Last Wednesday, at the invitation of House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, I went to Worthington, Minnesota to participate in a press conference to focus attention on the current crisis in the pork industry that has been caused by the temporary closure of processing plants in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Producers throughout the Midwest are being faced with the nightmare of having to euthanize perhaps 1.25 million, or likely more, healthy, market-ready hogs. Chairman Peterson is a good friend, and I am grateful that he requested my assistance to help him with the public messaging effort.
The pork processing crisis, and the euthanization of healthy hogs, is a nightmare scenario I never thought I would see happen in the United States of America. To help visualize the scope of the problem, these euthanized hogs laid end-to-end would stretch down the Southbound lane of I-35 from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Dallas, Texas.
Fortunately, President Trump has taken a timely and correct act to help ensure the security of the nation’s food supply network. I commend him for having invoked the Defense Production Act to keep processing plants open. His actions will help ensure the continued supply of pork, beef, and poultry to the American people. Under the President’s order, “the Department of Agriculture is directed to ensure America’s meat and poultry processors continue operations uninterrupted to the maximum extent possible.” In addition, “to ensure worker safety, these processors will continue to follow the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).” I’ve been working with the White House and through the USDA with our pork producers to get this done, and I am pleased the President has moved forward with it.
Speaking of President Trump, I have also asked him to send every packing plant all the testing and PPE needed to ensure the maximum safety of our workers. I met with United Food and Commercials Workers Local 663 President Matt Utecht, and the requests that he made to me for worker safety (temperature checks, testing for the virus and antibodies, PPE’s, slowing lines for social distancing, isolating sick workers) are all doable and reasonable. I encourage the President to take the steps that will give our workers confidence to resume their jobs at these plants.
Keeping processing plants open is an important issue, and not just for the pork producers. I dread the prospect that the same kind of scenario could play out in the cattle industry as well. We must keep our plants open, our workers protected, and our producers in business!
It is important that we develop a strong Federal response to the pork processing crisis. There is a three part strategy we need to implement to do this correctly. This includes ensuring the employees have the confidence to work in the plants through testing, providing them with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and determining what additional federal resources it will take to keep our producers in business.
I would also like to take a moment to praise the “Pass the Pork” initiative that the Governor and the Iowa Department of Agriculture has announced. This program allows pork producers to donate hogs to food banks throughout Iowa. Instead of the hogs being wasted, hungry families in our state will be fed with the best pork in the world. I salute our state officials for developing this commonsense program, and I encourage interested parties to visit the Iowa Department of Agriculture’s website for more information.
It was a sad mission that I had to undertake to Worthington, MN. With focused responses, however, we can ensure our food supply chain remains strong, our workers are protected, and that our producers remain in business.