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Restaurants ‘taking it day by day’

At sunrise, shoppers file into the Smith’s grocery store on N.M. 528 and Meadowlark Lane in Rio Rancho. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A handful of shutdowns and slowdowns at meat-processing plants across the country have sent shockwaves through the national food supply industry.

However, experts say New Mexico consumers don’t have much to fear at the moment, other than possible short-term price increases on meat products at the grocery store.

“There’s plenty of meat to be had,” said Breck Stewart, president of the New Mexico Grocers Association, a collection of about 200 New Mexico companies that ranges from local grocery stores to dairies.

On Monday, Smithfield Foods, one of the largest pork producers in the nation, shuttered a production plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after some employees tested positive for COVID-19.

In a prepared statement, Smithfield president and CEO Kenneth Sullivan said the closure pushes the nation “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,” he said.

Smithfield is one of several large meat producers to close plants or scale back production due to the COVID-19 pandemic, joining companies like Tyson Foods and National Beef Packing.

David Livingston, a Hawaii-based supermarket research analyst, told the Journal many meat processing plants require workers to operate in close proximity, making social distancing a significant challenge.

“This could take a long time to straighten out,” Livingston said.

However, he said, Smithfield and other large meat processors export the vast majority of the food they produce outside the United States, and U.S. grocery stores and restaurants shouldn’t be unduly impacted by a few individual closures for the time being.

In the meantime, Livingston said shoppers could see slightly higher prices on meat products over the next several weeks.

Stewart said many New Mexico grocery stores in his association source heavily from Affiliated Foods, a grocery wholesale company based in Amarillo, Texas, and which has not experienced any plant closures.

He said if Affiliated Foods were to experience a shutdown on the scale of Smithfield’s, the impacts in New Mexico could cause more significant problems.

A representative for the Texas company was not available for comment.

On the restaurant side, a couple of local chains are in regular contact with suppliers to ensure they won’t be unduly impacted by supply chain slowdowns. Miia Hebert, catering and marketing director for Garcia’s Kitchen, said suppliers the restaurant works with haven’t reported any significant problems at this point.

“We’re just taking it day by day and making the changes as we need,” she said.

Deena Crawley, marketing director for Dion’s, said none of the approximately 50 vendors the company works with have experienced significant slowdowns at this point. If the supply chain for an essential ingredient were disrupted, Crawley said the company has other suppliers in its queue it can work with if need be.

“That was the case pre-COVID, and it’s certainly the case now,” she said.

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