SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Farmers have plenty of produce and animals to sell. People still need to eat. But coronavirus outbreaks are shutting down processing plants across the region that sit squarely between the two groups, squeezing tight a bottleneck that could put parts of the nation’s food supply at risk.

The coronavirus has struck the Upper Midwest food processing industry particularly hard. The virus has infected workers at at least 15 food processing facilities across Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin and closed 11 plants, according to a Forum News Service analysis. Seven of those remained closed as of Friday, April 24.

Farmers and food supply experts warn that the longer the closures continue, the more at risk the nation’s food supply could be. For consumers, that means empty grocery store shelves, and in the future, an unstable market with fewer options and higher food prices.

“People are going to see disruptions in the food supply as we have since this has started,” Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said, noting farmers and food processors have been rushing to adjust shipping and packaging protocols to address shifting demands. “We probably will see increased prices and disruptions.”

‘This isn’t going to magically solve itself’

The loss of processing facilities is significant, Michael Boland, director of the Food Industry Center at the University of Minnesota, said. But with a strong inventory of pork products coming in and a flexible food distribution system in the region, consumers should continue to see a steady supply of pork products at the grocery store.

“There’s no reason for people to go hoard and stock up,” Boland said. “In the short run, I’m confident that we have the ability and the supply chain to manage this.”

In the short term, it’ll be business as usual at grocery stores. But then all bets are off, said Mark Lauritsen, food processing, packing and manufacturing division director at the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents workers at many food plants across the country facing coronavirus outbreaks.

The nation has about two weeks of backstocked meat in cold storage, he said. After that, the gap in processing will find its way to grocery store shelves, limiting meat availability and options.

Even when coronavirus-hit processing plants come back online, market forces will drive down sales to processors, creating even more shortages. Farmers and ranchers, faced with rock-bottom meat prices, will hold back selling their animals until prices go up, he said.

“We’re going to have shortages short-term from the coronavirus,” he said. “But even after it comes out of this, because the rancher and the hog producer are going to be producing less to drive their price back up, we’ll have less overall to get.”

But as plants continue to shutter temporarily, farmers and agriculture officials said the region should begin bracing for some empty grocery store shelves.

“This isn’t going to magically solve itself right away,” Petersen said. “We’re going to be in this horror for some time to come.”

How to reopen plants?

Some of the processing plants will offer lessons to other sectors returning to work for canning vegetables or processing sugar beets, Boland said.

Additional testing of plant workers and temperature scans as employees enter the facilities will likely become key in screening workers for symptoms moving forward, he said.

“When you’ve got any people there in close proximity, we’re going to have to think about this going forward,” Boland said.

For Lauritsen, with the UFCW union, what’s next is a crucial question. His union is calling on federal officials to designate food plant workers as essential employees, opening up access to better personal protective equipment and broadening access to testing.

Protecting workers is a crucial part of reopening food plants and making sure they stay open to stabilize the nation’s food supply, he said. That starts with federal action to ensure workers are safe.

“We will have food supply issues, which is why it’s important for our government to get active,” he said. “They should have gotten active last month and not sat around and diddled.”

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