Chicago | Reuters — Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork processor, is temporarily closing a massive plant at Sioux Falls, S.D., the company said Thursday, after more than 80 workers there tested positive for coronavirus.
The shutdown is the latest disruption to the U.S. food supply chain from the pandemic and comes as grocery store demand for meat has surged from consumers isolating at home to protect themselves from the contagious respiratory virus.
“The Smithfield situation is a difficult one,” South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem said on a webcast of a press conference.
“A pandemic like this can get a lot worse if we can’t feed our people, and so I do appreciate their commitment to doing the right things.”
Smithfield will suspend operations in a large section of the plant on Saturday and completely shutter it on Sunday and Monday, according to a statement. It said “essential personnel” will clean the facility during that time and install physical barriers to help separate employees. Employees will be paid for previously scheduled hours during the shutdown, according to the company.
The plant has a total of 3,700 workers and supplies nearly 130 million servings of food per week, said Smithfield, which is owned by China’s WH Group.
“As an industry and as a nation, it is imperative that we continue to operate our feed mills, farms, plants and distribution centers,” CEO Ken Sullivan said. “People need to eat.”
The facility kills about 19,500 pigs a day, or four per cent of the total number of U.S. pigs that are slaughtered daily, said Steve Meyer, economist for commodity firm Kerns and Associate. The closure over the Easter weekend should not noticeably tighten meat supplies, he said.
“That’s not long enough that we’ll see much of a blip,” he said.
South Dakota said on Wednesday that more than 80 workers at the plant tested positive for the coronavirus. There was no update to that number Thursday.
“The COVID-19 cases at this plant are troubling,” the United Food and Commercial Workers Union said in a statement.
Tyson Foods said on Monday it closed a pork plant at Columbus Junction, Iowa, after more than 24 cases of COVID-19 involving employees at the facility. Major meat processors Cargill, JBS USA and National Beef Packing Co. have also temporarily shut meat plants.
— Reporting for Reuters by Tom Polansek.