Smithfield Foods plant closed by coronavirus may reopen after outcry

USDA secretary wants pork plant to reopen 'ASAP'

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U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he’s working to get a South Dakota pork plant reopened after hundreds of employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Smithfield Foods announced the closure of its Sioux Falls meat processing plant Sunday as a result of the coronavirus cases. State and local officials had urged the company to shutter the plant for 14 days so workers could self-isolate and the plant could be cleaned, the Associated Press reported.

It’s necessary to reopen the plant sooner “to help minimize disruptions to our critical food supply chain, while making sure employees working there are safe,” Perdue tweeted Wednesday.

MEAT SHORTAGE COMING IF CORONAVIRUS CLOSES PROCESSING PLANTS: SMITHFIELD FOODS CEO

Perdue’s comments came after Smithfield Foods CEO Ken Sullivan told FOX Business’ Maria Bartiromo that plants like the Sioux Falls facility are “the linchpin” between livestock farmers and retailers, meaning there could be a meat shortage if the plants are closed.

"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."

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)

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It wasn’t immediately clear how soon the plant, which employs about 3,700 people, could reopen. Perdue said it should happen “ASAP.” Gov. Kristie Noem said the state had been in contact with Perdue, Vice President Mike Pence and the company and working on a plan for the plant to reopen “as soon as it’s safe.”

“They are a critical infrastructure business,” Noem tweeted. “They are part of the nation’s food supply chain and contribute to South Dakota’s role feeding the country and the world.”

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Smithfield Foods said it’s been taking steps to minimize the risk of spreading coronavirus at its facilities, such as adding extra hand-sanitizing stations and enhancing cleaning and disinfection.

Meat processors aren’t the only part of the food supply chain Perdue is looking to assist. He told FOX Business’ Stuart Varney Tuesday that the USDA intends to make payments to farmers a part of a $15 billion food supply stimulus plan.

"We want to have direct payments to farmers, but more importantly ... we want to purchase as much of this milk or other protein products, hams and pork products, and move them to where they can be utilized in our food banks and possibly even international humanitarian aid," Perdue said.

There were more than 1,100 cases of the coronavirus in South Dakota as of Wednesday, just a fraction of the 614,000 in the U.S. The virus has killed more than 27,000 people in the U.S.

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FOX Business' Evie Fordham contributed to this report.