On Sunday April 12, Smithfield Foods announced its decision to close a major pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after an outbreak of COVID-19 infections among at least 238 of the facility’s 3,700 employees. Other meat processors that have closed plants for the same reason include Cargill, JBS, and Tyson Foods, and more are likely to close as the infection spreads in the rural and farming area where these plants are most commonly located.
The concern isn’t for the safety of the food – as the FDA reports, "Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.”
The problem is the transmission of the virus among workers, many of whom work in close proximity to one another and often without sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly in light of nationwide shortages of these supplies, even for medical workers. These workers then spread the illness further into their communities.
The meat industry was already stressed by the sharp reduction in demand from the closure of the dine-in foodservice industry. Now, livestock farmers are finding the market for their animals among processors is being limited. Supplies of retail chains are likely to hampered as well. For instance, the closed Smithfield pork processing plant represents up to 5% of US pork production.
Access to more personal protective equipment, improved testing procedures, plans for disinfection and reporting if a worker tests positive, and consumer and worker confidence in plant disinfection procedures are among the measures that will get the plants open and running again. There will likely be consumer concern about the safety and ethics of big meat processing, which might propel some to shop from local butchers and direct-from-supplier shares of cows and pigs.