processing capabilities have been idled at a number of facilities in Canada and the US, including a temporary reduction at a Cargill meat plant in High River, Alberta, where dozens of employees have tested positive for COVID-19.
“This single facility represents just over one-third of Canada’s total processing capability, so the impacts to the Canadian beef industry are expected to be immediate and drastic,” Michelle McMullen, communications manager at the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA), told CTVNews.
Beef production is “severely limited,” with CCA president Bob Lowe calling on the Canadian government to introduce measures to support Canadian farmers and protect the country’s supply chain. “The Canadian beef industry is facing a period of extraordinary uncertainty,” Lowe said in an emailed statement to CTVNews on Monday.
“Existing programs do not address the particular threats we are facing and in fact fall quite short. These are challenging times for all Canadians; it is together that we can implement solutions to ensure healthy and affordable food continues to be readily available.”
The turkey supply chain is the only one still thriving within the meat industry, with Turkey Farmers of Canada saying there have been no major disruptions to the turkey supply chain in Canada, noting that farmers are taking additional precautions, including cancelling non-essential farm visits and increasing sanitation measures to protect employees.
“In terms of demand, the sector is well-placed to meet market needs. We do not see any looming shortages,” executive director Phil Boyd said in a statement.
“The turkey supply chain remains intact, and TFC is working with our partners on both sides of the farmgate to ensure the sector functions as normally as possible during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Though there has been panic about infected meat workers transmitting the contagion through the meat itself, there is currently no empirical evidence to suggest that COVID-19 is a food borne illness.