Three pork plants are top U.S. priority for reopening, says Peterson

The Trump administration’s top meat-industry priority is reopening three pork plants, now shuttered due to coronavirus outbreaks, that account for 12 percent of U.S. hog slaughter, said the House Agriculture Committee chairman on Wednesday. Labor and public officials said meat production will not revive nationwide unless workers feel safe in the often-crowded processing plants.

Pork and beef production faltered this month as packing plants slowed or shut down slaughter lines as the virus infected thousands of employees. At least 20 workers have died, according to a labor union that represents meat workers. Consumers will face higher meat prices or spot outages of some products in coming weeks, according to an industry analyst.

President Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday to keep plants operating during the pandemic — overruling state and local officials worried about virus hot spots — and put Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in charge of the effort. The executive order directs meatpackers to follow CDC guidelines on minimizing workers’ exposure to the coronavirus.

“The secretary said this morning their No. 1 priority right now is to open up this plant, the plant in Sioux Falls, [and] the plant in Waterloo,” said House Agriculture chairman Collin Peterson during a news conference in Worthington, Minnesota, home to a JBS pork plant. Peterson said he had spoken to Perdue earlier in the day.

The USDA and partner agencies will review mitigation plans submitted by meatpackers to show they are following CDC guidelines, said a USDA spokesperson when asked how Perdue will implement the executive order. “The USDA-led federal leadership team will swiftly review documentation provided and work in consultation with state and local authorities to resume and/or ensure continuity of operations at these critical facilities.”

The JBS pork plant in Worthington, which closed on April 20, is reopening with a staff of 10 to 20 workers who will euthanize market-weight hogs that have no buyer. Hog farmers say hundreds of thousands of hogs may be culled weekly because there are not enough open packing plants to handle them.

The Worthington plant, a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa, each has a slaughter capacity of about 20,000 hogs a day. They were closed because of a rising number of coronavirus infections among workers and in their communities. One-tenth of Minnesota’s coronavirus cases are in Worthington, for example, and 853 of Smithfield’s workers in Sioux Falls are infected with the virus.

“We need to be processing food for the country. We need for the plants to be up and running,” said Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. “The only way to do that is to assure worker safety. … No executive order is going to get those hogs processed if the people who know how to do it are sick or don’t feel they can be there.” Walz joined Peterson in Worthington to announce the partial reopening of the JBS plant.

“I think the biggest thing in these plants is getting workers to feel safe coming back,” said Peterson.

“While our focus is on getting the Worthington facility back to work on behalf of our team members producing food for the nation, we believe we have a responsibility to step up for our producer partners in need,” said Bob Krebs, president of JBS USA Pork. “None of us wants to euthanize hogs, but our producers are facing a terrible, unprecedented situation.”

The bulk of the JBS workforce will stay at home until normal operations can resume, said the company, which is based in Greeley, Colorado. In a statement, JBS listed 13 steps it has taken to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus and said its actions meet or exceed CDC guidelines.

Workers have complained about inadequate and tardy efforts by meat plant officials to respond to the threat of the virus.

“Employers and government must do better. If they want to keep the meat and poultry supply chain healthy, they need to make sure that workers are safe and healthy,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, which represents poultry plant workers in the Southeast.

A statement from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has 250,000 members in meat plants, said, “To protect America’s food supply, America’s meatpacking workers must be protected.”