WORTHINGTON — The process of euthanizing market-weight hogs began Wednesday morning at the JBS pork processing facility in Worthington, but at a far lower capacity than the 13,000 estimated to be handled by the plant.
Minnesota 7th District Congressman Collin Peterson shared the news during a press conference Wednesday afternoon alongside Gov. Tim Walz, 1st District Rep. Jim Hagedorn, Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen and Board of Animal Health State Veterinarian Beth Thompson inside a hangar at the Worthington Municipal Airport.
During the nearly hour-long event, at which multiple state and regional media outlets were in attendance, Peterson said JBS was likely able to euthanize 3,000 head daily. The company has 10 to 20 employees managing the process with federal, state and local veterinary officials.
The lower capacity of hogs being euthanized is due primarily to logistical issues — just one conveyor belt can be operated for the euthanization process, and once they are euthanized, there is one gravel conveyor to remove them from the building. Also, there is a lack of side-dump trucks to haul away the carcasses. At this time, the carcasses have to be hauled to a rendering plant in Sioux City, Iowa.
While rendering is the first — and at this time only — option available, other alternatives have been considered.
Rep. Peterson said they discussed digging 12-foot-deep trenches out by the Nobles County landfill to bury the hogs, but the high water table makes that not feasible. Another idea was to take the carcasses to the landfill, but the local landfill can only handle about 1,000 hog carcasses a day. The third option, which continues to be explored, is composting the carcasses on available land in the area.
In an interview following the press briefing, Thom Petersen said his department is searching for sites where hogs could be composted on the land with a mix of wood product (typically wood shavings) or biomass.
“They’re spread in furrows for 60 days and then they go out on the field as compost,” he explained, adding that the procedure has been done with large amounts of turkeys in the past.
“We’ve started the process of how we could do this quickly (and start) within the next week,” the ag commissioner said. “We haven’t quite got it together yet, but we’re trying to work with a lot of different partners to see if we can get that done.”
Handling hog carcasses isn’t just a local or regional problem. Rep. Peterson said across the country, 160,000 hogs will need to be euthanized each day until processing plants begin to reopen.
“We want this plant open and processing hogs,” he said in reference to JBS in Worthington. “We do not want to kill hogs.”
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue shared with Rep. Peterson in a Wednesday morning phone call that his No. 1 priority is to reopen JBS in Worthington, Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and a Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa. After Wednesday’s press conference, Rep. Peterson shared with The Globe that he anticipates JBS will reopen within a few days.
“(Perdue) pledged to me that they are going to do everything in their power to help us get this plant open and do whatever it takes,” Rep. Peterson added.
Multiple times during Wednesday’s event, both Rep. Peterson and Walz said the plant will not reopen until it's safe for employees to return to work. Since JBS voluntarily suspended operations April 20, the company has taken numerous steps to create a safer environment for workers, including spacing out work areas and installing shields.
“Until the plant gets open, we’ve got to figure out what to do with these hogs,” Peterson said. “It’s very difficult to do — almost impossible to do it out on the farm.”
As chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Peterson said, “This is not going to happen again on my watch. We are going to have a way to respond to emergencies.”
The next emergency could very well be the African Swine Fever, which has thus far been kept out of the United States.
“We’re not going to end up flat-footed like we were in this situation,” Rep. Peterson added.
One of the questions asked during Wednesday’s event was to explain to consumers why full-grown hogs are being euthanized.
With 70% of bacon consumption in the U.S. taking place in the restaurant industry — and with so many restaurants across the country temporarily shuttered due to COVID-19 and related state executive orders — Rep. Peterson said that market disappeared.
“They are destroying pork bellies because they have no one to use them,” he shared.
In addition, the pork industry is built on just-in-time production, meaning that when hogs leave the farm, new piglets are scheduled to arrive in the barns within days. With the shuttering of processing plants, the hogs need to move out to make room for the pigs.
“The problem is they’ve got these barns full and they don’t have any choice,” Rep. Peterson said of producers, adding that many have already been aborting sows, killing piglets and modifying diets in barns, and that’s still not enough.
For the consumer, the euthanization of hogs for an undetermined amount of time will lead to shortages of pork products in the grocery stores.
“We’re about three weeks away from not having any pork on the grocery shelves,” Rep. Peterson said. “It’s a national security issue. The U.S. has to have a food supply we can depend on. If we don’t have food, we’re going to have riots.”
As for financial resources for producers who have to euthanize animals, Rep. Peterson said he has sought aid through federal programs. Unlike the Avian Influenza that impacted Minnesota turkey growers several years ago, these hogs aren’t sick. Therefore, the program that paid turkey growers for their losses isn’t available to pork producers today.
“I wish I could tell you we have the money like we did with the turkeys,” he said, adding that Commodity Credit Corporation funds are depleted and, while more money was appropriated, it can’t be spent until July 1.
Thom Petersen said his office has been doing what it can at the state level for pork producers, including increasing purchases of protein for food banks, changing classifications of smaller processing plants to be able to process more hogs, and extending hours of service for livestock haulers.
“We are so incredibly grateful for the producers,” added Walz. “We know you are in a tough spot. This is financially draining.”
“No one wants to talk about humanely depopulating hogs,” he said, adding that reopening JBS in a safe manner is the top priority.