State and congressional leaders on Wednesday pledged to safely and quickly open a JBS pork plant in Worthington as the facility battles a COVID-19 outbreak among workers.
At a press conference in the southwest Minnesota city, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat from Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District who chairs the House’s Agriculture Committee, said a task force that includes plant management and union representatives will convene to decide how best to restart operation.
The plant was shuttered last week after 26 employees tested positive for COVID-19, and is just one in a string of large pork processing facilities to close around the country because of coronavirus outbreaks. Now 239 workers at the JBS plant have tested positive for COVID-19, and there have been 615 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in Worthington’s Nobles County. That’s the second-most of any Minnesota county in behind Hennepin, though state health leaders say that’s due in part to testing more people in Nobles than elsewhere.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump said he would order meatpacking plants to continue operations. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told Peterson he’d like to see JBS open within two or three days, Peterson said Wednesday.
Peterson called that “ambitious” and said the plant can only operate when workers are safe and feel they can return to the plant without getting sick. He predicted the plant would operate with fewer people, at least at first, so employees are spaced out and not working “shoulder to shoulder.” Perdue, Peterson said, has promised not to force open the plant if it’s not safe for workers.
GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn, whose 1st Congressional District includes Worthington, praised Trump’s order and said there are examples around the country of pork plants dealing with infections and safely reopening.
The plant shutdowns have thrown hog farmers into limbo, with many facing the prospect of euthanizing hundreds of thousands of pigs and losing vast sums of money. Peterson also said the country is about “three weeks away from not having pork on the shelves in the grocery stores.”
Even if JBS opens soon, Peterson said it would have limited capacity at first, relieving some, if not all, of the backup. JBS is not the only meatpacking facility in the state to be disrupted. Jennie-O closed turkey plants in Willmar recently after workers tested positive. A massive Smithfield Foods pork plant in nearby Sioux Falls, South Dakota and a Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa, have also been idled.
Peterson said he will try and pass through Congress a measure that would allow federal agriculture authorities to help pay farmers who must euthanize animals because slaughterhouses are closed. At the moment, the feds can step in when animals are diseased, but not when they are healthy, Peterson said.
JBS did open its facility Wednesday, but only to slaughter and dispose of hogs, not process and pack the meat. The company estimates it could euthanize about 13,000 hogs per day using about 10 to 20 employees. Normally the facility has more than 2,000 employees and processes 20,000 hogs per day.
The Worthington press conference may have been an attempt to project unity between Democrats and Republicans in trying to reopen JBS. Gov. Tim Walz joined Hagedorn and Peterson, and even Iowa Rep. Steve King, a Republican ostracized by party leaders for racist comments, was at the press conference.
Yet not all Minnesotans agree a quick restart of the factory is the right decision. The politicians were nearly drowned out at one point by those in nearby cars honking their horns to show they want the plant to remain closed.
Matt Utecht, president of the Local 663 branch of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents most employees at the JBS plant, said the facility management must “install the highest possible worker safety and testing standards when they reopen.” That includes, he said, daily worker testing and temperature checks, access to personal protective equipment, and safe production line speeds to ensure social distancing.
“Our food supply will remain at risk until every worker who makes pork and other proteins can go to work without facing an increased chance of contracting COVID-19,” Utecht said in a written statement.
Walz said it’s possible to open the facility safely, especially with the help of a new increase in testing capabilities announced by the state last week. More tests should help control the spread of COVID-19 by identifying and isolating the sick or exposed, Walz said.
“It needs to run and it needs to run safely,” Walz said of the JBS plant. “It does us no good to open it back up again and in two weeks have 500 more people (infected). Where are we going to keep getting the workers?”