CHICAGO/LOS ANGELES, Sept 17 (Reuters) - U.S. food companies kept slaughter plants shut on Monday in southeastern states swamped by Hurricane Florence as flash floods collapsed the walls of at least two hog manure pits, made roads undriveable and delayed rail shipments.
Catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Florence, which has dumped up to 36 inches (91 cm) of rain on North Carolina since Thursday, has interrupted supply lines around the state and into neighboring South Carolina. Meteorologists warn that the worst is yet to come as rivers rise to historic levels.
North Carolina is a top U.S. producer of poultry, hogs and tobacco. Agriculture contributes $87 billion to the state’s economy, making it the No. 1 industry, according to the state government.
Perdue Farms shut poultry processing plants in Rockingham, North Carolina, and Dillon, South Carolina, last week and kept them offline on Monday because of road closures and power outages, company spokesman Joe Forsthoffer said.
“It just wasn’t safe to ask people to come in,” said Forsthoffer, who added that the privately held chicken producer will monitor road conditions to determine when it can resume slaughtering.
Two North Carolina hog waste pits suffered structural damage, four were inundated with water and seven had discharges, according to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
More than 3,000 lagoons in the state were unaffected, the North Carolina Pork Council said.
When the manure pits overflow, they risk contaminating water supplies with bacteria like salmonella and e. coli.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation on Monday warned against travel in the southern, central and eastern parts of the state - noting that several sections of I-95 and I-40, which are major transportation arteries, are flooded.
There were also traffic disruptions on U.S. Highway 1 near Perdue’s Rockingham plant, according to NCDOT maps.
The South Carolina Department of transportation said sections of I-95 were closed near the North Carolina line, near Perdue’s Dillon plant.
No. 3 U.S. railroad operator CSX Corp, which services the area, advised customers that shipments traveling through the I-95 corridor will experience delays. CSX said it is still assessing damage from the storm.
“When it comes to moving product, there’s obviously challenges with major routes like I-95, I-75 and I-40 being closed and having to detour around that,” Perdue’s Forsthoffer said.
On Sunday, Perdue pulled off the road trucks delivering poultry feed to its farms because it was not safe to travel, he said. It resumed some deliveries on Monday but not all.
The company stocked up on feed at farms ahead of the storm in preparation for such transportation problems, Forsthoffer said. It kept its facilities shut because flooding made it unsafe for employees to try to go to work, he said, adding that a small number of poultry died on the company’s farms.
Smithfield Foods Inc runs the world’s biggest hog plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, near a junction where I-95 traffic is disrupted. Smithfield closed the plant on Thursday and Friday. It did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
A Smithfield employee said the plant remained closed on Monday
Commodity handler Cargill Inc closed an animal-feed facility in Roanoke, Virginia, and another facility in Fayetteville, North Carolina, that handles salt, oils and grains, because they are in active flood zones, spokeswoman April Nelson said on Monday. A third facility in Charlotte, North Carolina, was also closed and set to reopen on Tuesday, she said.
Flooded roads have prevented some North Carolina farmers from accessing their crop fields and livestock barns to assess damage or livestock losses from the hurricane, said Andrea Ashby, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“A lot of areas, they’re inaccessible,” she said. “People haven’t been able to get in and assess what the situation is.
“It’s critical to be able to get to the farms,” she said. “The flooding and the road closures are real challenges for the industry.”
On Tuesday, North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler will attempt to survey farms from a helicopter, Ashby said. (Reporting by Tom Polansek and Lisa Baertlain; additional reporting by PJ Hufstutter in Chicago; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Dan Grebler)