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Expert: Don't Panic Yet about Meat Plants Scaling Back

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At the onset of the pandemic, American consumers stocked up on meat products. But there's concern that supplies eventually will be affected by facility closures as more workers become infected. (Adobe Stock)
At the onset of the pandemic, American consumers stocked up on meat products. But there's concern that supplies eventually will be affected by facility closures as more workers become infected. (Adobe Stock)
 By Mike Moen - Producer, Contact
April 15, 2020

FARGO, N.D. -- The pandemic is forcing some meat-processing plants to close in a handful of states, including the Dakotas, but one expert said it shouldn't be a big problem for consumers just yet.

In South Dakota, a Smithfield Foods plant closed temporarily after hundreds of workers tested positive for COVID-19. The plant produces roughly 5% of the nation's daily pork supply.

While that is significant, said Spencer Wirt, manager of the Meat Lab at North Dakota State University, it doesn't mean grocery stores won't have any meat to sell.

"You've got to look at everything on a means of how much do we have stockpiled, how much do we have," he said. "Something that's killed today, for instance, doesn't hit shelves for months."

Wirt acknowledged that there might be some supply issues later in the year. However, he said, the plant closings present immediate problems for meat producers, who now have to find different places to sell their livestock. He predicts it will drive down market prices, which eventually could cause a spike in retail prices.

According to industry rankings, North and South Dakota are among the top 10 states with the most beef cows. Wirt said there's a lot of pressure on meat processors to stay open, while protecting workers and keeping them from spreading the virus to surrounding communities.

"Things have definitely had to change in these plants," he said. "They're having to monitor their employees -- doing the correct protocols to make sure nobody's coming in sick, trying to limit whole plants from having to shut down for an unknown amount of time."

However, some who work in large processing plants have said they're still seeing too much close contact on the assembly lines, which is against public-health guidelines. The outbreak at the Smithfield plant resulted in that part of Sioux Falls becoming a hot spot for COVID-19 cases.

Beef rankings are online at beef2live.com.

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