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Coronavirus: No pork at grocery stores in 3 weeks? 'Maybe that'll wake people up'

A major reality check for how hard the pandemic is hitting pork producers.

America's pork industry has been hit so hard by coronavirus outbreaks that grocery store shelves could be void of pork products in less than a month. 

The reality check was dealt to the public by U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson in a joint press conference with Gov. Tim Walz at the COVID-19-afflicted JBS USA pork plant in Worthington, Minnesota, which has seen approximately 500 employees test positive for the virus. 

"I think it's probably hard for somebody that thinks their food comes from the grocery store. That's a big problem, not only with hogs but everything else in this country. Unfortunately, if we don't get this thing solved, people are going to find out," said the 7th District Congresman, who is the Chair of the House Committee on Agriculture.

"We're about three weeks away from not having pork on the shelves in the grocery store. Maybe that will wake people up. 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 we can depend on for national security. If people don't have food, we're going to have riots."

The harrowing comments come less than 24 hours after President Donald Trump enacted the Defense Production Act to require meat plants to stay open despite numerous outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers. 

But with JBS being one of a handful of meat plants in Minnesota dealing with outbreaks, state leaders say workers won't go back until they're assured conditions are safe. 

"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 rights. 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," said Gov. Walz. 

The outbreak at JBS is the main culprit behind the 615 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Nobles County, which ranks second in the state only to Hennepin County.

Nobles County is home to just over 22,000 residents compared to nearly 1.6 million people living in Hennepin County. 

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"This is not a false choice. We can and will and you should expect that we will protect those workers, get this plant up and running and get those pigs processed," said Walz. 

JBS, home to around 2,000 employees, is in the process of creating a reopening plan that will allow all employees to be tested. Those who test positive will be the subject of thorough contact tracing and safe isolation to prevent further spread of the virus. 

At the plant, it'll be mandatory to maintain clean workspaces and social distancing. The measures are expected to result in reduction in how many hogs the plant can process each day, going from 21,000 to an unknown number. 

"I think the biggest problem in these plants is getting the workers to be willing to come back. They've gotta feel like they're safe. We've gotta make sure that anybody that comes into that plant we know they've tested antibodies or they've tested free of the coronavirus," said Peterson.

"Set the conditions in there so they're not standing next to each other. We're working all that out. At the end of the day, the workers are going to have to be protected in order to open this plant." 

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An estimated 160,000 hogs are being euthanized daily across the country because of shutdowns. At JBS, around 3,000 hogs are euthanized each day, Peterson said. 

1st District Rep. Jim Hagedorn said some farmers in southern Minnesota have gone from being hopeful six weeks ago to now being "at the brink of extinction." The cause is a result of livestock demand dropping like a rock as the state closed down restaurants in a move to buy the state's healthcare system time to prepare for the peak of the pandemic.

"That cut the demand, and when that happened the price for pork and cattle went through the floor and our farmers were hurting. But now with production plants being down and the disruptions there, it's made it all the worse," said Hagedorn. 

"Keep in mind for our farmers that we've had five years of troubled time before this happened," said Thom Peterson, commissioner of the state agriculture department. "To have this happen to our producers is really a gut punch." 

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