Meat processing plants across the country have had to shut down, at least temporarily, because of employees contracting COVID-19, with many speculating if the shuttered plants could cause a meat shortage in the U.S. food supply chain.


Two of the nation’s biggest pork processing plants are closed, the Associated Press reported last week. Tyson Foods suspended operations at its plant in Waterloo, Iowa, and Smithfield Foods halted production at its plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.


Locally, the JBS meatpacking plant in Plainwell closed down for part of last week due to 60 of its employees contracting COVID-19, and one worker dying from the virus, according to reports from MLive. The Plainwell beef production facility in Allegan County is now open and operational, said JBS spokesperson Cameron Bruett on Tuesday.


“We are mindful of the increasing number of facilities across the U.S. that have experienced decreased production or outright closure,” Bruett said in an email. “We have made the decision to close facilities when we believe temporary closure will assist in flattening the curve of infection in the local community.”


Boar’s Head Brand in Holland also had employees with confirmed coronavirus cases. An employee’s family member emailed The Sentinel, saying 15 people had positive cases at the Holland plant.


As of last week, there were two confirmed cases at Kraft Heinz in Holland, with three other employees also quarantining because they were found to be in close contact with the two employees with the virus.


Other JBS facilities that have closed due to COVID-19 but have since reopened are located in Souderton, Pa., and Greeley, Colo. A beef facility in Green Bay, Wis., and a pork facility in Wothington, Minn., remain closed.


Bruett said new safety measures implemented at JBS plants include temperature testing all team members, providing PPE, increasing sanitation, social distancing, staggering employees’ shifts, and not punishing workers for being absent for health reasons.


Will there be a meat shortage?


President Donald Trump was expected to sign an executive order Tuesday to keep meat production plants open. The order will use the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as critical infrastructure.


John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods Inc., wrote in a April 26 blog post that as plants shutter, producers have nowhere to sell livestock, forcing farmers to dispose of animals.


“Millions of animals — chickens, pigs and cattle — will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities. The food supply chain is breaking,” reads part of Tyson’s post.


Trey Malone, who serves as the assistant professor in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Resource Economics at Michigan State University said that while there is some real concern, that “doesn’t mean there will be no food.”


“People are looking for a lot of ground beef right now, so there might be some constraints on a certain type of ground beef,” Malone said.


While there are meat processing plants closing due to employees contracting COVID-19, they often have closed for a week or two and then reopen, he said, which gets less attention.


“From an economics standpoint, margins have skyrocketed,” he said. “It’s cheaper to buy the animals but it’s more expensive to process them. The margin is going to incentivize more processors to come back online. It’s scary right now but if you let the market work itself out, we’ll be OK.”


Most policy makers are not paying enough attention to the “behavioral implications,” of meat plants becoming COVID-19 hot spots, Malone said. In some cases, it would be more profitable for people to collect unemployment than to put their life at risk and go to work, he said.


“The thing that shoppers have usually been able to purchase will not be available, think of how that feels to the consumer,” he said. “Then think of how it feels to be a worker risking their life to make this product.”


— Contact reporter Kate Carlson at kcarlson@hollandsentinel.com and follow her on Twitter @SentinelKate and @BizHolland.