A major pork processing plant is coming offline after almost 300 of its workers have tested positive for COVID-19, leaving many in the industry bracing for potential shock waves yet to come.

The news came by way of a company press release Sunday when Smithfield announced that its Sioux Falls pork facility would be closed “until further notice.” Just days earlier, the company had announced a three-day closure “out of an abundance of caution for its 3,700 employees in Sioux Falls, a portion of whom have tested positive for COVID-19.”

Now, Smithfield President and CEO Kenneth Sullivan says the country is “perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply” with the closure of this facility “combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry.”

“It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running,” he said. “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.” 

Sullivan added that with COVID-19 cases being “ubiquitous across our country,” companies face the choice between helping to sustain the food supply chain and containing the spread of a disease within its workforce.

“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,” Sullivan said.

According to media reports, Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue had been encouraging Smithfield to keep the facility open. When asked by Agri-Pulse, a USDA spokesperson did not respond to questions about the secretary’s conversations with the company, but instead issued a statement saying Perdue “fully recognizes the need to keep workers and inspectors safe during the COVID-19 national emergency.”

“He also applauds the true commitment and patriotism our food supply chain workers have shown during this time and the work they continue to do day in and day out,” the spokesperson added. “USDA recognizes and supports the efforts of private industry and companies to maintain operational status of their facilities while also maintaining the safety and health of their work force. USDA will continue to support a locally-executed, state-managed, federally-supported emergency response system.”

Meanwhile, state and local officials in South Dakota were calling for a 14-day closure after the company originally announced its previous three-day protocol. Smithfield says it “will resume operations in Sioux Falls once further direction is received from local, state and federal officials.” 

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Officials, companies, and producers alike have been hoping to avoid plant closures during the pandemic, fearing that the loss of production capacity would reverberate in the markets and in retail channels. With the Sioux Falls facility — which Smithfield says accounts for 4 to 5% of the nation’s processing capacity — now offline, many are worried about what might happen if the shutdown of other facilities were to continue.

“I think there is growing concern that other plants will have to slow or shutter as well due to COVID-19 outbreaks. Given we were already tight on processing capacity this year before COVID-19 disruptions … we can’t afford big slowdowns,” Scott Brown, an ag economics professor at the University of Missouri, told Agri-Pulse.

“Once we are behind, growing slaughter weights will be with us for weeks or months,” he added. “The next couple of weeks are critical to how this potential bottleneck plays out but the speculation we are seeing today is troubling.”

Philip Brasher contributed to this story.

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