The JBS USA pork plant in Worthington could be reopened this week, but for a limited and unusual purpose: euthanizing hogs, then disposing of the carcasses instead of processing them into meat.
Meanwhile, recently posted records show that JBS would not allow Minnesota work-safety investigators inside the plant for an inspection on April 20, the day it shut down.
JBS closed the giant plant after COVID-19 had begun racing through its workforce. Several other U.S. hog slaughterhouses have closed for the same reason, shuttering over 30% of the nation's pork processing capacity.
With nowhere to be slaughtered for meat, more than 3,000 healthy pigs were euthanized in Minnesota last week; 200,000 more could soon follow, according to the Minnesota Pork Producers Association.
JBS is considering using the slaughterhouse to put down Minnesota pigs stranded in the pork supply chain due to COVID-19, three sources confirmed.
"There's certainly been a conversation about it," said Matt Utecht, head of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663, which represents most of the plant's 2,000 workers. "It sounds like it is going to happen," adding that only a "handful" of workers would be needed.
JBS USA, an arm of Brazilian meat giant JBS, did not return requests for comment.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture said in an e-mail that it was aware of JBS' plans to reopen on a limited basis. The company does not need state approval to kill pigs at its site, but the Minnesota Board of Animal Health would advise JBS on proper carcass disposal, according to the Agriculture Department.
The most likely disposal of carcasses would be through composting or burial.
Dave Preisler, head of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, said he "wholeheartedly supports" JBS' efforts.
"They are used to doing this and have the equipment to [kill] a large amount of pigs," he said.
Hog farmers' capability for euthanization "doesn't come even remotely close" to JBS', Preisler said. Plus, there's a "mental health" aspect for farmers, who would have to euthanize healthy pigs, he added.
Pork processing is a just-in-time industry. Hogs due to slaughter need to be removed from barns to make room for new crops of pigs. And many slaughterhouses won't take mature pigs once they get to be 325 to 350 pounds.
When the avian flu decimated Minnesota's turkey and egg industry in 2015, more than 9 million birds were euthanized with a suffocating foam. That method does not work on hogs.
The American Veterinary Medical Association's list of "preferred" ways to humanely euthanize hogs includes: anesthetics, gunshot, electrocution and "blunt force." In a slaughterhouse, pigs are knocked out with carbon dioxide and quickly cut up.
JBS closed the Worthington plant on April 20 soon before the arrival of investigators from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, enforcers of the state's occupational safety and health regulations.
They were acting on a complaint, according to an OSHA website, but were denied entry.
"Prior to our investigations team's arrival at the plant, the company announced it was going to discontinue processing operations for at least two weeks," the state Labor Department said in an e-mail. "When the team arrived at the facility, the company declined to allow us to conduct the investigation."
A Labor Department spokesman said he's not aware of other circumstances where a meat-processing plant had denied entry to Minnesota work safety inspectors.
Nobles County, home to the JBS plant, has by far the highest number of COVID-19 cases as a percentage of population among Minnesota counties. With 399 confirmed cases Monday, up 47 from a day earlier, Nobles County trails only Hennepin County in total cases.