Meat processing closings to protect humans make it harder to feed them

Gordon Food Service tandem

COVID-19-related closings and disruptions at meat-processing facilities around the country create a conflict between keeping people safe and providing streamlined access to food.

“One challenge is state and local officials making decisions about our operations in an inconsistent manner and sometimes without recognizing that our mission is to keep families fed,” said Sarah Little, spokeswoman for the North American Meat Institute (NAMI).

NAMI represents 95% of meat and 70% of turkey processors in the United States. Its facilities are subject to strict federal inspection as well as oversight from state and local health departments, she said.

“We’ve had an emphasis on maintaining an affordable, cheap food supply for our people in this country,” said Glenn Muller, executive director of the South Dakota Pork Producers Council. “In order to do that, you need to maximize all your efficiencies all the way through the food chain. And any disruption creates issues like we’re dealing with here today.”

South Dakota ordered a two-week shutdown of the massive Smithfield Foods Inc. pork-processing plant in Sioux Falls on Sunday. COVID-19 cases linked to the facility had surpassed 300 as of Monday. It was unclear whether those cases all occurred in the plant, which employs 3,700, but the rate of infection led to its being labeled an infection hot spot.

South Dakota is one of few states without a shelter-in-place order.

Smithfield said that after inventory was cleared Tuesday, the plant would be shuttered indefinitely. Workers will be paid for the next two weeks.

“If there’s anything good to come from this whole discussion, it’s that the public needs to get an understanding of how critical every phase of the food chain is and how critical every employee is to maintain an economical food supply,” Muller said.

Tyson shutdown

In Columbus Junction, Iowa, a one-week suspension of production at a Tyson Foods Inc. (NYSE: TSN) pork-processing plant is stretching to a second week, spokeswoman Liz Croston told FreightWaves. Two dozen workers at the plant had contracted the coronavirus.

“We will extend the suspension of operations for this week,” she said. “We will continue to pay our Columbus Junction team members while they are out and will also continue to divert livestock originally scheduled for delivery to Columbus Junction to our other pork plants, where possible.”

Some other Tyson plants have scaled back operations, Croston said,

“Our meat and poultry plants are experiencing varying levels of production impact, due to the planned implementation of additional worker safety precautions and worker absenteeism,” Tyson said in a recent statement.

Where’s the beef?

In Greeley, Colorado, a JBS USA Holdings meatpacking plant closed Monday until April 24 following the deaths of two workers from COVID-19. More than 40 others had contracted the virus, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

The facility is winding down operations, with a small number of workers clearing beef inventory. Workers will be paid during the shutdown and encouraged to follow state and county shelter-in-place orders.

“While the Greeley beef facility is critical to the U.S. food supply and local producers, the continued spread of coronavirus in Weld County requires decisive action,” said Andre Nogueira, CEO of JBS USA.

Closings like the one in Greeley will impact cattle and beef prices, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).

“Plant closures or slow-downs have significant regional and national implications that will ripple through the marketplace at a time when cattle producers are already suffering from market uncertainty and economic hardship,” the NCBA said. “Every member of the beef supply chain relies on processing plants operating daily to keep product moving.”

Supply chain impact

Trucking and supply chain disruptions caused by the closings are real but temporary, Steve Meyer, a consulting economist with the National Pork Board, told FreightWaves.

“From a trucking standpoint, somebody is going to haul those pigs and animals,” Meyer said.

The temporary labor shortage suggests increased automation in food-processing plants might be a solution the next time operations are disrupted, said Syracuse University Supply Chain Professor Rong Li.

“Although they have made their supply chain responsive, going forward they need to think more about how to make their plants more automatic and easier to monitor and control remotely to hedge against the risk of labor shortage,” she said.