UPDATE: April 9, 2020: Smithfield Foods announced it is temporarily closing its plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota after workers tested positive for the coronavirus. The company will suspend operations in a large portion of the plant on April 11 and completely shutter the facility on April 12 and April 13.
- Cargill and Maple Leaf are suspending production at meat processing facilities as employees test positive for COVID-19, according to Meat + Poultry. Meanwhile, more than 80 coronavirus cases have been confirmed at a Smithfield Foods plant in South Dakota, but the operation has not shut down, the Argus Leader reported.
- Cargill closed the doors of its Hazleton, Pennsylvania processing plant April 7 after an unspecified number of employees were diagnosed with COVID-19. There are 900 employees at the facility, which provides case-ready beef, steak, beef roasts and pork products to grocery stores. The halt in production is indefinite, according to FoodBev Media.
- Maple Leaf also indefinitely suspended operations at its Brampton, Ontario plant following positive COVID-19 tests for three workers. The company will deep clean the Canadian plant while investigating the spread of the virus, reported Meat + Poultry.
Shortly after this latest wave of meat production facility closures came an announcement from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence: Food workers in the United States should "show up and do your job," according to Bloomberg. The workers are showing up, but plants are having to shut down after workers fall ill. Some have even died.
As more and more manufacturing facilities temporarily stop their lines, protein production has begun to slow. After sending more than 400 workers home from its Moultrie, Georgia plant following 15 positive COVID-19 tests, Sanderson Farms said it would reduce its output of poultry at that facility by about a quarter, from 1.3 million birds per week to 1 million.
At the same time production is diminishing, retail demand for meat is surging as consumers stock up. Bloomberg reported fears of potential food shortages are being fanned by these slowdowns.
Food manufacturing is considered to be a part of the nation's critical infrastructure by the U.S. government, which is why Pence urged workers to continue working. Without front line workers to process the food that ends up on grocery store shelves, the supply chain shortages that the U.S. is already seeing will become drastically exacerbated. Many CPG companies are offering higher wages, bonuses and extra vacation to employees who are working during this time. But this has drawn criticism from local unions, who say cash incentivizes workers to show up even if they are ill.
Many manufacturers are beefing up hygiene protocols to keep workers safe and production ongoing. Perdue Farms announced this week it would install temporary partitions between workers who could not maintain the CDC-recommended amount of distance between workstations. The company also committed to ramping up already stringent sanitation schedules and increasing hourly rates by $1 per hour. Tyson Foods is rolling out infrared body temperature scanners at three of its processing facilities to prevent additional plant closures. Dr. Praeger's has tripled the amount of cleaning it does each day.
Still other manufacturers have just closed down. Confectioner Just Born, best known for its marshmallow Easter treat Peeps, closed both of its Pennsylvania manufacturing facilities last month. The company, which had already shipped all of its candy for this Easter, is staying closed through at least April 20.
But not every manufacturer is taking these kinds of preventative measures. JBS is continuing its operations in Greeley, Colorado despite complaints about insufficient social distancing measures and hygiene. And Smithfield continued operations at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota facility before it decided to temporarily close down. The plant employs about 3,700 people, and more than 80 workers have already tested positive for the virus.
Even though many manufacturers are taking preventative measures, the spread of COVID-19 has continued. While many companies are opting to reroute processing to other factories that have not had any reported cases of the virus, this solution will only suffice for so long. It seems nearly every day, a new facility reports workers testing positive for the virus, causing a closure a few days later. If this pattern accelerates, the future of food manufacturing in pandemic conditions will likely be far slower than under normal economic circumstances.