Reopening packing plants and getting harvesting capacity back up to normal levels is critical, said House Agriculture Committee Chairman and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., during a press conference on Wednesday in Worthington, Minn.
Peterson has been working with the JBS SA plant in Worthington to reopen with social distancing. The plant opened this morning, hoping to process 13,000 hogs per day, but Peterson said it’s looking like it will be closer to 3,000 initially due to reduced workforce, slower line speeds and social distancing.
All Worthington plant workers were tested last weekend, he said.
“We have to test everyone so people working in the plant feel safe knowing they people working around them are not positive,” Peterson said. “The company is putting in more shields. If we open up again, we’re not going to be shoulder to shoulder, we’re going to be more spaced out. We won’t be able to produce as much as they were before, but hopefully we’ll get it open.”
Depopulation of Healthy Animals
Due to the current backlog of hogs caused by temporary plant closures and slowdowns, Peterson said he’s been told the industry needs to harvest 160,000 hogs daily either by processing or by euthanasia.
One of the problems, Peterson said, is that USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) can pay to euthanize diseased animals, but they do not have the authority to pay to euthanize healthy animals.
Peterson guaranteed the next COVID aid bill will include compensation for producers who have to euthanize healthy hogs in a similar situation.
“We have to change the statute. We have to put this in the CCC law that says they could use a CCC to depopulate healthy animals in an emergency situation,” Peterson says. “I want this to be on the shelf, not 20 years ago, up-to-date every year so that if something happens, we can deal with it tomorrow. We're going to do it, and I'm going to take money out of wherever it is and put in there so we have it in the future.”
Bringing Workers Back Safely
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said we need to be processing food in the U.S. Plants need to get up and running to make sure our markets are still functioning. He said the only way we do that is by ensuring worker safety.
“No executive order I do or the President does is going to change the fact that that virus will infect you if we don't do things right. And no executive order is going to get those hogs processed if the people who know how to do it are sick, or do not feel like they can be there,” Walz said. “So we have a common goal here.”
He said the country cannot shelter in place until a vaccine is available. Because of this, people need to abide by best practices that slow the rate of infection.
“We’re not going to eliminate it. We're just building slow herd immunity,” Walz said. “When it comes to a city like Worthington, and you have a hot pocket like this, this is going to happen over the next 12 to 18 months. If we put out the forest fire, there are going to be embers that flare up again. We can’t shut everything down when those embers flare up again.”
He said testing will be important. In Minnesota, they are simultaneously ramping up testing while slowly rolling the workforce back in. Their state has about 525,000 people unemployed and 2.6 million working. Last Monday, they started rolling back in 100,000 people, about 20%, he said.
Pork on the Shelves
Peterson says the grocery stores are about three weeks away from not having pork on the shelves unless these packing plants can get back up and running.
“This is a bigger issue than just whether we're going to go hungry or not – it’s a national security issue. The United States has got to have a food supply for national security reasons. If people don’t have food, we’ll have riots,” Peterson said.
He said it’s hard for most people to understand this complex situation because of a general lack of understanding about food production in the U.S.
“As chairman of the Ag Committee, this is not going to happen again on my watch,” Peterson said. “When we get this thing set up, we are not going to disband it. We are going to have a way to respond to emergencies that’s on the shelf and we can take off whenever we have a situation that happens. And it’s going to happen again. Whatever it is, we are not going to go through a situation where we’re caught flat-footed like we were with this situation.”
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