US meat plant closures create long-lasting impact on food supply

Food supplyBy Hannah Crumpton, Senior Analyst, Transnational Issues Section
Analytical Topic: COVID-19’s Impact on food security | Date: 23 April 2020

With cases of COVID-19 in United States nearing 950,000, the country’s meat supply may experience a decline with major meat plants closing across the country. A Smithfield food plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, one of the country’s largest pork-producing plants, closed indefinitely after nearly 785 of its employees tested positive for COVID-19. Smithfield is one of several meat-producing companies. Two other major companies, JBS USA and Tyson Foods Inc., have also suspended or cut back on production in recent weeks, due to the detection of COVID-19 cases in their food-processing facilities. We can state with high confidence that the closure of the meat plants will negatively impact the food supply in the United States for a prolonged period.

The first Smithfield Sioux Falls plant worker tested positive on March 24; however, the plant was not officially closed until April 14[1]. Two days before its closure, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem requested that Smithfield Foods close the plant, after it was found to account for nearly half the 1,469 COVID-19 cases in Minnehaha County[2]. The Sioux Falls Smithfield pork plant accounts for 4 to 5 percent of all US pork production[3]. Tyson Foods Inc, the second-largest meat producer in the US, saw its first COVID-19 case in connection to the plant on April 9. The Waterloo Tyson plant accounts for 3.9 percent of US pork processing capacity, according to the National Pork Board[4].

Smithfield Foods is closing its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, pork-processing facility. This decision comes after state officials reported more than 700 cases of the COVID-19 amongst plant employees. The Smithfield plant has also seen its second employee die from the COVID-19 pandemic in recent days1. Tyson Foods Inc. announced on April 22nd, that it will shut down its largest pork plant, located in Waterloo, Iowa, after nearly 200 workers were infected with the COVID-19. In a press release, the company said it will indefinitely suspend operations at the facility, where about 2,800 are employed[5].

After the plant closed its doors, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) toured the facility and created a 15-page report on how the virus spread through the plant and infected over 700 of its workers. The CDC reported that COVID-19 informational flyers were not at eye-level. Some employees were not wearing provided masks correctly. Another problem in the South Dakota pork processing plant appears to be communication, as 40 different languages are reported to be spoken there. However, workers who showed symptoms were sent home with informational packets that were written only in English[6]. The Waterloo Tyson plant recorded more infections because Tyson Food Inc. was one of the main recipients of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) line-speed waiver. Line-speed waivers allow poultry plants permission to significantly increase their processing speeds from normal animal processing standards[7]. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said in a statement: “These waivers guarantee that workers are more crowded along a meatpacking line and more workers are put at risk of either catching or spreading the virus”[8]. Most of the plants that received waivers are owned by Tyson Foods.

With two of the US largest meat plants shut down due to COVID-19 infection rates among their employees, meat supply in the country is becoming a priority. Approximately 10 percent of the US beef production and 25 percent of US pork processing are now either idled or working slowly, leaving farmers with no place to ship their market-ready animals1. Slaughterhouses are also closing down due to the pandemic, which limits the number of places farmers can sell their animals, forcing livestock producers to dispose of them themselves. The reduced production soon will result in shortages of meat in grocery stores across the country. The country’s meat supply relies on just a few facilities, with hundreds of independent farmers, truckers, distributors, and grocers tied to the Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods closures earlier this month. These closures have led to a significant decline in overall meat production in the U.S. Over the last week, beef production fell 24 percent, pork production fell 20 percent, and poultry production fell 10 percent, compared with the month of March[9].  Industry experts are concerned that shoppers will begin hoarding meat like they did with toilet paper if supplies run low. We can forecast with high confidence that the closure of the meat plants will negatively impact the food supply within the US for a prolonged period.