‘Social distancing is our way of life’, joked
a farmer from the US state of Nebraska on Facebook. But what may be true for
farmers certainly doesn’t apply to workers in slaughter facilities and meat
packing plants who work standing shoulder to shoulder. Few have protective
equipment, and with water and steam everywhere, masks would be useless within
minutes. In some factories plastic screens have been put in place, but these
are the exemptions. More than 5,000 workers in meat plants have tested positive
for Covid, 20 have died – and both figures will have significantly increased by
the time you read this. Why? President Trump has just signed an executive
order, compelling meat processors to remain open because they are considered
At present 16 meat plants are still closed,
but the executive order overrides state officials who ordered the shutdown,
because Covid infections had gotten out of control. It’s worth looking at the
numbers – the numbers of workers employed in these factories as well as the
number of animals they slaughter: JBS US closed its beef facility in Greely,
Colorado where 6,000 employees used to slaughter 5,400 heads of cattle a day.
On April, 20th, JBS announced the closure of its pork production
plant in Worthington, Minnesota, where 2,000 workers usually process 20,000
pigs a day. Tyson Foods closed plants in Iowa and Nebraska, National Beef shut
down its packing unit in Iowa, and a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls in South
Dakota became the largest Covid hotspot in the US: Out of 3,700 employees, 16
percent tested positive. The eight-story facility, which normally operates
around the clock, produces about 5 percent of all pork in the US.
According to the US Department of Agriculture,
USDA, due to Covid related issues, the number of cattle slaughtered has gone
down by 30 percent, the number of pigs by 40 percent.
Why does this matter? Because the meat
processors work very to increase the speed of production – to the detriment of
workers. Once the animals are killed they are moved through the processing
facility on an assembly line where workers remove entrails, cut, slice, and
pack at lightning speed. For years, the processors have fought for further increases in line speeds;
several companies got waivers from the USDA which allowed them to raise the
line speed from 140 to 175 birds a minute in poultry plants, pork plants with
an exemption are allowed to go beyond the maximum of 1,106 animals per hour. Both
types of waivers are being contested in court by workers’ rights’ and food
safety advocates, because the risk of serious injuries has significantly increased.
But in April alone, in the middle of the pandemic, the USDA relaxed the line speed regulation for 15
chicken plants. So, instead of slowing the lines down to give workers more
space and protect them, in some facilities the opposite is happening.
Several companies have offered cash
premiums to workers who don’t take leave until June. For many that will be an
offer they can’t afford to refuse. Workers in meat processing plants are very
often (legal or illegal) migrants, or they are in the US on a limited work
visa. Reportedly, 80 different languages were spoken at the Smithfield plant in
Sioux Falls. Most workers live in cramped conditions and are under huge
pressure to continue working in order not to lose their jobs. Many will be
reluctant to seek medical help, because it’s not just their livelihood that is at stake: many support families in their
home countries through remittances, and losing their jobs could get them
evicted from their homes which would leave them and their families destitute,
starving and at risk of deportation. According to POLITICO, President Trump told reporters the executive order would
shield meatpacking companies against legal complaints from workers who claim
they’re not being adequately protected from the virus. In the middle of
this pandemic, it is the poorest of the poor Trump is forcing to continue
working under dangerous conditions and with inadequate or no protection.
The Corona virus is now also spreading
into the processed food sector, where more and more workers producing frozen
dinners, baked goods and dairy products are starting to test positive. So,
watch this space…
The US government considers meat plants
‘essential infrastructure’ – the question is: essential for whom? The industry
started warning about possible meat shortages in supermarkets as early as May.
At present there are 2,5 billion pounds (1,3 billion kg) of red meat and
chicken in storage facilities – that is a lot of food! And because of the
lockdown that is in force in most states, the demand by caterers, hotels,
restaurants, and fast food chains has dropped to almost zero. In fact,
vegetable growers have ploughed under millions of tons of produce, and dairy
farmers have to pour milk down the drain because nobody wants it.
Slaughter facilities are definitely essential
for farmers, ranchers, and chicken producers who are suffering immense financial
losses at present. According to the New York Times (NYT), there are now only
about 800 federally inspected slaughterhouses left in the US. In the cattle
industry, 98 percent of slaughter is being done in just 50 plants. “Slaughterhouses are a critical bottleneck in the
system,” the NYT quotes Julie Niederhoff, an associate professor of supply
chain management at Syracuse University. “When they go down, we are in
In meat production time is of the essence. To stay
profitable, a pig farmer will have a new batch of weaners scheduled to arrive, immediately
replacing the pigs he just delivered to slaughter. Margins are extremely tight,
no producer can afford additional feed costs and there is absolutely no space
to keep animals in the barns for longer – which leaves no choice but to
euthanize them. Chuck Grassley, a senator for Iowa, and several of his
colleagues have written to Vice President Mike Pence, demanding that farmers should
be compensated if they have to euthanize animals. Farmers in Iowa keep 24.6
million pigs, the state produces a third of all pork in the US. Grassley
estimates that nation-wide 700,000 pigs a week will have to be euthanized if
slaughter facilities remain closed and production speed is reduced.
are not under as much time pressure as pig and chicken producers, but they,
too, are losing money because beef prices have crashed – if ranchers can still
find a buyer at all, they will still be losing money on each sale.
None of this
would be much of an issue if farmers
and ranchers still had the option to choose between several small, local
abattoirs, if there still was a local marketing infrastructure, if farmers
could still deliver to independent grocery stores instead of a few, all
powerful supermarket chains… The Ccovid crisis is proof for what we have
known for a long time: the food system is broken.
And that brings us back to the fate of the workers now forced to stick it out in the processing plants. Even if they had health insurance, which many don’t, they are unlikely to get much health care. The hospital in Grand Island (Nebraska’s fourth largest city) is already overwhelmed by Covid patients. Which isn’t surprising, rural America was facing a healthcare crisis long before the virus struck. One in four rural hospitals was set to close. And now, many administrators are facing stark choices: the rural population in general, and farmers in particular, tend to be older, poorer, and therefore more at risk. Many don’t have healthcare. In order to prepare for a surge in Covid patients, elective surgeries have been cancelled, which puts even more strain on hospitals’ profitability. Administrators now have to decide whether they are going to spend money on masks and gowns – or on the payroll. And though social distancing may be a way of life in rural America, farmers could be more at risk, not just because of their age, but because they are more likely to suffer from respiratory diseases, caused by dust and exposure to pesticide drift. Our current food system relies on industrial agriculture, the corona virus has shown both to be potentially deadly.
Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel Images used with kind consent @M.Kunz
Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel
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