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In the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown, there was optimism that food supply chains would remain strong enough to keep shelves stocked and people fed. But in recent weeks, supply chain challenges have kept certain foods from making their way to hungry consumers, sometimes going to waste in the process. Now, the indefinite closure of one of America’s biggest pork plants has some in the industry warning that we could be “perilously close” to a meat shortage.
Recently, Smithfield Foods was left with no choice but to shut down its Sioux Falls, South Dakota pork producing plant after almost 300 of the plant’s 3,700 employees tested positive for COVID-19. According to Time, that facility is responsible for somewhere between four and five percent of all pork production in the country. While Smithfield initially hoped to shut the plant down for only three days, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem urged the company to close its plant for at least 14 days, telling the company it needed to “do more” to stop the spread before potentially reopening. Smithfield will pay its workers for the duration of that 14-day period, but has yet to commit to furnishing wages beyond that period.
Given that meat packing and processing plants often crowd workers together, Smithfield isn’t the only meat producer dealing with constraints on its output necessitated by COVID-19. Companies like Cargill and Tyson Foods have also temporarily shuttered facilities in Pennsylvania and Iowa, while JBS USA has closed beef plants because a high number of employees simply aren’t showing up to work. Walkouts at Perdue and Linden Foods facilities have also drawn attention to the need for closures or very rigorous precautions.
The situation highlights the inherent tension between keeping workers safe and keeping Americans fed, with those in the meat biz issuing dire (if perhaps self-serving) warnings of what could happen if production grinds to a halt. “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 president and CEO Kenneth Sullivan said in a company statement. “We have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19.”
Who knows when and how the country as a whole will reopen, but America’s need to eat remains an immediate and constant concern independent of any economic concerns. For now, whether it’s possible to safely keep meat moving or ethical to ask employees to keep working at a plant that could put their lives at risk remains a serious and increasingly pressing question.
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