Gov. Noem April 9, 2020

Gov. Kristi Noem listens to a question about the COVID-19 pandemic at a briefing Thursday, April 9 in the Capitol in Pierre.

Joined by Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, Gov. Kristi Noem wrote a letter Saturday to Ken Sullivan, president and CEO of Smithfield Foods, urging him to shut down its big meat processing plant in Sioux Falls for two weeks because more than 200 cases of COVID-19 are connected to the plant.

On Sunday, Sullivan announced the plant - which makes up about 5% of the nation’s pork processing, employs 3,700 people and buys pork from 550 producers, many in South Dakota - would shut down “indefinitely.” Sullivan's announcement came on the company's website, and he warned its effect will be felt in grocery stores and on farms.

Noem's letter, dated April 11, went out on the governor’s letter head and was signed by Noem and TenHaken.

“We understand that Smithfield has taken numerous steps to help mitigate the COVID-19 spread, yet we believe there is an opportunity for you to do more,” the two said in the letter. “As of (Saturday, April 11), individuals who work at Smithfield account for 54 of the total cases (438) reported in Minnehaha County. That is an alarming statistic.”

By Sunday noon, the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Minnehaha County was reported at 527, which was 72% of the total statewide confirmed cases of 730, according to figures released by the state health department.

“Based on this, we recommend that Smithfield suspend operations for a minimum of 14 days as soon as possible to protect your employees, their families, the Sioux Falls community and the state of South Dakota," Noem and TenHaken said.

The two-week suspension of meat processing operations would allow Smithfield to isolate employees from each other, get employees tested and to “properly disinfect work spaces, readjust operations for employee distancing and establish stronger protocols to screen employee health conditions before they re-enter the Smithfield facility,” Noem and TenHaken said.

“We are also asking that Smithfield continue to provide full pay and benefits to its employees during this 14-day suspension as well as paid sick time for infected and symptomatic employees to encourage them to stay home in an effort to avoid further spreading COVID-19.”

On Sunday, Smithfield’s Sullivan went further than Noem and Tenhaken recommended.

In a news release dated April 12, Sullivan said the Sioux Falls plant will remain closed until further notice and warned that shoppers will notice less meat in grocery stores.

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

The news of the big meat plant closing spread across the nation.

“Unfortunately, COVID-19 cases are now ubiquitous across our country," Sullivan said. "The virus is afflicting communities everywhere. The agriculture and food sectors have not been immune. Numerous plants across the country have COVID-19 positive employees. We have continued to run our facilities for one reason: to sustain our nation’s food supply during this pandemic. 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.”

Sullivan said the plant is one of the largest pork processing facilities in the U.S.; representing 4-5% of U.S. pork production, supplying nearly 130 million servings of food per week, or about 18 million servings per day, and employing 3,700 people. More than 550 independent family farmers supply the plant, he said.

Smithfield remains based in Virginia where it began in Smithfield in 1936. In 2013, it was bought by WH Group in Hong Kong, a publicly traded company which sells shares world wide and many of its shareholders are American companies, Smithfield officials say. It is not a state-owned Chinese company and uses no Chinese-grown pork but sells only pork processed in one of its 50 plants across the United States, Smithfield officials say.

Other major meat processing companies, including JBS and Tyson, have closed plants recently because of coronavirus concerns, according to the Wall Street Journal.

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