Peterson, Walz: Worker safety biggest issue in reopening meat plants

-The Hagstrom Report
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., speaks today at a news conference in an airport hangar in Worthington, Minn.
Courtesy photo

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Minnesota Democratic Gov. Tim Walz said today that worker safety is the most important factor in getting meat slaughter plants such as the JBS USA plant in Worthington, Minn., reopened amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“The biggest problem is getting the workers to come back,” Peterson said at a news conference in an airport hangar in Worthington, where a JBS plant that normally employs 2,000 people and processes 20,000 hogs per day is closed with 400 employees testing positive for COVID-19. The news conference, which was attended by local citizens, was simulcast on Facebook Live.

“No executive order will get the hogs slaughtered if the workers are sick,” Walz said at the news conference, referring to President Donald Trump’s executive order Tuesday evening to use the Defense Production Act to keep meat and other food production facilities open that made little reference to workers.

Peterson, who discussed the crisis in the meat industry during a lengthy news conference on Tuesday, said that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had assured him this morning that USDA’s highest priority is to open the JBS plant in Worthington, the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., and a Tyson’s food plant in Waterloo, Iowa.

Peterson said that a local committee including JBS management and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union has been formed to work jointly to reopen the plant, and “we have a good potential for getting this worked out.” Peterson said the plant is being re-engineered and that when it reopens there will be fewer than 2,000 employees who will not stand as close together as in the past. Peterson repeatedly praised JBS management for their cooperation and said JBS does not want the plant reopened without being safe. He also criticized Smithfield for being unwilling to consider using its plant in Sioux Falls for euthanization.

Peterson said the management and the union will use guidelines issued this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to determine when the Worthington plant is safe to reopen.

Meanwhile, the Worthington plant opened today to euthanize hogs for which the producers have no market. JBS USA Pork President Bob Krebs said in a news release today, “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 when our producer partners are in need.” Krebs commended Peterson, Walz and Agriculture Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach “for their leadership and partnership in helping make this option available to our community and our producers during these difficult times.”

Krebs added that 10 to 20 employees are conducting the euthanization. “None of us want to euthanize hogs, but our producers are facing a terrible, unprecedented situation,” Krebs said. “We will do everything in our power to work with the state of Minnesota to responsibly reopen our facility as soon as possible in support of producers who desperately require a more viable option for their hogs.”

Although JBS hoped to euthanize 13,000 hogs per day, Peterson said that only 3,000 hogs were euthanized today because there has been difficulty in finding trucks to transport the animals. Peterson also said there are problems figuring out what to do with the carcasses. Digging a trench has proven impossible because the water table in the area is too high, and Walz noted it would be irresponsible to contaminate the groundwater. Peterson said there is a shortage of space in landfills and that composting the carcasses can be done but is expensive.

Peterson repeated statements he made Tuesday that Ibach has said that USDA does not have the authority to pay indemnities to farmers for animals that are not sick and that he will introduce legislation to allow USDA to use the Commodity Credit Corporation to pay producers for animals euthanized due to human disease.

Walz, who was a member of the House Agriculture Committee when he served in Congress, reassured attendees that Minnesota is ahead of many states in addressing the pandemic, even though the number of COVID cases continues to rise. Walz said that Minnesota will be able to undertake large-scale testing, tracing and isolation and that Minnesotans who need hospital beds and more advanced medical care will be able to get it. But he said that Minnesotans will have to continue to practice social distancing and that large gatherings in football stadiums and packed bars are still a long way away.

“The surest way we get the economy back again is to make people feel safe and secure,” Walz said. “Throwing the doors open doesn’t fix it.” The worst scenario, Walz said, would be to open businesses and be forced to close them again.

Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen, Minnesota State Veterinarian Beth Thompson and Rep. Jim Hagedorn, R-Minn., in whose district Worthington is located, all spoke briefly. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, also attended the event. Peterson offered him a chance to speak at the end, but by that time the crowd had dispersed.

During the event, honking could be heard over the Facebook feed, apparently from a protest outside.