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Covid-19: How the meat industry became a global health liability

Butchers work in the Hasenheide slaughterhouse in Fuerstenfeldbruck, Germany, January 28, 2019.
Butchers work in the Hasenheide slaughterhouse in Fuerstenfeldbruck, Germany, January 28, 2019. © Michaela Rehle, Reuters

From South Dakota to Brazil to Germany, meat processing workers around the world have been among the hardest hit by Covid-19. Will the pandemic force us to rethink our food system?

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It started in South Dakota. On March 25, even as some of the biggest US cities were just going into lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19, a worker at a pork processing plant in the city of Sioux Falls (pop. 181,000) tested positive for the virus. Some at the plant suspected it wasn’t the first case.

Smithfield, the company operating the facility and largest pork producer in the world, quickly confirmed the March 25 case but said it would continue operations as usual. Three weeks later, the Sioux Falls plant had become the United States’ largest Covid-19 hotspot, with 644 of its 3,700 employees infected. More than half of all the cases in South Dakota could be traced back to the plant.

But it didn’t stop there. From Mississippi to Washington, Texas to Nebraska, one state after another reported outbreaks in beef, pork and poultry plants. Most had lockdown orders in place; a few, like South Dakota, did not, but it made little difference for meatpacking workers, who were considered “essential” and therefore still expected to show up for work.

As of May 22, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network, more than 17,000 US meatpacking workers at 220 facilities have caught the virus, and 66 have died.

Many of these workers also brought the virus home to their families and communities, fuelling the spread of Covid-19. According to unions and employees themselves, they were given little choice. With wages averaging around $15 an hour at facilities like the Sioux Falls Smithfield plant, many workers live pay check to pay check, and would not be eligible for unemployment benefits if they quit.

Moreover, Smithfield workers say they were given incentives to keep working even if they were sick, including a $500 “responsibility bonus” promised to those who finished all of their shifts in April. (The company says all of its hourly workers were eligible for the bonus, including those “who miss[ed] work due to Covid-19 exposure or diagnosis”.)

Workers also say they were provided with insufficient protective equipment, despite union representatives raising concerns about Covid-19 contamination as early as the beginning of March, according to the BBC.

The risks faced by these workers highlight the profound inequalities cutting across the Covid-19 crisis not just in the United States, but worldwide. From Iowa to India, low-wage, often migrant workers have borne the brunt of both the deadly virus and the economic toll of lockdowns.

Meat processing plants illustrate this trend in particularly stark terms. Over the last month, the kinds of Covid-19 clusters first seen at facilities in the US Midwest and South have cropped up in Brazil, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom and France.

At a single Cargill beef processing plant in the Canadian province of Alberta, 949 of about 2,000 employees were infected with the virus and two died. In Canada as in the United States, meatpacking plants are staffed primarily by immigrants and in many cases refugees. Many have fled wars and other threats in countries ranging from Ethiopia to El Salvador to Vietnam, and some speak little English.

In Germany and France, slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants were among the first Covid-19 clusters to emerge as lockdown measures began to ease in early May. Germany’s meat industry, too, is heavily dependent on migrant labour: according to unions, about 80% of employees are temporary workers, mostly from Romania, Poland, Bulgaria and other countries in Eastern and Southern Europe.

Workers ‘as expendable as the things they’re slaughtering’

Why, then, has the meat industry been so hard hit by Covid-19?

“The one-word answer is monopoly,” says Raj Patel, a research professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin and expert on the global food system. “Across the world, the meat industry has been tending towards just a few large players.”

Patel points to a 2016 report by the United States Department of Agriculture showing that the four largest meatpacking companies “account for nearly 70 percent of the value of all US livestock purchased for slaughter, compared to just 26 percent in 1980".

In other major meat-producing countries, too, the industry is highly concentrated: for example, a 2011 study by the European Federation of Trade Unions in the Food, Agriculture and Tourism found that in France, Germany and the UK, the top five beef and poultry producers accounted for a large majority of their respective markets.

Patel says the Covid-19 outbreaks seen in so many meat processing plants are an “object lesson” in what happens when industries consolidate, “which is that in order to survive, everyone else has had to follow the kinds of practices that the largest players have adopted”.

“Those practices in the meat industry are around people and machines being very close to one another,” he continues. “So the carcasses fly through the line very quickly.”

The faster animal carcasses move along the production line, the closer together workers need to be, putting them at high risk of infection from airborne virus particles. Some experts have suggested that the cold, humid, enclosed conditions in meat facilities could also be a factor, though this remains unconfirmed.

Patel says that, while worker safety protocols and “line speeds” may vary from country to country, the standards set by the largest companies are increasingly becoming the global norm.

Furthermore, he says, working conditions in the meat industry can be substandard even in countries like France and Germany, where workers in other industries benefit from above-average labour rights.

“Actually, German poultry line speeds are much faster than in the United States,” he says. Moreover, the German meat industry relies heavily on subcontracting, with third-party companies responsible for hiring foreign workers on temporary contracts and in some cases lodging them in cramped dorms. Critics say these practices allowed the heavily immigrant workforce to be exploited, while shielding larger companies from accountability.

In such environments, Patel says, “workers are considered as expendable as the things that they’re slaughtering” — even in countries like Germany, which have otherwise largely kept Covid-19 in check.

“It is in the sites where expendable life is to be found that you see the worst effects of industrial monopoly concentration in the meat industry,” Patel adds.

Calls for a more sustainable food system

As the Covid-19 pandemic has put the meat industry in the international spotlight, some have proposed a simple solution: eat less meat. Patel agrees that a drastic reduction in meat consumption is key to “any sustainable future” for the food system, both for workers and the environment, but says calls to simply go vegetarian or vegan are only a “partial answer” to the problems the pandemic has highlighted.

He emphasises the need to listen to demands from food workers themselves when charting the transition to a more sustainable food system.

In some cases, that might in fact mean boycotting meat. In the US, a coalition led by Latino workers in Iowa — one of the states where the meat industry has been hardest hit by Covid-19 — issued a call for a nationwide “Meatless May” to protest against “unforgivable” conditions in meatpacking facilities.

Another US labour advocacy group, the Food Chain Workers Alliance, has issued a list of five steps that citizens can take to support at-risk workers, including putting pressure on both corporations and elected officials to guarantee sick pay, health care, the right to organize and other protections.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a more modest list of recommendations: screen workers for symptoms; increase space between workers (notably by reducing the “rate of animal processing”); enhance cleaning and disinfection; and provide multilingual education and training.

Under popular pressure following the recent outbreaks, the German government has gone further, announcing reforms to the industry including €30,000 fines for health and safety violations and a ban on subcontracting, effective in January 2021.

In France, the Confédération Paysanne farmers’ union has called for a return to smaller-scale, local meat production. In a statement this week, the group said: “The re-localisation of (meat) processing is one of the necessary steps towards a more resilient system.”

The European Commission has echoed some of these proposals in its Farm to Fork Strategy, also published this week as part of its roadmap for the continent-wide Green Deal announced in January. The Commission says it plans to promote “shorter supply chains” in order “to enhance resilience of regional and local food systems”.

The Farm to Fork Strategy also calls explicitly for reducing consumption of meat: “Moving to a more plant-based diet with less red and processed meat and with more fruits and vegetables will reduce not only risks of life-threatening diseases, but also the environmental impact of the food system.”

Patel says that these are all important steps, but stresses that there are no easy fixes, and that improving conditions in the food industry will also ultimately mean paying more for food.

“Small-scale farming is part of it, but so is well-paid migrant labour, and so are dignified wages for everyone,” so that food produced under fair conditions is affordable to all, he says. He says workers in the meat industry deserve a “just transition” to a more sustainable system, as has been proposed for those working in fossil fuels.

Patel adds that this is a rare opportunity to begin that transition.

“This is a moment to pivot,” he says. “If ever you wanted a time where sustainable food systems were imaginable, where you had the labour force ready to engage in sustained transformation… now is the moment to do it.”

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