Smithfield Foods shutters South Dakota plant

Published 7:36 pm Wednesday, April 15, 2020


Staff Writer


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The meat shortages seen in Virginia supermarkets since COVID-19 reached the commonwealth will likely get worse before they get better.

That’s according to Kenneth M. Sullivan, president and chief executive officer at Smithfield Foods Inc., who announced on Sunday that the company would be closing its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, facility until further notice.

The closure, according to Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and communications, is out of an abundance of caution for the plant’s 3,700 employees, a portion of whom have tested positive for COVID-19.

According to a company press release, the plant is one of the largest pork-producing facilities in the United States, representing 4% to 5% of U.S. pork production. It supplies nearly 130 million servings of food per week, or about 18 million servings per day, with more than 550 independent family farmers supplying the plant. The company plans to continue to pay plant workers at the Sioux Falls facility for the next two weeks.

“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,” Sullivan said. “It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running. These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost, our nation’s livestock farmers. These farmers have nowhere to send their animals.”

As for what this means for plant workers in Smithfield, Lombardo declined to confirm individual COVID-19 cases in any of Smithfield Foods’ facilities, citing respect for employees’ privacy rights. However, Sullivan stated, in general terms, that numerous plants across the country also have COVID-19-positive employees. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as of March 17 there was no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19. It may be possible for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it, and then touching his or her mouth, nose or eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

On Monday, in response to an email from Isle of Wight Emergency Management Coordinator Andrea Clontz concerning a rumor that Smithfield Foods’ facilities in the Town of Smithfield had or would close, Lombardo replied to Clontz: “This information is false. Our Smithfield facility remains operational.”

“We have continued to run our facilities for one reason: to sustain our nation’s food supply during this pandemic,” Sullivan said. “We believe it is our obligation to help feed the country, now more than ever. We have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19.”

At Smithfield Foods’ remaining operational plants, the company has implemented a series of stringent processes in accordance with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lombardo said. Specifically, the company has relaxed its attendance policies to eliminate any punitive effect for a worker missing work due to COVID-19 diagnosis or quarantine. Those who are quarantined are mandated to remain so for 14 days, during which time they will continue to receive pay.

The company has also taken measures to minimize its employees’ risk of contracting COVID-19, Lombardo added, including installing extra hand sanitizing stations, boosting personal protective equipment, increasing social distancing, installing plexiglass and other physical barriers, restricting all non-essential visitors, enhancing cleaning and disinfection in its facilities, and using thermal scanners to determine if someone is running a fever.

Lombardo then stressed that these measures were in addition to the hygienic and sanitary practices that had been in place at all times prior to the COVID-19 pandemic for industry food safety and quality purposes.

“We’re also ensuring employees know how to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 and making certain that they know how COVID-19 spreads,” she said. “We continue to actively monitor CDC guidance, as well as that of state and local health authorities, and are immediately taking all necessary actions to protect our employees.”