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Covid – how cynicism and greed show up the US food system for what it is: broken and deadly

‘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 ‘essential infrastructure’.

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 trouble.”

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.

Beef producers 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


The Slow Food blog welcomes contributions on the topics of Food, Farming and Agriculture. The contents may not entirely match the views of Slow Food, but reflect the journeys of the authors. To write for us please click here

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