JBS USA on Wednesday reopened its Worthington pork plant with a skeleton crew to euthanize hogs — but not process them — while government, union and company leaders determine how to resume meat production without jeopardizing workers.

With several large pork plants shuttered across the country due to COVID-19 outbreaks, some hog farmers are unable to maintain the routine of sending pigs to market. Meanwhile, new pigs are born every day and their barns quickly become jammed.

As a result, tens of thousands of hogs stand to be killed, but not processed into meat. Minnesota farmers have already euthanized over 3,000 pigs. "We know [farmers] are in a tough spot financially, and that this is emotionally draining," Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday at a news conference in Worthington.

JBS, which closed the Worthington plant on April 20, said it anticipates being able to euthanize about 13,000 hogs a day. Carcasses will be rendered, sent to landfills, composted or buried.

But on Wednesday, only 3,000 hogs were killed at JBS, said David Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association. JBS isn't charging for the service.

Hog growers are responsible for costs of animal disposal. Those costs are likely lower than continuing to feed grown pigs or contend with barns stuffed with too many animals. "It is absolutely not a cure-all, but it is a step in right direction," Preisler said.

He estimates that 60,000 to 80,000 hogs in Minnesota will be put down this week, more than the Worthington plant can handle. Normally, the plant slaughters 20,000 pigs a day, about 80 % of which come from Minnesota, he said.

JBS said 10 to 20 workers are needed to carry out the euthanasia, and that the company is being advised by federal, state and local veterinary experts. On a normal day, about 2,000 people work at the plant.

COVID-19 has ripped through meatpacking plants nationwide, with the pork industry hit particularly hard.

In Minnesota, three turkey processing plants in Minnesota have been also been idled. Jennie-O, an arm of Hormel Foods, closed its Melrose plant Tuesday after four of its roughly 750 workers had tested positive for COVID-19. Jennie-O closed two plants in Willmar late last week.

As of late Tuesday, 239 workers from the JBS Worthington plant had COVID-19 and Nobles County has by far the highest per capita infection rate, state health department data shows.

The Worthington plant appears to be the first shuttered meat plant to reopen solely to euthanize animals. Hog growers say a central euthanization center is more efficient and less emotionally draining than doing the job on the farm.

JBS said it worked with Walz, U.S. Representative Collin Peterson and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the limited plant reopening.

Peterson and Walz both promised that the plant would not reopen for anything other than euthanizing until expanded testing protocols are in place that include isolating those who test positive and tracing others with whom infected workers have had contact.

In addition, when the plant reopens, it will be anything but business as usual.

"They are not going to be able to run the way they did before," Peterson said.

He said federal and state officials would work with JBS and union leaders to set standards based on guidelines offered Sunday by the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Peterson said the plant will reopen with workers spread out, cleaning regimens in place and production capacity down, perhaps as much as 50%. Workers will not be shoulder-to-shoulder, he said.

President Donald Trump late Tuesday signed an order compelling meat processing plants to stay open under the Defense Production Act to protect the nation's food supply. Walz praised Trump's decision but cautioned it had to account for worker safety,

"No executive order is going to stop this [virus] from affecting you," Walz said.

Neither the congressman nor the governor speculated on when the plant might reopen for processing.

The "biggest problem" could be getting employees to return to work if they do not feel safe, Peterson said.

About 40% of U.S. hog-slaughtering capacity has been idled, said Steve Meyer, an economist and pork industry specialist at Kerns & Associates in Ames, Iowa. That number isn't expected to change much for the rest of the week, he added.

Minnesota hog growers have been whacked by the closing of three regional destinations for their pigs: the Worthington plant, a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., and a Tyson Foods one in Waterloo, Iowa.

Like many industries, pork production runs on a just-in-time schedule, but a pig's growth can't just be shut down. When pigs hit about 290 pounds, they must move to slaughter.

By the time a hog reaches 325 to 350 pounds, it's too big for most slaughterhouses. With the pig pipeline stoppered, euthanization looms.

"Farmers are doing anything they can to not euthanize pigs and waste them," said Lee Johnston, a swine specialist in Morris with University of Minnesota Extension. "It is a difficult process for them mentally."

Farmers have donated hogs to food banks that can get the animals slaughtered, and some have taken to Facebook to sell animals.

Minnesota has many small slaughterhouses — also known as meat lockers — that process farm animals and wild game. But they are getting backed up, too. Johnston said that one meat locker near him is currently booked through January.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003