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April 28, 2020, 10:13 p.m. EDT · CORRECTED

Keeping slaughterhouses open to protect U.S. meat supply may boost these food-packaging companies

Trump signs order classifying meat processing as critical infrastructure, with an aim to keep groceries stocked

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By Joy Wiltermuth

An earlier version of this article misstated the parent company of Pactiv. The correct parent, Reynolds Group Holding Ltd., has been added.

Getty Images
A grocer’s meat section.

Meat-processing plants aren’t for the faint of heart during the best of times.

But after the Trump administration issued a new order Tuesday to keep slaughterhouses open during the coronavirus pandemic to help stave off looming meat, pork and poultry shortages , several speculative-grade companies that make food-packing containers could get a boost.

Read : Meat shortage looms as coronavirus shuts packing plants, leaving farmers with tough choices

Shares of food-container maker Sealed Air /zigman2/quotes/208564360/composite SEE +0.16% rose 5.2% Tuesday, while rival packaging company Berry Global Group /zigman2/quotes/209214500/composite BERY -0.43%  advanced 4.9%, even as the broader U.S. stock benchmarks closed lower, including the blue-chip Dow Jones Industrial Average /zigman2/quotes/210598065/realtime DJIA -0.24% , which lost 0.1% after climbing 1.6% at session highs.

Reynolds Group Holdings Ltd owns Pactiv , a maker of foam trays and absorbent tray pads, which gives it some exposure to the meat and poultry business.

All three packaging businesses carry speculative-grade or “junk” credit ratings, meaning they are considered a higher default, or nonpayment, risk for creditors than their investment-grade counterparts.

Defaults in the U.S. junk-bond market have spiked in April and could hit 21% over the next two years, even though the Federal Reserve has opened its $2.3 trillion emergency funding facilities to some speculative-grade assets.

CreditSights, a research firm, issued a report Tuesday showing why speculative-grade food-packaging companies with exposure to the meat industry could see earnings and sales slump amid national slaughterhouse closures.

The report was released before Trump said in an Oval Office interview that he would sign an executive order to address “liability issues” in the food supply chain, while also saying the U.S. is working with Tyson Foods, “one of the big companies in that world.” The executive order, which uses the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as critical infrastructure, was signed later Tuesday.

CreditSights pointed out that Tyson Foods /zigman2/quotes/201117502/composite TSN +0.73% , Smithfield Foods , which is owned by Hong-Kong’s Shuanghui International Holdings Limited /zigman2/quotes/206924032/delayed CN:000895 -1.04% , JBS USA /zigman2/quotes/202071443/composite JBSAY -0.08% , Cargill and the National Beef Packing Company all have been forced to “curtail major operations across the nation,” to help stop the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, which has infected at least 1 million people in the U.S.

The U.S. already has unleashed a raft of backstops to swaths of the economy battered by the coronavirus.

Read : Here’s the latest on the Fed’s rescue programs to keep credit flowing during the coronavirus pandemic

JBS, which closed its Worthington, Minnesota, pig-processing plant a week ago, could reopen Wednesday, but only for the purpose of euthanizing hogs that have nowhere to go for slaughter, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported .

Meanwhile, Sealed Air’s food-care segment had the largest exposure to meat processing of the companies under CreditSights coverage, at about 60% of its 2019 revenues, while a similar unit at Berry represented 20% of the company’s revenue during the same period, although it also included other business lines, like tapes and can liners.

CreditSights pointed out that Reynolds remains “free-cash-flow positive” under its worst-case scenario.

Sealed Air said it could not comment because it is in a blackout period until it reports earnings on May 5. Berry Group and Reynolds Group didn’t immediately respond for comment.

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Joy Wiltermuth is a MarketWatch markets reporter and editor based in New York.

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