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Coronavirus Update: Local Sourcing Dodges COVID-19 Challenges To Meat Supply Chain

MARIN COUNTY (KPIX 5) -- With a major meat processing plant in the Midwest closing down over the weekend due to a coronavirus infections among its workers, concerns have been raised about the national food supply chain.

On Sunday, a huge meat packing operation in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, belonging to Smithfield Foods had to shut its doors after more than 200 workers tested positive for COVID-19.

In a statement, the company's President had a dire warning that the closure of his plant and others "…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."

As of Monday, the Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley has been doing brisk business. Customer Daniel Kim said it's a good thing there still seems to be enough meat for everyone so far.

"When people run out of necessities like food, money, things are going to get crazy," said Kim. "That's why people are trying to horde right now."

But some say there is a better way. At the Stemple Creek Ranch in Tomales in Marin County, co-owner Loren Poncia has lots of beef on the hoof waiting to be sold direct to consumers and butcher shops in the Bay Area.

The problem is that most chain stores rely on major packagers thousands of miles away to cut and portion their products for sale to individual customers.

"I do believe that a few small hiccups can upset the industry apple cart and there may be people that are short on beef or lamb or pork or chicken," explained Poncia. "I mean, we're seeing this all over right now."

Those who urge more local food sourcing say if everyone bought their food from smaller, closer sources instead of huge centralized plants, it would be harder for a single event like a virus outbreak to upset the entire national food chain.

"When things go wrong, if you have a safe food supply closer to home, I don't think it could be wrong," said Poncia.

In the Smithfield situation, it is not a case of a contaminated food supply.  It is simply one more industry facing the challenge of maintaining enough healthy workers to keep operations going.  Smithfield says it will resume work at the Sioux Falls plant once it gets approval from local, state and federal officials.

Until then, retailers that relied on the operation will be searching for a new supplier.

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