Meat processing plants worldwide have closed at least temporarily as workers come down with COVID-19, warning of potential shortages of beef, pork, and poultry in supermarkets. The meat supply chain is vulnerable as most of the butchering is done at plants that process tens of thousands of animals daily. If a few big plants close, the supply chain could quickly see problems.  

Plant conditions can lead to a proliferation of the virus, as workers work closely together and change clothes before and after shifts in locker rooms. North America’s largest meat producers have had to shutter their plants or decrease production due to coronavirus. Industry leaders have warned of “immediate and drastic” effects on North America’s supply chains. Companies have promised to deep clean plants and resume operations as possible,  but it is not even to keep workers apart based on the work they are doing. 

“There is no social distance that is possible when you are either working on the slaughter line or in a processing assignment,” said Paula Schelling, acting chairwoman for the food inspectors union in the American Federation of Government Employees.

While federal health officials do not consider COVID-19 to be a food safety concern, beef processing capabilities have been reduced at numerous Canadian and U.S. facilities, including temporary reduction at Cargill meat plant in High River, Alta., where dozens of employees tested positive for COVID-19. 

“This single facility represents just over one-third of Canada’s total processing capability, so the impacts to the Canadian beef industry are expected to be immediate and drastic,” Michelle McMullen, communications manager at the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA), told CTVNews.ca.

CCA says other Canadian plants have reduced operations to implement COVID-19 safety measures, allowing for physical distancing in their plants. Plants in the U.S., such as major producer JBS USA, has closed or reduced production due to growing employee absences and mounting concerns about the virus. North American beef production has been “severely limited,” according to CCA president Bob Lowe.

With North American beef production “severely limited,” CCA president Bob Lowe has called on the Canadian government to protect the country’s supply chain. “The Canadian beef industry is facing a period of extraordinary uncertainty,” Lowe told CTVNews.ca. “Existing programs do not address the particular threats we are facing and in fact fall quite short. These are challenging times for all Canadians; it is together that we can implement solutions to ensure healthy and affordable food continues to be readily available.”

Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor, highlighted plans to close a U.S. plant indefinitely due to a rash of coronavirus cases among employees and warned the country was moving “perilously close to the edge” in supplies for grocery stores.

“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 CEO Kenneth Sullivan said in a statement posted to the company’s website. “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running.”

After 200 employees reportedly had come down with COVID-19, Smithfield Foods Inc. will shutter its major Sioux Falls, South Dakota, pork-processing facility, where four to five percent of U.S. production takes place. 

“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’s Chief Executive Officer Ken Sullivan said in the statement. “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running.”

The shuttered meat plants join trucking bottlenecks and jammed port traffic to contribute to supply chain concerns. Smithfield is owned by Hong Kong-listed WH Group. The South Dakota facility employs 3,700 employees, who will receive pay for at least two weeks. The plant will reopen when local, state, and federal authorities issue further directions. 

“Unfortunately, COVID-19 cases are now ubiquitous across our country. The virus is afflicting communities everywhere. The agriculture and food sectors have not been immune,” Sullivan said. “We have continued to run our facilities for one reason: to sustain our nation’s food supply during this pandemic.”

Sullivan added: “We have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19.” 

The coronavirus pandemic is indeed limiting meat supplies in supermarkets. Thousands of meat-plant workers are under stay-at-home orders across the U.S., reducing meat consumption. Meat suppliers are reducing the range of cuts they sell to supermarkets. 

B&R Stores Inc., a midwestern grocery chain, saw meat sales jump 30% over the past month. Suppliers are filling only 75% of meat orders, according to President Mark Griffin. B&R is limiting customer’s to one 10-pound roll of ground beef, while offering fewer varieties of leanness. 

“We are very concerned about fresh meat,” Mr. Griffin said. “We have fresh meat today, but there are indicators that it will be a problem in the future.”

Meat processors Smithfield, Tyson Foods Inc., JBS USA Holdings Inc. and Cargill Inc. are providing bonus pay to workers, and trying to adhere to social distancing guidelines during shifts. Meat-industry officials fear the problem could worsen. 

Despite the concerns, U.S. meat supplies are high due to closed restaurants. Cold-storage facilities held 925 million pounds of frozen chicken on February 29, a record for the month, reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Red meat in cold storage was up 5% from February 2019 and 3% from January. 

The number of cattle slaughtered the week ending April 11 fell 14% from the previous week’s total, according to the USDA. The number of hogs slaughtered declined 6%. The number of chickens processed declined by 25%. 

An Olymel pork plant located in Yamachiche, Quebec, closed for two weeks as soon as nine workers tested positive for the coronavirus, though production was set to resume last week with new safety measures workers were to follow. 

Maple Leaf Foods ceased operations at its Brampton, Ontario poultry plant as soon as three employees tested positive for coronavirus. Turkey Farmers of Canada say there have been no major disruptions to the turkey supply chain in Canada, which has cancelled non-essential farm visits and increased sanitation measures to protect employees. 

“In terms of demand, the sector is well-placed to meet market needs. We do not see any looming shortages,” executive director Phil Boyd stated. “The turkey supply chain remains intact, and TFC is working with our partners on both sides of the farmgate to ensure the sector functions as normally as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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