Meat processing plants across the U.S. have closed down because of COVID-19 outbreaks among its workers. Fears of beef, pork, and poultry shortages have led some consumers to hoard meat products, much like they did with toilet paper.
An outbreak at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, one of the largest in the country, led to a shut down of operations in mid-April. More than half of all COVID-19 cases in South Dakota were linked to the Smithfield plant, according to a CBS News report.
Kenneth Sullivan, president and CEO of Smithfield, said in a press release about the plant shutdown, “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. It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running. These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain.”
The plant shutdowns are worldwide. JBS SA, the world’s largest processor of fresh beef and pork, is located in Brazil. Their U.S. subsidiary, headquartered in Colorado, has eight plants in the U.S. and Canada. Most of their beef processing plants have either shut down or limited their operations.
The closing of these and other plants had a ripple effect across the country, leading some fast-food restaurants like Wendy’s to remove some items from their menus. Wendy’s uses only fresh, not frozen, beef for its burgers.
This led consumers to stock up on meat products while grocery chains started limiting meat purchases to prevent shortages.
USAToday.com reported on May 4th that Costco was “temporarily limiting meat purchases to three items per member.” Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the U.S., announced that they would impose limits on ground beef and fresh pork “in response to growing fears over meat shortages,” according to a cattlesite.com report on the same day.
Tyson Foods, however, had a different approach. They took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on April 26th. John H. Tyson, chairman of the company’s executive board, wrote, “The food supply chain is breaking. We have a responsibility to feed our country. It is as essential as healthcare. This is a challenge that should not be ignored. Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America.”
Meat+Poultry is tracking meat processing plant closings across the country. And the list gets longer every week. Meat Processing Plant Closing List
On April 28th, President Trump signed an Executive Order, invoking the Defense Production Act, declaring that meat processing plants are critical infrastructure in order to protect against disruptions in America’s food supply chain.
According to Daniel Hemel, assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago, this allows the Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Purdue, “to take all appropriate actions ‘to ensure America’s meat and poultry processors continue operations’ consistent with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”
The Executive Order drew sharp criticism from plant workers and union members as the number of COVID-19 infected employees continued to rise.
According to a CDC report posted online on May 1st, 4,913 plant workers in 115 meat and poultry processing plants in 19 states had tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 27th. Twenty workers had died. The report also described how to shield workers from coronavirus health hazards, including screening workers, increasing space between workers, enhance cleaning, and provide multilingual training. CDC Meat Processing Plants Report
On May 9th, President Trump announced the $19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. It will allocate $3 billion to purchase fresh produce, dairy products, and meat for distribution to food banks, according to a CNBC report. These food banks provide relief to unemployed and food insecure people.
Consumers are caught in the middle. Concerns for the health and safety of meat processing plant workers are juxtaposed with anxiety over the ability of our country’s meat processing plants to provide an adequate supply of meat for the consumer.
To complicate the growing uneasiness regarding the fragile meat supply chain photographs of empty meat counters at some grocery stores led consumers to fear the worst. This caused the kind of panic buying we saw at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic when toilet paper shelves were completely empty for weeks.
Grocery stores learned a valuable lessons from the toilet paper hoarding fiasco – get ahead of the curve. So when meat processing plants started closing down, grocery stores started limiting meat purchases.
The longer that meat processing plants stay closed or curb production, the more likely consumers will continue to see limits on their meat purchases in stores. And as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, no one know how long these shortages will last. Or what will be the next product shortage.
Image from: theitem.com