Minnesota wants to test all JBS pork packing plant employees after COVID-19 outbreak

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

Minnesota faces its most serious COVID-19-related crisis yet with the discovery of an outbreak at a JBS pork packing plant in Worthington, the southwestern Minnesota town where a coronavirus outbreak has infected at least 26 workers and some of their family members.

State health officials said Monday they want to test all employees at the plant.

In a rapidly unfolding situation, JBS announced Monday it would indefinitely close the 2,000-employee pork processing plant which processes 20,000 hogs per day — roughly 4% of the nation’s pork supply. Only three days before, on Friday, officials announced the first lab-confirmed COVID-19 infections at the plant. 

The discovery could have an impact on the local economy, rural health systems of southwest Minnesota — and the nation’s food supply.

Meat packing plants are under strain as hundreds of workers across the country who process beef, poultry and pork livestock fall ill to COVID-19. One of the largest outbreaks among meat packing plant employees is just an hour west of Worthington at Smithfield Foods, where nearly 900 cases have been tied to the plant.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said JBS plans to cooperate with the state to test all their employees for COVID-19.  “That is our intent, that all employees will be able to get tested, and we also want to do broader testing in the surrounding community,” Malcolm said. 

JBS workers, many of them immigrants and refugees, are deemed essential amid the pandemic, alongside the likes of healthcare workers and first responders. Some workers told the Reformer last week they have long worried about what would happen if there were an outbreak at their workplace.

“The lessons learned in the JBS plant in Worthington are going to apply to our other facilities, our packing facilities across the state,” Gov. Tim Walz said.

Malcolm acknowledged challenges in conducting interviews with JBS employees who tested positive for COVID-19. She said more than 40 languages are spoken at the plant, and that health department investigators have so far only been able to conduct interviews with 41 of the 77 lab-confirmed cases in Nobles County. 

“The investigations are taking a little bit longer,” she said. 

Health officials are also not certain if it’s linked with the outbreak at the Sioux Falls Smithfield plant, where the the families of some JBS workers are also employed. 

“I want to acknowledge that we’re seeing community transmission of COVID-19, so it’s difficult to pinpoint,” said Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director at the Minnesota Department of Health.

The JBS outbreak could lead to pork shortages as hogs stay longer on feedlots. Bloomberg News on reported Monday that its closure now means that more than 10% of the country’s hog slaughtering capacity is down. 

“We don’t make this decision lightly,” said Bob Krebs, president of JBS USA Pork, in a statement announcing the closure in Worthington. “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.”

Krebs said workers would continue to be paid during the plant closure. The Worthington plant will wind down operations over the next two days with “diminished staff,” the statement said. 

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 663, which represents workers at the plant, last week called on management to slow production at the pork processing facility when the Health Department identified COVID-19 among the plant’s workforce.

“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.”

Some workers said that despite safety measures taken at the plant, which include personal protective equipment, frequent sanitation and plexiglass dividers, continuing the same pace of production made it difficult to follow social-distancing guidelines. 

JBS USA operates more than 60 meat, poultry and prepared foods facilities across the U.S. The Worthington pork production facility is the third JBS USA plant to temporarily close, following the Souderton, Penn., beef production facility, where at least one worker has died. The Pennsylvania plant re-opened Monday. 

JBS USA has also closed its Greeley, Colo. beef production plant, where more than 100 workers have become infected with COVID-19. Four workers at the Colorado plant have died.

Walz call with Trump

Walz on Monday also shared details about his phone call with President Donald Trump, who in recent days has tweeted twice about Minnesota, including one after the call with Walz, saying, “Received a very nice call from @GovTimWalz of Minnesota. We are working closely on getting him all he needs, and fast. Good things happening!”

Trump’s Monday tweet is an about-face from Friday, when he tweeted his support of protests organized across the country targeting governors with stay-at-home orders, including Walz. Trump on Friday tweeted “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!,” prompting Walz’s office to reach out to the White House over the weekend.

Walz said Trump returned his phone call Saturday night, talking for about 10 minutes.

Walz notably did not follow the lead of other governors, who criticized the Trump administration’s failure to procure medical equipment and testing materials. 

“I am not interested in adjudicating why we don’t have these things now, I’m just interested in how we get them,” Walz said. “Minnesotans and Americans, in general, they don’t need to see us fight.”

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.