Food supply worries grow after outbreak closes Smithfield meat plant

Pork processor Smithfield Foods' decision to shut down a major U.S. plant after a coronavirus outbreak among workers is putting a spotlight on the food supply chain during the pandemic.

Consumer and worker safety groups say the Smithfield incident highlights that more must be done to ensure the welfare of those working in the industry as well as those buying food. And there are worries that if more plants close, American consumers could be hit by shortages.

Some industry groups say the Trump administration must provide more protections for essential workers, a category that includes food suppliers.

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“In order for our industry to continue manufacturing, we must have access to the personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary for our employees to do their jobs — or there is potential that facilities will be shut down,” Betsy Booren, senior vice president of regulatory and technical affairs at the Consumer Brands Association (CBA), the industry trade group for grocery store products, told The Hill. "The federal government must make PPE available for our industry so that major supply chain disruptions can be avoided."

Smithfield said on Sunday that it would close its Sioux Falls, S.D., pork processing facility "until further notice," a decision that could have ripple effects throughout the industry. Smithfield is the world’s biggest pork processor, and the closed plant accounts for up to 5 percent of U.S. pork production. The company's CEO has warned of potential meat shortages.

Other meat processors like Tysons Food, Cargill and JBS have also closed some plants, and more facilities could shutter if workers are found sick.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that the country's food supply is not a source of transmission for the coronavirus, but the closures are likely to rekindle questions about food safety and how the virus can spread.

"Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19," the agency said on its website in a statement posted on March 17.

"Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission," the FDA added. "The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person."

Donald W. Schaffner, a professor of food microbiology at Rutgers University who is looking for evidence of food-borne coronavirus transmission, said he agreed with the agency.

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“That’s true. We do know how it is transmitted, it's transmitted person to person by people who are symptomatic,” he told The Hill, with some evidence of asymptomatic transmission.

“I’m more worried about keeping those workers healthy and safe because we need them. It’s not that I’m worried about getting COVID-19 from food that I buy at the grocery store or Smithfield hams," Schaffner added. “The biggest risk about buying a Smithfield ham is going to the grocery store and getting that ham."

Still, many experts say the focus should be on getting workers protective equipment to prevent more closures and to ensure supply-chain safety.

Food suppliers are considered essential workers, but without protective equipment and safety precautions, experts say it is inevitable they will contract the coronavirus. More than half of South Dakota’s coronavirus cases are from the 238 Smithfield employees, according to Gov. Kristi NoemKristi Lynn NoemTrump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Thousands of bikers pour into South Dakota for motorcycle rally Governors' approval ratings drop as COVID-19 cases mount MORE (R).

“You are asked to wear a mask and social distance when you’re outside of the workplace. But when you’re in the workplace, the employers can require you to work shoulder to shoulder with other workers, pile into break rooms,” Debbie Berkowitz, worker health and safety program director at the National Employment Law Project, told The Hill.

Berkowitz said that taking more measures to protect workers could have prevented the closures.

"This is so shortsighted and really unfathomable," she said. "This isn’t rocket science. Now workers are sick. Its spreading like wildfire through the plants and into the communities and they have to shut the plants down.”

Noem called the situation at the state’s Smithfield plant “a challenging one.”

The company is taking steps to help its workers. Smithfield has said it would compensate the South Dakota plant’s 3,700 employees for two weeks.

Some advocacy groups are pointing the finger at the Trump administration.

“Workers supporting America’s food supply are essential, yet the Trump Administration refuses to give them the support and protection they need during this crisis,” said Derek Martin, director of Allied Progress, a progressive group.

"If President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee TikTok collected data from mobile devices to track Android users: report Peterson wins Minnesota House primary in crucial swing district MORE wants to keep our food supply safe, he should order his Labor Department to mandate that essential companies provide PPE and support social distancing," he added. "This will help keep plants from closing and give some of the hardest working Americans the protection they need."

Vice President Pence on Friday addressed the closure of the 3,000-employee JBS plant in Colorado after an outbreak, saying the administration is working to ensure testing for the employees.

“I want to encourage people in Colorado that ... we will work to support that effort, but I also want to emphasize that all the people that are working in food supply — from farmers, to meatpackers, to distributors, to truckers, to grocers — continue to have our gratitude, as President Trump said just a few moments ago,” Pence said at a briefing.

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There are also concerns about American consumers seeing empty shelves at the grocery store.

Food suppliers and producers have been hit hard, like other businesses, during the pandemic.

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) said the pork industry has already been “decimated” due to plant shutdowns, restaurant closures, a labor shortage made worse by the pandemic and hog farmers going out of business as hog values plummet.

The NPPC is seeking immediate and massive Agriculture Department purchases of pork products and payments to producers. Those measures were included in the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package, and the group is pushing the administration to speed up implementing those measures.

Smithfield is already warning about the impact to the food supply from the South Dakota plant closing.

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

Lawmakers have also highlighted worries about the supply chain.

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"The people throttling our economy have no idea how brittle the food supply chain is ... and they have broken it," tweeted conservative Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieMassie plans to donate plasma after testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies Gaetz set to endorse primary opponent of fellow Florida GOP lawmaker The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Progress slow on coronavirus bill MORE (R-Ky.) in response to the Smithfield news. He touted a bill to allow states to regulate livestock slaughter and sales alongside the Agriculture Department to better address supply concerns. 

The CBA and other industry groups have launched #FeedingUS, a campaign to create safety guidelines and highlight their work to keep the food supply chain running. It includes information about screening food industry employees for coronavirus, the use of social distancing and face masks at facilities and protocols for when employees test positive.

Berkowitz, from the NELP, said she was glad plants with infected workers have been shut down and that they shouldn’t be allowed to open again without protections in place.

“This is unprecedented," she said. "The federal government has failed to protect workers and because of that, workers are dying and getting sick in meat packing, supermarkets, and the other industries that are open."