Jennie-O Turkey Store, an arm of Hormel Foods, has indefinitely closed two Willmar plants after 14 workers tested positive for COVID-19, the first such shutdown for Minnesota's turkey industry.
"Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to take a pause in operations," Steve Lykken, president of Jennie-O Turkey Store, said in a statement. The company says it will deep-clean the Willmar plants, and enhance its "already robust" safety and sanitation protocols.
One of the Willmar plants slaughters and processes turkeys; the other produces various Jennie-O turkey products. Together, the two plants employ more than 1,200, and it's likely more workers will test positive for COVID-19.
"The company has encouraged its staff to get tested, now that additional tests are available," Jennie-O said in a press statement. "Health experts have told the company that as testing increases so will positive results."
All employees will continue to receive pay and benefits, Jennie-O said.
A Hormel spokesman said that turkeys slated for slaughter in Willmar will be redirected to other Jennie-O plants. Jennie-O has slaughter plants in Melrose, Faribault and Barron, Wis., as well as meat-processing facilities in Pelican Rapids and Montevideo.
Through Jennie-O, Austin-based Hormel is one of the largest U.S. turkey product makers.
The turkey plant shutdowns come after several big Midwest pork-processing factories have closed in the two past two weeks as novel coronavirus infected their workforces. JBS USA in Worthington, which employs over 2,000, was idled indefinitely Monday.
Minnesota is one of the nation's largest hog-producing states, and growers are facing such a severe drop in processing capacity that some have been forced to euthanize hogs. The state's turkey industry — the country's largest — has so far been spared such a fate.
"We have the benefit of time to see what has happened in the hog industry," said Sarah Anderson, of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association. "Everybody has been on high alert."
Hormel, which has over 30 U.S. production facilities, last Saturday idled two plants outside of Minnesota for roughly two weeks, including Rochelle Foods in Rochelle, Ill.
Public health officials told Hormel to close the Rochelle plant after 29 of its nearly 800 workers were diagnosed with COVID-19. The plant produces bacon, deli hams and Hormel Compleats microwaveable meals.
A Don Miguel Mexican foods plant in Dallas that is half-owned by Hormel was also closed for two weeks earlier this week due to COVID-19 concerns.
Staff writer Catherine Roberts contributed to this story. Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003