America’s Food Supply: Safe During Pandemic?

Smithfield Foods is the world’s largest pork processor, and on Sunday, the plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, shut down “until further notice.” The processing facility closed because of a COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak among its workers. Smithfield said it would compensate the South Dakota plant’s 3,700 employees for 2 weeks. Coming into question: how safe is America’s food supply?

The closing of this one Smithfield facility accounts for around 5 percent of U.S. pork production. CEO and President of Smithfield, Kenneth M. Sullivan, warned of the potential for meat shortages. Other meat processors such as Tysons Food, Cargill, and JBS have also closed some plants due to employees coming down with COVID-19.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated that America’s food supply is not a source of transmission for the coronavirus, however plant closures will likely lead to speculation about how safe the country’s food is during this pandemic. The FDA posted this on its website:

“Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19. Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.”

Siding with the FDA, Donald W. Schaffner, a professor of food microbiology at Rutgers University, told The Hill, “That’s true. We do know how it is transmitted, it’s transmitted person to person by people who are symptomatic.

“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. The biggest risk about buying a Smithfield ham is going to the grocery store and getting that ham.

“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.”

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 Trump administration to speed up implementing those measures to help save America’s food supply.

Consumer Brands Association (CBA), the industry trade group for grocery store products, 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.