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JBS reopens U.S. pork plant to put down pigs, dispose of carcasses, not produce meat

CHICAGO, April 29 (Reuters) - Meat producer JBS said on Wednesday it was reopening a Minnesota pork plant shuttered by the pandemic to euthanize up to 13,000 pigs a day for farmers, not to produce meat for consumers.

U.S. farmers have been forced to cull livestock as they run short of space to house animals after some of the largest U.S. slaughterhouses closed due to outbreaks of the coronavirus among workers.

JBS said it will need only 10 to 20 employees of the 2,000 workers at its Worthington, Minnesota, plant to manage the "humane euthanasia" of pigs, reducing the risk for the virus to spread. Hog carcasses will be rendered, sent to landfills, composted or buried, JBS said.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to mandate meat plants continue to function during the pandemic after warnings of looming shortages.

"Recent U.S. pork plant closures and reduced production levels at pork processing facilities across the country have left American producers with few options," JBS USA said in a statement. "Humane depopulation and proper disposal is the unfortunate last resort for some producers."

The JBS Worthington plant stopped operations on April 20 to curb the spread of coronavirus. It processed 20,000 hogs per day.

U.S. Rep Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said on a webcast that the plant started euthanizing about 3,000 pigs on Wednesday. The number is “not adequate but it's better than nothing,” he said.

"It’s not as many hogs as we thought but it's working," Peterson said. "Now we're out of trucks."

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz said shuttered plants need to reopen to feed the country and the only way to do that is to ensure worker safety.

"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," he said on the webcast.

Following Trump's executive order, Smithfield Foods, the world's top pork producer, said it was evaluating reopening its shuttered plants and Tyson Foods said it would work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Smithfield has reduced operations at the world's biggest pork plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, according to a person in contact with the company and information from the Pork Checkoff. Smithfield did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Unions have said personal protective equipment and coronavirus tests must be available for workers and social distancing must be practiced at the plants.

Peterson said the JBS plant in Worthington will not be able to produce as much pork as before when it reopens as employees will be more spaced out. (Reporting by Tom Polansek; Writing by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by David Gregorio)