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JBS shuts major U.S. pork plant due to coronavirus, tightening meat supply

CHICAGO, April 20 (Reuters) - JBS USA said on Monday it would indefinitely shut a Minnesota hog slaughterhouse that produces about 5% of the country's pork, in the latest disruption to the U.S. food supply chain from the coronavirus pandemic.

The closure limits the amount of meat the United States can produce for consumers during the outbreak and adds stress on farmers who are losing a market for their pigs.

JBS is closing a pork production facility in Worthington, Minnesota, that employs more than 2,000 workers and processes 20,000 hogs per day, according to a statement. It advised plant employees to follow a state order to stay at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, until the facility in Nobles County reopens.

"It is clear that the disease is far more widespread across the U.S. and in our county than official estimates indicate based on limited testing," said Bob Krebs, president of JBS USA Pork.

The U.S. government has deemed agricultural workers to be essential during the pandemic because they are responsible for maintaining the country's food supply. The Worthington facility will wind down operations over the next two days with a reduced staff so pork that is already in the facility can be "used to support the food supply," Brazilian-owned JBS said.

Rivals Tyson Foods Inc and WH Group Ltd's Smithfield Foods have already closed pork plants due to outbreaks of the contagious respiratory virus among employees. JBS and National Beef Packing Company have shut beef plants.

Meat companies have struggled as workers have stayed home out of fear of contracting the virus at plants.

Processors are taking employees' temperatures before they enter facilities and have installed dividers between workers in an attempt to promote social distancing.

"When COVID-19 is prevalent in the community, fear is heightened, absenteeism rises and the challenge of keeping the virus out becomes greater," JBS said. "When absenteeism levels become too high, facilities cannot safely operate." (Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Tom Brown)