With the biggest outbreaks of Covid-19 in the state happening at meat processing plants and senior living facilities, several meat processors have shut down to prevent further community spread of the virus. But Tuesday night, President Donald Trump signed an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meat processing plants operating.
At a press conference in Worthington on Wednesday, Gov. Tim Walz voiced his support of the president’s order, but emphasized the need to ensure worker safety.
“The president was right in calling this as part of the National Defense Act,” Walz said. “This has to be a top priority. It is causing immense problems.”
Thousands of hogs are being euthanized because they can’t be processed and have nowhere else to go. Disposal of the dead hogs is also an issue, as the landfills don’t have the capacity for them. What’s more, composting has high costs for farmers, and mass burial poses a threat to contaminating the groundwater, said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee.
“Until the plants open, we have got to figure out a way to deal with these hogs that have no room, no place to be. And it is very difficult to do. It’s almost impossible to do out on the farm,” he said.
Another issue is that euthanization becomes expensive for farmers. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has the authority to pay to get rid of diseased animals, but not healthy animals, Peterson said.
The goal is to get the plants running with proper safety precautions.
“There are CDC guidelines that have been put out,” he said. “We didn’t have those guidelines until three days ago.”
Unions have responded to the federal executive order with demands for safe working conditions.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, representing 250,000 meatpacking and food processing workers nationwide, is calling for state governments to enforce not only the new CDC and Occupational Safety and Health Administration Guidelines, but also to apply additional protective measures.
The UFCW asked for the physical distancing measures to be enforced, and emphasized that barriers are not a substitute for distance. It also asks for respirators, testing, mandatory paid quarantine, and protection from retaliation.
“The surest way we get this economy going again is we make sure people feel safe and secure,” Walz said. “No executive order is going to get these hogs processed if these people are sick.”
He said efforts are focused on protecting both the food supply chain and the workers.
“I know this is an unpleasant conversation for producers. It’s an unpleasant conversation for Minnesotans who don’t understand a lot about what happens with these hogs and how close they move. But it’s one we have to have,” Walz said.
Currently, Nobles County, which has a population of 21,629, has 615 confirmed cases of Covid-19, compared to Ramsey County, population 550,321, with 332 confirmed cases.
“The number of people who have Covid-19 in Nobles County is the equivalent New York City, per capita,” Peterson said. “And it’s more in the community because of the plant. And that’s part of the issue.”
On Thursday, the governor will provide an update on his latest stay-at-home order, which expires May 4. The Star Tribune reported that he’s expected to relax some restrictions.