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U.S. Meat Supply Is 'Perilously Close' To A Shortage, CEO Warns

Updated at 2:25 p.m. ET

One of the country's largest pork-producing plants closed indefinitely after nearly 300 of its employees tested positive for COVID-19. And the company's CEO warned that the coronavirus pandemic is pushing the nation's meat supply "perilously close" to the edge.

"It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running," Smithfield Foods CEO Kenneth Sullivan said in a statement.

Smithfield decided to close its plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., which provides 4% to 5% of the pork produced in the United States. The move came after South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem urged the company to "do more" to address the pandemic.

"The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply," Sullivan said.

Smithfield is one of several meat-producing companies that have suspended or cut back on production in recent weeks.

JBS USA has closed a Souderton, Pa., beef plant until at least Thursday and has reduced production at a second facility in Greeley, Colo., because of high absenteeism among employees.

Cargill and Tyson Foods have also closed plants in Pennsylvania and Iowa.

Sullivan warned that the growing shutdowns are hurting the nation's meat supply in a way that is reaching throughout the U.S. economy.

"These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain, first and foremost our nation's livestock farmers. These farmers have nowhere to send their animals," he wrote.

Because meat is perishable it must be kept in cold storage, making it difficult for stores to carry large amounts of inventory, says Krista Foster, who teaches supply chain management at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business.

"Once the existing inventory is used up, consumers can expect to see smaller quantities of pork products in stores due to processing plant closures," Foster says.

No evidence exists that COVID-19 can be passed through food or food packaging, the Food and Drug Administration said last month.

Top U.S. officials have moved to assure Americans that they won't lack for food, despite the coronavirus. Vice President Pence, while touring a Walmart distribution center earlier this month, said that "America's food supply is strong."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.