Meat shortage coming if coronavirus closes processing plants: Smithfield Foods CEO

Hundreds of Smithfield employees at a South Dakota plant tested positive for coronavirus

Get all the latest news on coronavirus and more delivered daily to your inbox. Sign up here.

Continue Reading Below

Meat processing plants must stay open despite the coronavirus pandemic or the country risks a meat shortage, Smithfield Foods CEO Ken Sullivan told "Mornings with Maria" in an exclusive interview.

"What's happened in this pandemic is we still have that bounty of livestock," Sullivan said. "The linchpin in the middle is the harvest facilities, and there's a relatively small number ... of plants that actually harvest all those animals and turn it into food."

"We're having COVID cases amongst our employees, and when you get COVID cases in a plant, we're having absenteeism and we're having difficulty operating the plant," he continued.

SMITHFIELD CORONAVIRUS SHUTDOWN CONCERNS SHORTAGE-WARY MEAT INDUSTRY

The National Pork Producers Council wants the Department of Agriculture to make $1 billion in pork purchases, but Sullivan said there would be no meat for the USDA to buy if processing plants close.

In this April 9, 2020 file photo employees and family members protest outside a Smithfield Foods processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves File)

"We have to be able to process those pigs in the plants," he said. "When the plants don't operate, we don't even have the meat to sell."

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 caused Sullivan to warn of a possible meat shortage.

Smithfield closed the plant after pressure from South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken.

The plant, which employs about 3,700 people in the state's largest city, has become a hot spot for infections.

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.

GET FOX BUSINESS ON THE GO BY CLICKING HERE

The American Association of Meat Processors expressed concern over the Sioux Falls plant's closure.

"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."

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ON FOX BUSINESS

The Associated Press contributed to this report.