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Pork Plant Closure Highlights Disruption Of Food Supply Chain Due To Coronavirus

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The coronavirus outbreak is upending the country's food supply chain. Orchards, farms and dairies continue to produce fruit, vegetables and milk that farmers cannot sell. So they're actually dumping perfectly good food. And at the same time, one meat producer is warning about a shortage of certain meats like pork. Here to help us make sense of it all is NPR's Dan Charles.

Hey, Dan.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So this meat producer that we're mentioning is Smithfield Foods. And just yesterday, it shut down a big pork plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. Tell us what happened.

CHARLES: They had more than 300 cases - positive cases of coronavirus among the workers at that plant. Actually, more than a third of all the coronavirus cases in the entire state of South Dakota are among the workers at that plant.

CHANG: Wow.

CHARLES: Smithfield had said it would stop operating for three days just to clean the plant. But the mayor of Sioux Falls, Paul TenHaken, really put pressure on. He released a letter on Saturday calling on the company to shut it down for much longer. I talked with him today.

PAUL TENHAKEN: It was tense. You know, it was tense because they're the third-largest pork producer in the country, this plant. You know, you shut down a plant like that, it has a pretty big impact on the food supply.

CHARLES: So Smithfield announced yesterday that they are shutting it down indefinitely. The company did not sound happy about it. The company's CEO, Kenneth Sullivan put out a statement saying that closing facilities like this, quote, "is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply."

CHANG: Is that a fair characterization? Are things really that dire?

CHARLES: It is not really quite right. There are actually two different things going on here. So you have a production bottleneck when a big processing plant like this goes down. And it's not the only one. I mean, right now, about 5% of the country's pork processing capacity is shut down. And this is a big deal for the farmers who supply those plants. They suddenly have no place to send their hogs. But on the other side of that bottleneck, on the consumer side, there is not really a shortage of pork. In fact, in some places, we have the opposite problem, Ailsa - too much pork or at least too much of the wrong kind of pork - too much bacon, Ailsa.

CHANG: Oh, that's a good problem, I suppose.

CHARLES: (Laughter) Sixty percent of all the bacon in the country goes to what's called food service. That's places like cafeterias or restaurants that serve eggs and bacon for breakfast or bacon cheeseburgers at lunch. And those food service places - they're shut down. And people are not buying nearly as much bacon when they eat at home. So pork processors have all this bacon and nowhere to sell it.

CHANG: Well, people are eating at home a lot more now, I mean, for basically every meal, which sounds like would be a huge shift for the food industry. I mean, how is the industry handling that change?

CHARLES: It is a huge shift, you know, a seismic shift. It's throwing supply chains into chaos. Milk is not going to schools anymore. There's not as much cheese going to pizza restaurants. You have farmers just dumping milk that they cannot sell - millions of gallons every day. Similar things are happening with fresh produce. I talked with vegetable farmers in Florida who've been abandoning fields of squash and cucumbers and tomatoes because they cannot find a buyer for that fresh produce.

CHANG: What a waste. Does anyone have ideas on how to fix the problem?

CHARLES: Well, you can do it. I mean, the food can be shifted, but it's not always easy. Food companies are working hard to figure out how to do this. Sometimes, they have to package it differently to sell it in the kind of packaging that we're used to in the grocery stores. In fact, consumers may start seeing food that isn't packaged quite in the same way. I talked to an industry analyst who said, you know, for example, with chicken, we may start seeing more whole chickens and not so many of the different chicken parts that we're used to, which take more labor to cut up. Basically, you know, when there's less labor available in the processing plants, we may have to do a little more labor at home.

CHANG: That is NPR's Dan Charles.

Thank you, Dan.

CHARLES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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