The decline is partly driven by the shutdown of restaurants and hotels,
but plant closings have also caused a major disruption, leaving many ranchers with nowhere to send their animals.
Even as one prominent meat executive warned on Easter that the nation was "dangerously close" to a meat shortage,
state and federal regulators have been sending mixed signals to the industry about how to deal with the crisis.
In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem requested publicly that Smithfield Foods close its huge pork facility in Sioux Falls
after testing revealed that the plant accounted for nearly half the coronavirus cases in the city and the surrounding county.
But federal officials had been repeatedly urging the company and other meat producers
to find ways to keep their plants running because of their importance to the food supply,
according to two people briefed on the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
By Thursday, the tests had revealed that the pork plant was the nation's single largest "hot spot,"
with about 16 percent of the 3,700 employees testing positive for the virus.
The hospitalization rate among the workers has been relatively low because they tend to be younger,
said Dr. David Basel, a vice president at the Avera Medical Group in Sioux Falls,
who has been involved in the testing of the Smithfield employees.
Dr.Basel praised Smithfield for encouraging its employees,
many of whom are refugees and immigrants from Latin America and Asia and speak 80 different dialects, to get tested.
Doctors made instructional videos in Nepalese and Spanish,
and tracked down and tested workers who had been in close contact with infected employees.
"The numbers are improving after the plant closed," Dr. Basel said.
"I'am feeling more optimistic this week."
Still, the high infection rate raised questions about whether Smithfield had done enough
to carry out social-distancing protocols and to supply protective gear.
At least one worker has died from the virus, according to the state.
On Thursday, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention toured the Sioux Falls plant,
an eight-story facility that churned 24 hours a day alongside the Big Sioux River, producing 5 percent of the nation's pork.
The agency is expected to release recommendations in the next few days on how to prevent another outbreak when the plant reopens.
The company has not given a date.