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April 20, 2020 2:15 PM, EDT

JBS to Shut Down Minnesota Pork Plant After COVID-19 Outbreak

A Kroger employee restocks meat at a store location in Kentucky in March 2019.A Kroger employee restocks meat at a store location in Kentucky in March 2019. Recent meat plant closures are stoking concern about the national supply. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)

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JBS SA, the world’s top meat company, will shutter its pork processing facility in Minnesota following an outbreak of the coronavirus, adding to concerns that slaughterhouse logjams will tighten meat supplies for consumers.

The Worthington, Minn., facility will wind down operations over the next two days with a diminished staff to ensure existing product in the facility can be used to support the food supply, the company said April 20 in a statement. The move comes after seven workers at the plant tested positive for the coronavirus and officials from the Minnesota Department of Health said April 17 that number is expected to rise. The company, whose U.S. operations rank No. 63 on the Transport Topics Top 100 Private Carriers list, didn’t give a date for reopening.

“As we all learn more about coronavirus, it is clear that the disease is far more widespread across the U.S. and in our county than official estimates indicate based on limited testing,” Bob Krebs, president of JBS USA Pork, said in a statement. “We have taken aggressive actions to keep coronavirus out of our plant and keep this critical infrastructure facility operational.”

The shutdown is the latest blow to the nation’s meatpacking industry that’s struggling to contain the spread of the coronavirus among its workers and spurring concerns of a shortfall in pork and beef at grocery stores. Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s biggest pork producer, indefinitely shut down a slaughter plant in South Dakota last week after hundreds of workers tested positive for COVID-19. The plant typically accounted for 4% to 5% of total hog processing in the U.S. Worker deaths have been reported at Tyson Foods Inc. pork plant in Iowa, the company’s poultry plant in Georgia, and at a Cargill Inc. plant in Colorado.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said April 17 workers from the Minnesota pork plant and a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., could be transferring the virus between the two facilities as there are a lot of family members that work in both plants. JBS’ Worthington facility is tied for third in total U.S. hog slaughter capacity, based on Steiner Consulting data. The facility employs 2,000 people and processes 20,000 hogs per day, according to the company statement.

There are reports of other major hog, cattle and poultry processing plants dealing with cases of the coronavirus among their workforce and whether they can continue to stay open will depend on the scale of the outbreak, according to a April 20 livestock report from the CME Group. The disease is impacting the entire supply chain, and as plants work at reduced capacity or are closed altogether, “this could result in less product available at the grocery store,” according to the report.

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