Nineteen cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed at the JBS pork plant in Worthington, the union representing workers there said Friday, dealing another blow to hog farmers and the meat supply chain and highlighting a widespread correlation between meatpacking plants and coronavirus hot spots.
The JBS plant — which employs about 2,000 workers and produces more than 4% of the nation’s pork supply — had been a success story compared with other meatpacking plants, with zero confirmed cases through early this week.
But the close quarters and large gatherings required at meat factories appear to have repeatedly foiled efforts at sanitization and social distancing.
Officials with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 663, the union that represents 1,850 workers at the plant, demanded the company scale back production to allow employees to work farther apart.
“Workers are scared and frustrated,” said Lisa Thoma, a union steward at the plant. “JBS needs to slow production lines now for the safety of all us workers.”
UFCW Local 663 President Matt Utecht has praised JBS’ handling of the pandemic in Worthington, saying Monday that “gloves, surgical masks, face shields, overcoats — these things came out quicker than in some other facilities.”
But Utecht said in a statement Friday that failure by the plant to give workers more space “will put our community and our nation’s food supply at devastating risk. … It defies logic to keep the people who make the food we all eat standing shoulder to shoulder while they work.”
A JBS spokesman declined Friday to comment specifically on the Worthington plant but said, “JBS USA has had team members test positive for COVID-19 in some of our U.S. facilities” and is “offering support to those team members and their families.”
“We hope they all make a full and speedy recovery. Out of respect for the families, we are not releasing further information,” the spokesman said.
Minnesota officials said Friday there were 30 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Worthington among the 2,071 statewide, and Gov. Tim Walz said some of the JBS employees have relatives who work at the Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls, which is closed indefinitely. More than 700 workers at the Sioux Falls Smithfield plant have tested positive for COVID-19.
Plant managers in Worthington have been communicative with state officials, Walz said, and the Minnesota Department of Health sent a team of four to the town to help. Sanford Health will offer drive-thru testing, and local public health authorities will help find housing for people who need to be isolated.
“We can’t afford to have these plants all go down,” Walz said. “This is part of a national food supply system and a large piece of it.”
The number of meatpacking plants closing or reporting cases of COVID-19 across the U.S. is climbing every day.
The Smithfield plant is the most striking example, but four workers at a JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colo., have now died and that plant is closed through at least April 27.
A worker at a Cargill beef plant in Fort Morgan, Colo., also has died, and the company has scaled back operations there.
In Iowa, a beef plant in Tama is closed, as is a pork plant in Columbus Junction, where at least 148 workers were infected and two died. Hundreds of workers at a Tyson plant in Waterloo have refused to work in recent days, complaining they are not protected from the spread of the virus, the Waterloo Courier reported.
More than 70% of the nation’s pork is butchered at the top 20 pork processing plants in the country, and the majority of those are within 250 miles of Des Moines, including the plants in Worthington and Sioux Falls.
News of infections among plant workers in Worthington was another blow to hog farmers, who are reeling in the pandemic.
Some producers say at current prices they are losing $50 per pig, and reduced slaughterhouse capacity is threatening to cause backlogs of market-ready hogs at farms.
“We don’t sell pigs to that particular plant, but for us [closing] it would be a big deal, because as soon as you take some capacity out that just puts that many more pigs in a limited area,” said Greg Boerboom, a major hog farmer near Marshall, Minn.
Boerboom normally sells pigs to the Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls, which is closed for at least two weeks.
He’s been able to find other meatpacking plants for his hogs so far, he said, even if the process has been deeply unprofitable.
“We’re losing more money than we’ve ever lost in our career,” Boerboom said.
On a call Tuesday, Howard A.V. Roth, a Wisconsin hog farmer and president of the National Pork Producers Council, said large numbers of pigs will have to be euthanized if meatpacking capacity isn’t restored and hog farmers don’t get federal help in the form of billions in pork purchases and more access to emergency loans.
“If we do not get government assistance immediately, if people are euthanizing, that’s going to soar dramatically,” Roth said.
Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.