Officials Assure Americans of 'Abundant' Meat Supply in U.S. as Coronavirus Forces Plant Closures

Americans have grown increasingly concerned over the last two weeks about consumer access to meat and poultry as processing plants began shuttering in response to COVID-19 cases among employees.

But the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), which represents companies responsible for 90 percent of red meat production and 70 percent of turkey production in the U.S., said that concern is unnecessary.

"We can't foresee a time when America would run out of meat," Sarah Little, vice president of communications at NAMI told Newsweek. "We have reserves in cold storage and we have the most abundant livestock supply in the world—so much so that we export meat."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there have been no nationwide food shortages as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to the Food and Nutrition Service agency expanding its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for participants in several states, the department said it is assessing the food supply chain for delays.

"We have plenty of food thanks to our great farmers, and we're working to make sure that remains the case during this pandemic and for years after," Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a tweet Thursday.

Shoppers at Trader Joe's in Brooklyn, NY
Officials working within the meat industry said the United States has an "abundant" supply of meat and poultry despite temporary plant closures that were announced in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty

Despite assurances from federal officials, concern over the supply chain mounted this week as spikes in cases of the novel coronavirus were reported at meat processing plants around the country. A Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, closed Sunday after hundreds of its employees tested positive for the virus, and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said dozens of the state's cases were traced to a Tyson Foods plant in Columbus Junction.

Smithfield Foods is one of the top meat processing companies in the world, and the temporary closure of one of its largest plants in the U.S. does impact the local supply chain. That change triggers a shift in production as other plants nearby pick up the slack, Little said.

"As these big plants go offline, there are other plants around the country that have yet to experience any coronavirus problems," Little said to Newsweek. "We have some plants that have not been affected at all, and others that have slowed production due to illness or due to social distancing. Food is still made; it's just slower."

Sioux Falls' Smithfield plant is already in discussions with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to establish a timeline for its return, according to reports by USA Today. According to Little, the fluctuations in those timelines make it harder to predict how long delays in any affected area will last. Even so, "we think there's enough flexibility in the system where you may have less cuts available to you as a consumer, but you will be able to buy meat," she said.

Food sources that ordinarily go to restaurants and other food-service industries were diverted after the pandemic began spreading in the U.S. to accommodate increased demand at local markets.

"We had to adjust the supply chain to divert product from food service to retail," Little said. "We're catching back up there."

Though the meat processing industry in the U.S. hasn't seen a crisis this widespread modern times, a fire that damaged a Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Holcomb, Kansas last year created a comparable situation at the regional level in which other plants nearby increased production levels to make up for the gaps at the Holcomb plant.

While federal officials convey confidence in the supply chain's ability to adapt as needed, NAMI is prioritizing employee protection as a way to prevent plants from having to close. "All of our members are doing temperature checks," Little said. "If they're sick or know someone that's sick, they also get a personal health screening."

Due to these and other preventative measures, officials continue to project confidence that the U.S. is unlikely to encounter significant shortages.

"We have the most abundant food supply in the world," Little said.