When a Smithfield pork factory in South Dakota closed indefinitely over the weekend following a state report that revealed that more than 200 workers had contracted COVID-19 there, Company CEO Kenneth Sullivan has sounded the alarm.
“The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein crops that have closed in our industry, is dangerously pushing our country to the limit in terms of our meat supply,” Sullivan said in a statement. “It is impossible to keep our groceries in stock if our factories are not operating.”
The closure of the South Dakota plant, which accounts for 5% of the US pork supply, followed several others, including a Cargill plant in Pennsylvania and a JBS beef plant in Colorado.
Added to the concerns are workers’ advocates who warn of much worse to come, citing the hundreds of essential food workers across the country who are sick and unable to work because of the new virus.
“The danger will only get worse,” said Marc Perrone, international president of United Food and Commercial Workers, the largest food and retail union in the United States.
But will there be a real generalized shortage of meat in America? Not likely.
“There will be supply disruption impulses like this and associated corrective measures, but I am grateful that our food system is as diverse as it is,” said Robert Brown, co-founder of the capital- San Francisco-based investment, Encore Consumer Capital.
The industry is expected to face constraints in the coming weeks, and experts say some cuts of meat may end up being limited on the shelves. Supermarket stocks are still strong, according to data from the USDA, which in 2016 identified 35,000 food and beverage manufacturing facilities in the United States and in more than 30 states with at least 300 factories.
“Despite the fact that there has been a huge consolidation of large food companies in the past 20 years, there has also been an equal amount of innovation,” says Brown. “This diversification should be useful to us at a time when our food system is working overtime to keep up with current food storage at the household level. These facilities also tend to be located in geographic areas outside the main population centers experiencing the fastest spread of COVID-19. “
The message does not filter consumers. Pandemic storage has already pushed demand for meat to a new high, which overflowed slaughterhouses are struggling to keep up: meat purchases have increased by 50% and frozen product sales have increased by 40%, the highest growth rates in national grocery stores, according to Nielsen data released in late March.
Nielsen’s top ten sales categories now include chicken and pork, and companies like Tyson, America’s largest meat producer, are mobilizing to quickly move meat for restaurants and other hotel customers to grocery stores . But the virus threatens these plants and proximity on these lines like few other industries. Tyson, for example, closed a pork plant in Iowa after more than two dozen workers tested positive, while three workers at one of its poultry plants in Georgia died.
“How it will continue to take shape, I wish I had a crystal ball to better understand this,” said Noelle O’Mara, president of Tyson’s $ 9 billion prepared food division. “We are doing everything we can to make sure we have the products available that consumers are looking for across the country.”
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