Midwestern hog plants ease back into operation; ‘We’ve turned the corner,’ says Perdue

Three packing plants that account for 12 percent of U.S. hog slaughter are slowly resuming production this week after coronavirus shutdowns, potentially loosening a bottleneck among meat processors that is tightening supplies and raising prices at the grocery store. During a meeting at the White House on Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said, “I think we’ve turned the corner” on meat shortages.

Beef and pork production plunged during April as outbreaks turned some meat plants into coronavirus hot spots. President Trump issued an executive order last week directing meat companies to stay in operation during the pandemic. The labor union representing meat workers asked state governors to insist on safety rules stronger than federal guidelines.

Meat shortages should end quickly, said Perdue, who joined President Trump in meeting with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. “I’d say probably a week to 10 days we’ll be back up, fully back up.”

Tyson Foods said limited production would resume Thursday at its pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa. JBS USA reopened its slaughter plant in Worthington, Minnesota, on Wednesday with plans to scale up production, and Smithfield Foods started the slow reopening of its hog plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on Monday. All three were closed due to the coronavirus. In full operation, they slaughter roughly 60,000 hogs a day, or about 12 percent of U.S. capacity.

“Member companies continue to work with local health authorities to safely open plants,” said the North American Meat Institute, a trade group. “Member companies have and will continue to follow CDC/OSHA guidance and will attempt to run at full capacity as long as worker safety is ensured.”

At Waterloo, Tyson said new safety precautions had been adopted, including a daily health screening as workers arrive at the plant and a requirement that workers wear company-supplied face masks and use face shields in areas where barriers could not be installed between workstations. Employees were invited to tour the plant on Wednesday to view the changes.

JBS said it expected operations at Worthington “to normalize over time as absenteeism rates decline in response to the preventive measures in place at the facility and as team members clear any necessary quarantine protocols,” reported WCCO-TV.

The Sioux Falls, Waterloo, and Worthington hog plants are three of seven in the Midwest with a slaughter capacity of around 20,000 head a day.

Earlier this week, U.S. district judge Greg Kays dismissed a lawsuit filed by a worker who alleged unsafe conditions — inadequate protection from the coronavirus — at a Smithfield packing plant in Milan, Missouri, reported public broadcaster KCUR. Kays said working conditions were a matter for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The meatpacker said it was following the latest safety guidance from the CDC and OSHA.

Data compiled by FERN shows that 48 meat industry workers have died and nearly 12,000 have been infected by the coronavirus. At least 17 packing plants and six processing plants were closed as of midday Wednesday.

“This ruling is directly in line with what the federal government has been calling for companies and communities to do in light of the president’s executive order,” said Perdue in a statement. Also on Wednesday, Perdue urged plants that have shut down or slowed operations to “resume operations as soon as they are able” after implementing the CDC guidance.

At the same time that some grocery chains are rationing their meat supplies and raising prices because of slowdowns at the packing plant, livestock producers are seeing lower bids for their animals. Minnesota hog farmer Mike Boerboom said during a Farm Credit Council webinar that he had lost $100 a head in a recent sale. Cattle feeder Shane Tiffany in Kansas said he had lost $250 a head, and poultry producer Butch Sensely said he expected to raise four flocks of broiler chickens on his farm in Louisiana this year, instead of the usual six.

“This is a losing situation for everybody” — producer, consumer, and processor, said Boerboom.