Smithfield Foods pork plant, the world’s biggest pork processor, sits closed indefinitely due to a rash of coronavirus cases among employees as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, U.S., April 17, 2020.

Shannon Stapleton | Reuters

Meatpacking plants responsible for 10% of beef production and 25% of pork production been affected by closures, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

As the coronavirus spreads among meatpacking workers who often work in close proximity, concerns are growing about potential meat shortages — and the nation’s overall food supply. 

“When they have to start closing these plants down or they have to spread the lines out for social distancing or slow them down in some ways, which we’re calling for as it relates to these line speed waivers, it will in fact create some shortages in the stores,” UFCW President Marc Perrone said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.”

The union, which represents 80% of beef and pork production workers, said that 13 packing and food processing workers have died after contracting Covid-19 and 5,000 have tested positive or been exposed. Since the pandemic began more than 2.6 million cases have been identified worldwide, and at least 186,372 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins University research. 

“Social distancing is hard and sometimes impossible in some areas of the plant,” said Itzel Goytia, a beef plant worker at a Cargill facility in Dodge City, Kansas.

UFCW is asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the White House coronavirus task force to strengthen national safety standards in meat processing plants. The union’s demands include halting line speed waivers recently granted by the USDA that allow plants to operate at faster speeds.

Tyson Foods said Wednesday it would indefinitely suspend operations at the company’s largest pork plant. The announcement follows Smithfield Foods’ notice last week that it would close its Sioux Falls, South Dakota facility after 230 workers tested positive for the virus.

Such closures can cause a domino effect. The stoppage at Smithfield’s pork plant, one of the largest in the country, forced the closure of an Missouri ham plant that receives raw materials from the Sioux Falls facility.

Some meatpacking plants that closed due to outbreaks have reopened. An Iowa facility run by National Beef resumed production Monday after two weeks idle and 177 positive tests for coronavirus.

Mark Lauritsen, UFCW’s director of food processing, meatpacking and manufacturing division, said that shortages could persist post-crisis because hog and cattle farmers will raise smaller herds to increase prices.

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