Columnist Claire Morenon: Coronavirus exposes bleak truths about the national meat industry

Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 31, 2020

The news from meat processing plants around the country is dire. In April, reports of coronavirus outbreaks among slaughterhouse workers started to emerge. By the end of the month, 3,300 workers had confirmed cases of coronavirus and 17 had died.

Meat production was down 25% as 30 of the biggest meat processing plants in the country temporarily shut their doors.

A month later, the number of coronavirus cases linked to meatpacking plants has surged to 15,800. About half of the plants that closed in April have reopened in response to an executive order that classified meat processing as an essential piece of our nation’s infrastructure, and now four of those plants have seen renewed outbreaks, representing more than 700 positive cases.

This story is far from over — many more people will fall ill and die, and the effects on our nation’s meat supply and farmers are still unfolding. Even so, the events of the past two months reveal dark truths about the meat industry in the United States, from terrible working conditions to the inherent fragility of a centralized, just-in-time system.

Americans eat more meat than any other country, and the cost of meat in the United States is among the most affordable in the world. That affordability is due to bleak changes in meat production over the last century: the introduction of inhumane factory farms, dangerous working conditions on very fast-paced processing lines, and consolidation of meat processing that funnels most of our nation’s meat supply through just a handful of massive plants and corporations.

Many of the real costs of producing inexpensive meat are borne by the animals, the workers, and the environment.

Meatpacking plants have long been among the most dangerous workplaces in the country, staffed largely by immigrant and refugee workers who are especially vulnerable to workplace abuses. Workers have reported that their employers were negligent about worker safety in the face of this pandemic, with deadly results. As plants reopen and they face pressure to return to work, workers and their advocates are sounding the alarm about poorly enforced safety measures and insufficient sick leave policies.

The shutdowns, a necessary measure, have broken the meat production chain in unprecedented ways. The first plant to close, a Smithfield pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, usually processes 5% of the nation’s pork supply, or about 20,000 hogs per day. The National Pork Producers Council estimates that nationally, there’s a backlog of 170,000 hogs per day because of plant closures, and over 10 million hogs will need to be euthanized as farms become overcrowded and the animals grow too large for processing facilities to manage.

Consumers are starting to see the effects of these interruptions. While we have not yet experienced widespread meat shortages, meat prices rose by 8.1% in April, and retailers have reported reduced meat deliveries.

Coronavirus cases linked to workers at the Sioux Falls plant represent 29% of all coronavirus cases in South Dakota, and cases linked to meat workers represent 18% of the cases in Iowa and 20% of the cases in Nebraska. This is the rub: the scale of meat production, concentrated in massive plants crowded with thousands of workers, accelerated the spread of the virus.

And at the same time, that same scale and concentration means that closing just a handful of facilities has enormous effects on our nation’s food supply. This raises the stakes on both sides of the issue and pits food production against worker safety in ways that wouldn’t be so devastating in a more decentralized system.

What does all this look like for meat producers in Massachusetts? Local meat production is uninterrupted, and, anecdotally, demand for local meat is up. In some ways, Massachusetts farms are distinct from the problematic national industry in that they don’t use the factory farming techniques seen elsewhere and local processing facilities are much more humane — and that’s part of why local meat can cost more.

Still, while the scale is miniscule in comparison, our region isn’t immune to some of the same bottlenecks that have stressed the national system. Farms can’t instantaneously produce more animals, and we have a limited number of federally-inspected slaughterhouses in the region which have slowed production in order to implement necessary safety measures. This is a moment that could provide a boost for local meat production, but local farms and processing plants need to be able to count on sustained demand in order to make the investments in more livestock, equipment, and staff training required to maintain an increase.

COVID-19, for all its devastation, holds up a mirror to the inequities and social vulnerabilities that we have accepted for too long. The cruelty and instability of the national meat industry is on full display, and people are responding by seeking out localized, more humane alternatives. More than ever, it’s time to support local producers as they continue to put food on local plates — and to let them know we’ll still have their backs when this crisis has passed.

Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).