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COVID-19 SHUTDOWNS: Minnesota plant hopes to reopen despite concerns

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JBS USA plant in Worthington

WORTHINGTON, Minn. (KTTC) - There is a growing concern about the impact on meat supplies as factories are forced to close. The coronavirus has greatly impacted one area of southwest Minnesota.

"COVID-19 in Nobles County is the equivalent of New York City per capita," said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota's 7th Congressional District.

The county seat of Worthington is home to one of the nation's largest food processing plants, JBS USA.

"This is the thing that makes Minnesota so valuable," said Governor Tim Walz.

After hundred of employees at JBS tested positive for the coronavirus, the plant was forced to close.

"I'm not going to second guess the governor, but I think we're at the point in Minnesota where we should be getting reopen a little bit more," said Rep. Jim Hagedorn of Minnesota's 1st Congressional District.

While there is no set timeline for the reopening of JBS, lawmakers are sounding the alarm.

"We're about three weeks away from not having pork on the shelves at the grocery stores," said Rep. Peterson. "Maybe that will wake people up."

The production shutdown means unsold pigs at farms are still growing.

"They can't handle pigs over 300 pounds and our pigs are close to 300 pounds," said hog farmer Ross Wiertsema.

While the governor and representatives spoke, JBS employees honked their horns to protest the reopening of the plant. Despite their health concerns, the hog farmers want to see the plant open as soon as possible.

"We have market pigs ready to go and we can't sell them. It's not profit for us," said Wiertsema. "It's hard. That's our only income. We can't make any more money because we can't sell them anywhere."

At least not until JBS opens its doors. First, a lot of changes have to be made to the plant.

"They're re-engineering the plant right now. It's not going to operate the way it did before," said Peterson. "We're not going to force them open if it's not safe."

Currently, thousands of healthy pigs are being put down a day in Minnesota alone. The hog industry's system does not allow for storage and the demand for pork has been affected by the closing of the state's restaurants.

"These pigs are virtually worthless because we can't process them for meat in the grocery store," said Hagedorn.

The plant will initially open to euthanize thousands of pigs a day in order to depopulate the overcrowded farms. However, officials only want to open the plant following CDC guidelines and enacting new policies to protect the employees.

"The workers voices need to be at that table. they need to be heard," said Walz about the plant's reopening. "They need to make sure they're safe. Once they are, they'll do the job they've always done."

Walz says the reopening of the plant can be an example of how to open other industries in the state.

Alex Tejada

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