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Smithfield closes SD meatpacking plant 'indefinitely' as workforce COVID-19 cases near 300

The decision by Smithfield Foods to close its Sioux Falls pork processing plant comes after South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken asked Smithfield on Saturday to close the plant for 14 days. Testing has found 293 cases of coronavirus among the plant's workforce, totaling 40% of the state's known cases.

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The Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., in in 1909 and currently employs about 3,600. (Jeremy Fugleberg / Forum News Service)
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Smithfield Foods will close its coronavirus-stricken meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls indefinitely, the company announced Sunday, April 12.

Testing has found 293 cases of coronavirus among the workforce of the large pork processing facility, state officials said Sunday, as they work to trace the spread of the virus between workers, family, friends and the wider community.

The plant has developed into a major coronavirus hot spot in the state and alone is home to two out of every five of South Dakota's 730 known COVID-19 cases, according to testing data released by the state Department of Health on Sunday.

Smithfield had previously said it would close the plant for three days of cleaning and safety retooling. It was due to reopen on Tuesday. But on Saturday, Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken asked Smithfield to close the plant for 14 days and offer its workforce full pay and benefits as testing continues.

Smithfield said some activity will take place at the plant on Tuesday while it processes product in its inventory. It will only resume operations based on direction from local, state and federal officials, the company said.

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While the plant is closed indefinitely, the company says it will continue to pay its workers for the next two weeks, hoping to "keep them from joining the ranks of the tens of millions of unemployed Americans across the country." The plant employs 3,700.

Smithfield President and CEO Kenneth M. Sullivan struck a mournful yet defiant tone in his comments included in the Smithfield statement.

"We have continued to run our facilities for one reason: to sustain our nation’s food supply during this pandemic," he said. "We believe it is our obligation to help feed the country, now more than ever. We have a stark choice as a nation: We are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19,” he concluded.

The Smithfield statement noted the plant is one of the largest pork processing facilities in the nation, responsible for 4-5% of U.S. pork production and is supplied by 550 independent family farmers. It employs 3,700.

"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. It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running," Sullivan said. "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."

Public officials at the federal, state and local level have said there's no evidence coronavirus is transferred via food or food packaging.

Eighty-nine of the 104 new COVID-19 cases identified Sunday were in Minnehaha County, where the Smithfield plant is located. The virus has hospitalized 43 South Dakotans and killed six, while 197 have recovered.

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Related Topics: HEALTHNEWSMDALL-ACCESS
Jeremy Fugleberg is an editor who manages coverage of health (NewsMD), history and true crime (The Vault) for Forum News Service, the regional wire service of Forum Communications Co, and is a member of the company's Editorial Advisory Board.
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