In this file:


·         It’s Still the Jungle Out There

More than a century after Upton Sinclair’s novel about exploitation in America’s meat industry, the coronavirus has revealed how little meatpacking has changed


·         We must end high-speed slaughter to protect workers, animals and food safety now

Suspending higher-speed slaughter systems would limit the spread of COVID-19 at American slaughterhouses, thereby protecting workers, animals, and consumers.



It’s Still the Jungle Out There

More than a century after Upton Sinclair’s novel about exploitation in America’s meat industry, the coronavirus has revealed how little meatpacking has changed


by Caleb Pershan, Eater  

May 13, 2020


Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson left the Tyson pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, in disgust. On April 10, after receiving complaints from workers and community members, he and local health officials inspected the facility, which is responsible for about 5 percent of total U.S. pork production, according to industry estimates. “We walked out of that plant tour knowing those complaints were valid,” says Thompson, who is also chair of the Black Hawk Emergency Management Commission. “They had a huge problem.”


On the factory floor, where 2,800 people slaughter, cut, and package 19,500 hogs a day, only a third of workers wore face coverings, Thompson says, some with bandanas and eye masks over their mouths instead of appropriate masks. “They thought they had three confirmed [COVID-19] cases out of that plant, but we knew they were in the double digits.”


Thompson and other elected officials urged Tyson to close the plant immediately for cleaning and test employees for COVID-19. “They didn’t take action,” he says. Now, 1,031 workers at the Waterloo plant have tested positive, and 1,703 cases total have been confirmed in Black Hawk County, including at a long-term care facility for the elderly. Twenty-six people have died. Thompson traces the outbreak to the Tyson plant, one of the county’s largest employers. “They blew a hole in our defensive line.”


For Thompson, as for many Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic is shining a bright light into one of the darkest recesses of the country’s food system: industrial meat processing, comprising slaughter and packing — an incredibly streamlined and consolidated industry controlled by a small number of companies and reliant on low-paid, immigrant labor. It’s dangerous work on a good day, with steadily increasing production speeds, injury rates twice the national average, and illness rates 15 times normal rates, according to the National Employment Law Project.


But COVID-19 has made matters much, much worse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4,913 cases of COVID-19 have been reported at 115 meat and poultry processing facilities in the U.S. as of April 30, and 20 workers have died of the disease. Data collected by the Food & Environment Reporting Network through May 12 puts the number of meatpacking worker deaths at 52 and the number of infected at more than 13,000.


The problems are partly of scale: The CDC points to “difficulties with workplace physical distancing and hygiene and crowded living and transportation conditions,” or thousands of workers laboring in tight quarters and living in small, rural communities. At another Tyson plant, in Perry, Iowa, 730 workers, or 58 percent of those tested, were positive for COVID-19, health officials said. In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, more than 900 COVID-19 cases stemmed from an outbreak at a single Smithfield Foods meat processing plant, according to health officials.


Some workers and union groups blame meatpacking companies for acting too slowly to address COVID-19 related safety concerns. “I felt like they didn’t start to take it seriously until we started getting cases in our town and in our plant,” said one meatpacking worker at a facility in Kansas, where masks weren’t implemented even after some workers tested positive for COVID-19, she says. Following a bout of chills and aches, the worker, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, also tested positive for COVID-19 last week. She’s now isolated, with pay, and recovering.


For longtime critics of America’s meat system, the current public scrutiny feels overdue. “The industrial meat system is about as nasty as you can get,” says Brent Young, whose Brooklyn butcher shop, the Meat Hook, was established in contrast to big meat — and is one of many small purveyors currently thriving even as major processors struggle. (Young, along with Meat Hook co-owner Ben Turley, is also the co-host of the Eater video series Prime Time). “I can’t say anything without recognizing that it’s incredibly sad that [this situation] is going to affect millions of animals and undocumented workers,” Young says. “But as for that supply chain being broken, all I can say is it’s about time.”




On April 22, Tyson finally closed its Waterloo plant, with company president Steve Stouffer saying that “protecting our team members is our top priority.” It’s just one of at least 22 U.S. meat and poultry processing plants that had closed due to COVID-19 cases by April 28, according to estimates from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.


Recent plant closures highlight the meat industry’s decades of consolidation into an oligopoly of four companies: Tyson, JBS (a subsidiary of a Brazilian company), Cargill, and Smithfield Foods (a subsidiary of a Chinese company). According to Cassandra Fish, an industry analyst and former Tyson risk management executive, about 50 meat processing plants are responsible for as much as 98 percent of all U.S. meat slaughter and processing. The arrangement has driven prices downward — meat prices in the EU were twice as high as of 2017 — but created a system that’s vulnerable to disturbances like COVID-19, says Christopher Leonard, author of The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business. “All these animals have to pass through an extremely narrow bottleneck.


“We used to think of this in terms of food-borne pathogens. We used to say, when you have these few plants, if you have a problem at one plant, it can have a cascading effect through the whole food system,” says Leonard. “Now [with COVID-19], this is triply true. If you shut down a single slaughterhouse, it knocks out a huge, measurable portion of the whole meat supply.”


The measure of the disruption is striking: As of the first week of May, pork production capacity was down 25 percent, and beef capacity was down 10 percent, according to the food workers’ union. Slaughter of both pork and cattle was down 30 percent year-over-year, according to livestock reports from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. All in all, Fish predicts, that’s likely to translate to a 20 to 25 percent reduction in the amount of available beef during what’s typically peak sales season, between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Pork supply could be down by 18 percent during that period, she anticipates.


Meat company executives sounded the alarm, warning the public of potential shortages. On April 27, Tyson chairman John Tyson took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, addressing plant closures in dire public health terms. “The food supply chain is breaking,” Tyson wrote, warning of “meat shortages and wasted animals. … Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America.”


But the North American Meat Institute, which represents the companies responsible for 90 percent of U.S. red meat production, points to plenty of meat reserves in cold storage; 921 million pounds of chicken and 467 million pounds of beef, according to the USDA, as of late April. Much of this meat was previously allotted to restaurants that are now closed and won’t need it. Pork reserves, originally bound for export to China, can also be released to U.S. customers.


FDA officials say they don’t anticipate serious food shortages for consumers, just temporarily low inventory at some stores as they restock. And even if supply is lower and there’s less variety, Steve Meyer, a meat industry economist with Kerns and Associates in Ames, Iowa, isn’t worried about Americans running out of meat. “From a consumer standpoint, it’s not a crisis at all, in my opinion.”


Still, some chains like McDonald’s report that they’re bracing for diminished meat supplies. Hundreds of locations of Wendy’s, which relies on fresh beef, rather than more abundant frozen beef, reported running out of burgers at some locations by early May, with shortages expected to last a “couple of weeks.” In grocery stores, fresh meat prices were up 8.1 percent for the week ending April 25 over the same week last year, per Nielsen data. But prices weren’t up across the board, according to USDA data: Ground beef was more expensive, but the price of typically more costly cuts, like rib-eye, went down. And while retailers like Costco and Kroger are placing per-person limits on meat purchases, that’s in part to curtail panic shopping, which could perpetuate shortage fears and panic-buying cycles.


Critics of the meat industry even characterize its claims of a shortage as tactical hyperbole:


much more, including photos, links



We must end high-speed slaughter to protect workers, animals and food safety now

Suspending higher-speed slaughter systems would limit the spread of COVID-19 at American slaughterhouses, thereby protecting workers, animals, and consumers.


Matt Bershadker, Another View contributor, Opinion, Des Moines Register (IA)

May 14, 2020


Bershadker is president and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.


As our nation continues to grapple with the spread of COVID-19, many industries are adapting their protocols to protect their workers in accordance with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In American slaughterhouses, however, conditions are not becoming safer; they’re becoming more dangerous for workers and animals. In Iowa alone, the coronavirus has infected more than 1,600 workers at four meatpacking plants. Nationwide, at least 20 meat and poultry plant workers and three U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety inspectors have already died.


The alarming spread of COVID-19 among slaughterhouse employees in Iowa and beyond has exposed massive vulnerabilities in our food system, yet, despite the tragic loss of life, animal agribusinesses have continued to operate with business as usual, putting profits above the health of their workers and the welfare of animals. Working shoulder to shoulder, plant employees were not provided adequate personal protective equipment or given hazard pay, and already irresponsibly high slaughter line speeds have not been reduced to accommodate responsible social distancing.


In fact, line speeds are increasing.


Even as slaughterhouses were emerging as coronavirus hotspots at the height of the pandemic, the USDA approved a record number of slaughter plants to start operating at breakneck line speeds. Last month, the USDA approved more poultry line-speed waivers than during any month on record, increasing slaughter speeds from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute (three birds slaughtered every second). The current higher-speed slaughter system for pigs removes line-speed caps entirely, increasing pigs killed per hour from 1,100 to 1,300 (22 pigs per minute).


These high speeds make it more challenging for plants to abide by humane handling laws and regulations, putting animals at much greater risk of rough and abusive handling, more use of painful electric prods, and botched stunning, resulting in greater suffering as conscious animals are put through slaughter and dismemberment. High speeds also place more pressure on workers to process animals quickly, drastically increasing the risks for food workers and consumers’ food safety.


Earlier this month, my organization, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, joined a diverse coalition in a letter to Congress, calling for an immediate end to high-speed slaughter and increased protections for workers...


more, including links