Smithfield coronavirus shutdown concerns shortage-wary meat industry

More people have been buying meat and poultry amid COVID-19 pandemic

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The closure of a Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota, one of the largest pork processing plants in the U.S., after hundreds of employees tested positive for coronavirus has the industry warning about another issue — a meat shortage.

“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 CEO Kenneth Sullivan said in a statement Sunday.

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The American Association of Meat Processors expressed concern over the Sioux Falls plant's closure, which came after pressure from South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken.

"Normally the closure of a plant would not have a huge impact on supply, but the demand on meat and poultry during this pandemic has been vast," AAMP Executive Director Chris Young told FOX Business. "There is a concern that more companies could end up in the same situation as Smithfield. ... Many companies are screening employees and others who enter their plants on a daily basis, as well as trying to follow CDC guidelines for social distancing when they can."

The Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Wednesday, April 8, 2020, where health officials reported more than 80 employees have confirmed cases of the coronavirus (AP Photo/Stephen Groves)

The plant, which employs about 3,700 people in the state's largest city, has become a hot spot for infections. Health officials said Sunday that 293 of the 730 people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in South Dakota work at the plant.

Smithfield announced a three-day closure last week so it could sanitize the plant and install physical barriers to enhance social distancing. But on Sunday, it announced the plant's indefinite closure.  It will resume operations in Sioux Falls after receiving further directions from local, state and federal officials.

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"My commitment would be I would love to get them open as soon as possible … as soon as their employee base feels safe," TenHaken told FOX Business. "I’ve talked all along that when you fix one problem in COVID response, you create three or four more."

"A lot of industries are experiencing this level of disruption right now. ... Could it hurt the availability of pork to the consumer? Absolutely. Is this a forever shutdown? No," he said.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., reacted to news of the closure on Twitter on Monday.

"I’ve been warning about this for weeks now. The people throttling our economy have no idea how brittle the food supply chain is... and they have broken it," Massie wrote.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in March that the coronavirus pandemic is having "very little" impact on U.S. food supply on "Mornings with Maria."

"USDA, together with the FDA and CDC, will continue to support a whole of America approach to ensure the food supply chain remains safe and secure," a USDA spokesperson told FOX Business on Monday.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.