Smithfield Foods, one of the world’s largest pork producers, has closed “until further notice” one of its biggest production facilities in the US amid what are reported to be dozens of positive cases of Covid-19 among staff.
The company, owned by China’s WH Group, said on Sunday (12 April) the factory, located in Sioux Falls in South Dakota, represents 4-5% of total pork production in the US. On Friday, Smithfield had said the factory would shut for three days, starting with the suspension of operations “in a large section of the plant” on 11 April, and a full shutdown in the following two days.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem said on Saturday some 238 Smithfield employees had active cases of Covid-19, Reuters reported. The mayor of Sioux Falls has recommended the company shut the plant, which employs about 3,700 workers, for at least two weeks, the news agency added.
just-food approached Smithfield to confirm the number of Covid-19 cases among staff working at the plant. The company referred just-food to a statement issued to announce the plant’s closure in which no details were given on positive tests for the virus.
“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 Smithfield president and CEO Kenneth Sullivan said.
Smithfield is not the only US meat processor to be hit by the coronavirus outbreak. US agri-food business Cargill also reported cases last week, and consequently closed a meat plant in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. And Tyson Foods suspended operations at a pork facility in Iowa after more than “two dozen” employees contracted coronavirus.
Sullivan added: “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.”
Smithfield said “some activity” will occur at the Sioux Falls plant today to “process product in inventory, consisting of millions of servings of protein”.
The group added: “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.”