What Minnesota is doing to protect the integrity of our food supply

Published 7:01 am Wednesday, April 29, 2020

We are facing an unprecedented public health crisis, and farmers are in increasingly dire straits. Difficult and often heartbreaking decisions are being made these days, whether it’s managing livestock and animals or planning for spring planting. There are no easy answers right now, but there are many individuals working around the clock to help, whether it’s the Legislature, the terrific staff at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, or staff at ag institutions like the Minnesota Farmers Union and Minnesota Farm Bureau.

Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into question the integrity of our food systems, which could be at risk if we fail to protect workers in processing plants and distribution hubs. South Dakota is home to the nation’s largest pork processing plant, and because the governor did not take this threat seriously or take immediate action to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Smithfield pork factory in Sioux Falls has shut its doors indefinitely. This is devastating for rural communities, and Minnesota is taking swift preventative actions to ensure we don’t repeat the mistakes made in South Dakota.

Here in Minnesota, public health officials took immediate action when they observed a growing hotspot in Worthington, which very likely began at the JBS processing plant, the largest in our state. The plant voluntarily shut down operations and began partnering directly with county and state health officials to contain the spread of the virus. Thankfully, workers are still receiving paychecks while following Minnesota’s stay at home order.

Other meatpacking plants in Minnesota, including the Comfrey Farm Prime Pork plant in Windom, have temporarily closed to work with the departments of agriculture and labor and industry to establish protocols and guidelines that keep workers, and our food, safe and healthy. Our outstanding commissioners Thom Peterson and Nancy Leppink are taking smart action to make sure Minnesota can be a national model for protecting this critical industry. New guidelines include screenings for employees and visitors; robust cleaning and disinfecting of work areas; maintaining proper social distancing; requiring workers to use personal protective equipment; and allowing employees to work from home whenever possible.

Here in Austin, we are proud to be home to Hormel Foods, who take their role in the food supply chain as serious business. There is no doubt, workers’ safety and good health is a top priority. It is in all of our best interests to do everything possible to protect local jobs and economic security for our workforce.

A significant aspect of the food supply chain, our farmers, must also be kept in mind as they are under tremendous stress, making decisions that can dramatically impact their ability to maintain their family’s livelihood. We owe them our gratitude and acknowledgment for all they are doing to keep food in our stores and on our tables.

Thanks to the cooperation and collaboration of many different people, Minnesota is in a better position to help farmers, food processors, and our distribution infrastructure navigate the economic uncertainty we’re feeling right now. There is more work to do, and I invite you to contact me with your ideas and stories for how we can continue making improvements. You can send an email to rep.jeanne.poppe@house.mn or call my office and leave a voicemail at 651-296-4193.