JBS USA said Monday it is indefinitely idling its sprawling Worthington pork plant, laying off over 2,000 workers and dealing a big blow to Minnesota’s hog farmers.
The JBS plant is the latest U.S. meat processor to temporarily close after COVID-19 began racing through many facilities. On Saturday, Austin-based Hormel Foods idled a large Illinois plant after being told to do so by public health authorities there.
On Monday, Minnetonka-based Cargill closed its beef plant in High River, Alberta, one of the largest processors in Canada, after health authorities said several hundred workers tested positive for COVID-19.
The Minnesota Department of Health late last week found that 26 workers at the JBS plant in Worthington were infected with COVID-19, and that five more relatives of employees had tested positive.
The JBS pork plant, Worthington’s largest employer, will wind down operations over the next two days with a diminished staff to ensure existing meat in the facility can move into the supply chain, JBS said in a news release.
“We don’t make this decision lightly,” said Bob Krebs, president of JBS USA Pork. “We recognize JBS Worthington is critical to local hog producers, the U.S. food supply and the many businesses that support the facility each and every day.”
The plant processes 20,000 pigs a day, and is a key buyer for Minnesota hog farmers.
JBS is also a bulwark of the regional economy and one of the state’s two largest slaughterhouse and meat processing complexes.
“As we all learn more about coronavirus, it is clear that the disease is far more widespread across the U.S. and in our county than official estimates indicate based on limited testing,” Krebs said.
JBS said it will continue to pay workers during the plant’s closure.
Matt Utecht, head of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663, said the union negotiated 32 hours of pay per week and continued benefits for the 1,800-plus union workers at the JBS plant.
JBS USA is an arm of Brazil-based JBS SA, the world’s largest meat processor. JBS began building a big U.S. stake 13 years ago, though its reputation in Brazil was singed in 2017 when its former top two executives pleaded guilty there to bribery and corruption charges.
JBS earlier this month shut beef plants in Greeley, Colo., and Souderton, Pa. The Pennsylvania plant reopened Monday. Four workers at the JBS plant in Greeley have died from COVID-19.
At a Cargill beef plant in Fort Morgan, Colo., one worker has also died from the disease.
The JBS plant in Worthington accounts for about 4% of the nation’s pork supply and is one of three large pork processors in Minnesota, the others located in Austin and Windom.
The closure is another shock to hog farmers in Minnesota and throughout the Midwest.
Within the past two weeks, large pork plants in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Columbus Junction, Iowa, have both been idled after COVID-19 ripped through their workforces.
With such closures, Minnesota hog farmers are facing a roughly 25% reduction in processing capacity for their livestock, said Dave Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association. That’s about 125,000 hogs.
“There will be pigs that farmers will have to put down because of [the plant closures]. There is no place to put them, and farmers will get nothing for them in terms of revenue,” he said.
“This is tearing the guts out of the rural economy, and I say that fully appreciating the human consequences of this, too,” Preisler said.
Large meatpacking plants employ hundreds if not thousands of workers — many of them immigrants — who work close together. Meatpacking plants nationally have become hives for the spread of COVID-19.
On Saturday, Hormel Foods closed two plants, one each in Kansas and Illinois.
Hormel’s Rochelle Foods plant in Rochelle, Ill., was idled after 29 workers were diagnosed with COVID-19, said Kyle Auman, public health administrator for Ogle County, where the plant is located.
“We did order them to close,” Auman said. “We made recommendations for voluntary closure on more than one occasion.” Starting last week, though, “cases were doubling on nearly an every-other-day basis.”
In addition to the Rochelle Foods workers who contracted the virus, another 200 of the plant’s 793 workers have been quarantined, Auman said. Almost half of the COVID-19 cases in Ogle County, which is about 80 miles west of Chicago, have come from the Rochelle Foods plant.
The plant produces bacon, deli hams and Hormel Compleats microwaveable meals.
“In some cases, it’s assembly-line work and [workers] are in very close quarters,” Auman said.
Hormel, in a news release, said Rochelle Foods “will pause production for a period of 14 days based on a notice of closure from the local health department.”
Workers at the plant will continue to be paid during that time, the company said.
Hormel’s Kansas plant employs 100 workers and operates under the company’s Alma Foods subsidiary. It was closed until May 4 after one employee was diagnosed with COVID-19.
The company did not respond to questions about COVID-19 at its big Austin meat processing facilities and its numerous Jennie-O turkey slaughter plants in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Over 500 workers at the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, which closed April 12, have tested positive for COVID-19, one of the largest single-source outbreaks in the country.
At a Tyson Foods facility in central Iowa, over 180 workers reportedly tested positive before the plant was closed.
Cargill, one of North America’s largest beef processors, earlier this month closed a beef processing plant in Hazleton, Pa., after 164 of its roughly 1,000 workers were diagnosed with COVID-19.