Food Supply Chain Backing Up

Ag Secretary Joins White House Briefing to Address Food Supply, Packing Plant Shutdowns

Jerry Hagstrom
By  Jerry Hagstrom , DTN Political Correspondent
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue joined the president on Wednesday at the White House to talk about the food supply. He said the U.S. is not at risk of running out of meat proteins because of packing plant closures, but he also said it was critical to keep those plants open. (DTN file photo)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said at the White House daily press conference on Wednesday that state and local officials have to work on keeping meat plants open.

Perdue made the comments as the number of workers who have tested positive for the coronavirus at the closed Smithfield meat plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, soared to 640 people. The New York Times said, "South Dakota meat plant is now country's biggest coronavirus hot spot."

Outside of Smithfield, JBS USA in Greeley, Colo., has shut down its beef plant there, as well as one in Pennsylvania. Tyson Foods has closed a pork plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, and National Beef also has closed a beef plant in Iowa as well.

In Iowa, at least 186 workers at the Tyson Foods plant have tested positive, and two workers have now died. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said more test kits are going to Louisa County, a small southeast Iowa county that has become that state's hot spot for new cases.

Perdue called on businesses to follow CDC guidelines, but he also called on health officials to ensure plants continue to operate. "We need our local health authorities and our state health authorities to do everything they can to balance the demand of keeping our facilities operational and our critical industries going, while at the same time keeping the health and safety of employees as a top priority as well as our communities."

Perdue added that bare shelves do not reflect problems with the food supply chain.

"In the United States we have plenty of food for all of our citizens. I want to be clear: the bare store shelves you may see in some cities in the country are a demand issue, not a supply issue."

Still, Perdue then said food prepared for a restaurant or a school "is significantly different than the way it's packaged for you to buy in the grocery store. Our supply chain is sophisticated, efficient, integrated, and synchronized, and it's taken us a few days to relocate the misalignment between institutional settings and grocery settings. But that does not mean that we don't have enough food in this country to feed the American people."

The secretary added, "You might think of it as an interstate when it's flowing in along well, and you have a crash in one place -- it backs up. And that's what's happening in the food supply chain. But we're working through that."

Earlier, Perdue had tweeted that he was working with South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem on reopening the plant.

"The health & safety of our food supply chain workers is top priority. I'm working w/ @GovKristiNoem & @SmithfieldFoods to get the Sioux Falls pork plant reopened ASAP to help minimize disruptions to our critical food supply chain, while making sure employees working there are safe," Perdue tweeted.

Perdue seemed to be responding to the concerns of pork producers who said in a call to reporters Wednesday that the closure of the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls and other plants has put producers with animals ready for slaughter in a dire situation.

Smithfield announced Wednesday it would have to temporarily close plants in Martin City, Missouri, and Cudahy, Wisconsin, because those plants further process meat that comes from the Sioux Falls plant.

National Pork Producers Council CEO Neil Dierks told reporters that the plants are "clean" and that "proper community action" is the issue.

But workers and union officials have criticized packing plants for not providing proper protective equipment and that workers stood close together in the plants.

On Wednesday, the total number of positive cases in South Dakota was 1,168, with six deaths, according to John Hopkins University.

Noem, who has resisted issuing a shelter-in-place order, said in a news conference that the state is doing better than expected and is "bending the curve."

"We have cut our peak, and that's a good thing, and that is encouraging to all of us," Noem said at a news briefing. "Our health care system can handle what's coming at us." Later in the day, she scheduled a town hall meeting on the coronavirus.

A statewide lockdown would not have resulted in the closure of the Smithfield plant because meat plants are considered an essential industry.

NPPC projects the pork industry could lose $5 billion due to the market impacts of the coronavirus, including the shutdown of plants. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association cited that the cattle industry could lose $13.6 billion.

DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton contributed to this report.

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at jhagstrom@nationaljournal.com

Follow him on Twitter @hagstromreport

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Jerry Hagstrom