FF Peterson and Perdue (copy)

Congressman Collin Peterson (left), Chairman of the House Ag Committee sat next to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (middle) on the FarmFest 2018 stage. 

Government officials said this week they expect packing plants closed due to the COVID-19 crisis to reopen soon and to be able to operate in a way that is safer for workers, many of whom have tested positive for the virus.

U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., spoke on April 29 in Worthington, Minnesota, where a JBS packing plant was shut down due to an outbreak of COVID-19 among workers. In a press conference broadcast online, Peterson said, “I think we are on a path to getting this thing resolved.”

Peterson said he hopes that increased testing and better safety provisions for workers will help resolve the situation at the packing plants. And he said he expects the plants to reopen but with workers likely spaced farther apart and with line speeds likely reduced.

“If we open up, we’re not going to be shoulder-to-shoulder,” he said.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz agreed, saying that “at the end of the day, the workers have got to be protected.”

President Donald Trump signed an executive order late April 28 to keep packing plants open. Both Walz and Peterson said they had been talking with the USDA and with each other in efforts to deal with the plant closures and the resulting challenges facing farmers. Some farmers have been forced to euthanize pigs because they have no room in their buildings and no place to market the animals.

Peterson said one problem has been that USDA cannot pay farmers for euthanizing healthy animals. He said APHIS can pay to get rid of diseased animals, but not healthy ones. That issue may need to be addressed by Congress or by USDA officials.

“We’ve got to change the statute,” he said, adding that “we’re going to do it.”

Walz added that guidance is needed to be able to dispose of dead animals properly.

“It would be incredibly irresponsible of us if we contaminate the groundwater doing this,” the governor said.

Peterson also said an additional problem was that some funding included in the recently passed coronavirus aid package could not be used until July 1. That money needs to be available now, he said.

The conference was interrupted briefly by protestors honking horns outside the building to interrupt the discussion, pointing out just how much concern there is about worker safety at the livestock packing plants, which have joined nursing homes as epicenters of COVID-19 in some parts of the country.

Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.