Local CBS affiliate WCCO, citing the Minnesota Department of Health, reported Saturday that there were 56 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Nobles County — and 20 of them worked at the Worthington plant, and another five who were related to the workers. The pork plant will wind down operations in the next two days, JBS said, and continue to pay employees during the closure.
“We don’t make this decision lightly,” said Bob Krebs, president of JBS USA Pork. “We recognize JBS Worthington is critical to local hog producers, the U.S. food supply and the many businesses that support the facility each and every day.”
A growing number of processing facilities that prop up the American meat supply have themselves become outbreak hot spots.
The outlook is even more precarious given that U.S. meat processing is largely handled at a few enormous plants. At the same time, restaurants are drastically cutting orders of more expensive cuts, such as tenderloins and sirloin, that don’t draw supermarket customers.
With the supply chain so off-kilter, experts are worried that meat could become the next item wiped clean from grocery store shelves as customers start to hoard.
On Friday, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 663 called on JBS to slow production speeds at the Worthington plant and allow for more social distancing. The union, which represents more than 1,850 workers at the facility, said that a delayed response could come “too late for too many people.”
“Failure to make this critical safety improvement will put our community and our nation’s food supply at devastating risk,” said UFCW Local 663 President Matt Utecht.
Earlier this month, Smithfield Foods announced that its plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., would shutter indefinitely. The Argus Leader reported Friday that there were nearly 800 confirmed coronavirus cases linked to the plant, which is one of the country’s largest pork processing facilities and represents 4 to 5 percent of U.S. pork production, according to Smithfield.
National Beef Packing has also closed its plant in Tama, Iowa. Cargill halted production at its Hazleton, Pa., ground beef and pork processing plant. The company also scaled back operations at one of Canada’s biggest beef-packing plants after dozens of workers contracted the virus.
Laura Reiley contributed to this report.