JBS workers protest as officials outline importance of reopening Worthington pork plant

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, held a news conference in Worthington, Minnesota—home to the state’s largest pork production facility— where he and other officials discussed the challenges facing hog farmers in Minnesota and nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Outside the news conference employees of the shutdown plant protested in their cars, honking their horns to make sure Gov. Tim Walz, Peterson and Rep. Jim Hagedorn know they have major concerns over returning to work after almost 500 workers tested postiive for COVID-19. 

The news conference came lone day after President Donald Trump ordered meat processing plants to stay open during the pandemic to prevent meat shortages. He signed an executive order Tuesday night under the Defense Production Act, classifying meat plants as “critical infrastructure.” 

Pork processing facilities across the country had been shutting down following outbreaks of the coronavirus among workers, including the JBS pork plant in Worthington, which closed last week. Worthington is in Nobles County, which has 615 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, although it is unknown how many are linked to the JBS plant. 

The closures have caused a significant backup of hogs at pork processing plants throughout the region. As a result of the JBS closure, the plant is euthanizing 3,000 pigs a day. The carcasses of which appeared to be hauled away by dump trucks Wednesday day. 

At the press conference, Hagedorn said the food supply from the Worthington plant is a national security issue. 

"I am happy that the President invoked the Defense Production Act yesterday and made sure that the Department of Agriculture, the CDC and OSHA would be in there to assist to get us up and running," he said. 

Walz agreed that the President was right in invoking the National Defense Production Act for the pork plant, calling it "one of the most critical things that we need." 

Peterson said the plant's operation is a national security issue. 

"The United States has got to have a national food supply we can depend on for national security," he said. "If people don't have food, we're gonna have riots." 

Peterson did say that the plant will reopen in a different way than it used to funciton, however. 

"We haven't got it all figured out yet, but at the end of the day, it's gonna be, the workers are going to have to be protected in order to open this plant," he said. 

So far, though, nothing is comforting JBS workers. Their union president said he has their back on this issue. 

"I'll be damned if I'm going to be pushed to open anytime sooner than it's feasibly safe to operate," said Matt Utecht, the president of UFCW Local 663. 

The union, the plant's manager and the CDC will all collaborate to decide when it's safe to reopen.