COVID-19 outbreak at JBS pork plant in Worthington

JBS pork processing plant in Worthington
The JBS pork processing plant in Worthington, Minn. is one of the largest employers and has long drawn immigrants and refugees to this southwestern Minnesota town. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

Gov. Tim Walz is deploying a team to Worthington, as a JBS meatpacking plant is now the site of a COVID-19 outbreak there.  

As in Iowa, South Dakota and other states, Minnesota now faces a threat to a key agribusiness sector, source of the nation’s food supply and economic driver in the rural southwest part of the state. “We have put a team down there,” Walz said. They’ll set up testing and ensure safe conditions across the community, he said. Minnesota health officials also said they would try to keep the plant open. 

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 663, which represents workers at a JBS plant in Worthington, are calling on management to slow production at the pork processing facility, reporting 19 COVID-19 infections among employees there. 

“Production line speeds inside JBS and other food processing plants in Minnesota must be immediately slowed to make safe social distancing between workers possible,” said Matt Utecht, president of UFCW Local 663.

He warned: “Failure to make this critical safety improvement will put our community and our nation’s food supply at devastating risk.”

Minnesota officials are mobilizing. Before Friday, there were only 2 confirmed cases reported in Nobles County; Worthington is the county seat. 

Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm emphasised that meat packing plants had long been known to pose a risk — calling them congregate work settings — because of the close working quarters of an assembly line. “Where there is close proximity, there is risk of transmission,” Malcolm said.

Worthington lies just an hour’s drive from the largest meat packing plant outbreak in the country, the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., where 634 workers have contracted the disease. At least one Smithfield employee has died. 

Walz suggested the outbreak may have spread from Sioux Falls to Worthington, noting many plant workers are employed by both JBS and Smithfield. “There’s also a lot of family members that work in both plants,” he said. 

JBS employs more than 2,000 people in Worthington, drawing a diverse workforce of immigrants and refugees from East Africa, Asia, Mexico and Central America. 

In recent days, JBS plant leaders have instituted a number of measures, the union said, including providing personal protective equipment, plexiglass barriers installed on cafeteria tables, and taking employees’ temperature as they arrive for work.

Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director at the Minnesota Department of Health, said Friday that her agency conducted interviews on Thursday that suggest the number of infections among JBS employees is expected to rise. 

Ehresmann said officials will be focused on deploying additional testing resources to help contain the spread in Worthington. 

A number of meat packing plants in Iowa, South Dakota and Colorado have suspended operations amid widening COVID-19 outbreaks, with several workers dead and hundreds others sickened. 

Walz underscored JBS’ critical role in feeding the country. “It is a foundational piece of economic activity,” he said. “This is part of a national food supply system, and a large piece of it.”

JBS employees told the Reformer this week that workers were uneasy after being told of at least one confirmed case. They said it is impossible to follow social-distancing guidelines on the assembly lines. With production continuing at its normal capacity, common areas are still cramped, they said. 

A JBS spokeswoman late Thursday sent an emailed statement to the Reformer acknowledging that  “JBS USA has had team members test positive for COVID-19 in some of our U.S. facilities.”

The statement continued: “We are offering support to those team members and their families, and we hope they all make a full recovery. Out of respect for the families, we are not releasing further information.”

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.