According to AP.com, Smithfield Foods announced Sunday that it had closed its pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, until further notice after hundreds of employees tested positive for the coronavirus. The announcement came a day after South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken urged the company to suspend operations for 14 days so its workers could self-isolate and the plant could be disinfected.
The plant employs about 3,700 people in the state’s largest city and has become a hot spot for infections. Health officials stated on Sunday that 293 of the 730 people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in South Dakota work at the plant.
“As a critical infrastructure employer for the nation’s food supply chain and a major employer in Sioux Falls, it is crucial that Smithfield has a healthy workforce to ensure the continuity of operations to feed the nation. At the same time, employees need a healthy work environment,” Noem and TenHaken wrote to the plant’s operators.
Before the indefinite closure, Smithfield announced a three-day closure last week to sanitize the plant and install physical barriers to improve social distancing.
“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 president and CEO Kenneth Sullivan said in a statement. “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.”
According to Smithfield, the Sioux Falls facility is one of the largest pork processing plants in the US. It supplies nearly 18 million servings per day. There has been no evidence that the coronavirus is transmitted through food or its packaging, according to the Department of Agriculture. As of Sunday, there had been six COVID-19-related deaths in South Dakota.
Sullivan said Smithfield had been operating during the coronavirus crisis because it wanted to sustain the nation’s food supply. “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,” he said.
Other meat processing plants have also closed temporarily due to outbreaks of COVID-19, including a Tyson Foods facility in Columbus Junction, Iowa, where more than two dozen employees tested positive. Smithfield Foods said it would continue to pay its workers for the next two weeks.