While the COVID-19 pandemic served as a wake-up call to businesses far and wide, it created serious threats to the food industry from farm to table.

So recent state efforts to expand and diversify the meat packing industry offer a way to prevent the wholesale unnecessary killing of hogs and turkeys, but also foster economic development in rural areas.

COVID outbreaks at packing plants caused them to shut down for several weeks at a time last year and hog farmers, who must bring their hogs to market at a specific weight and time, were left euthanizing them. Industry experts says some 450,000 hogs in Minnesota had to be put down, according to a report in MinnPost. Thousands of turkeys faced the same fate.

And Minnesota’s economy suffered in consequence. Minnesota is the number two hog-producing state and the number one turkey-producing state.

But a new initiative to help subsidize and develop new, smaller, more agile meat processing plants offers hope to prevent further COVID-induced shutdowns.

Farmers don’t have a lot of choice when selling their hogs in Minnesota. About 10 large packing plants take 85 percent of the state’s hogs, according to Dave Preisler, CEO of the Minnesota Pork Board, based in Mankato.

But a new plan to help fund and develop smaller plants shows promise as both Republicans and Democrats in the Minnesota Legislature back the idea. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has already been working with smaller meat processors to expand. They’ve set up a grant program for the processors to buy equipment for expansion and they’ve fast-tracked the approval process for slightly larger mid-sized plants from months to a few weeks. They’ve also assigned experts to help the plants expand, according to the MinnPost report.

MDA helped expand the so-called smaller “equal to” plants by 20 percent across the state since the pandemic began. Other plants, called “custom exempt” plants, who sell directly from farmers to consumers, also grew in number from 227 to 243.

Gov. Tim Walz was expected to provide proposals for boosting local meat processing businesses in his two-year budget request. Republicans are talking about reducing regulations to get plants up and running.

New and expanded processing plants could serve as major local employers in rural areas of the state, so any plan for expansion is a win-win.

We urge legislators and the governor to work together on a plan to expand meat processing, thereby diversifying a business we all rely on and preventing the unfathomable waste of livestock and food.

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