Approximately 25% of all U.S. meat packing plants have been closed. The reason: COVID-19; over 4000 meat plant workers in 115 meatpacking plants have tested positive, more than 5000 have been hospitalized, and 20 have died. Meat processing is a highly consolidated industry: four companies—Cargill, JBS, National Beef, and Tyson—control more than 80% of the nation’s beef supply. These COVID outbreaks among plant workers are concentrated clusters. In a single Tyson plant in Indiana, 890 employees tested positive.

Similar numbers are reflected in processing plants located in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota. Some plants are voluntarily shutting down, while others have been ordered to cease operations, resulting in a significant supply chain disruption. As of April 27, Beef production was down nearly 25% year-over-year and pork production was down 15%. Tyson Foods, one of America’s biggest meat producers, warned in a full-page New York Times ad that the “food supply chain is breaking.”

According to the CDC, meat processing plants are deemed “critical infrastructure” and as such, asymptomatic workers at plants may be permitted to continue work even with the threat of exposure to COVID-19. They must wear protective gear. Deploying this same “critical infrastructure” rationale, President Donald Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act to mandate meatpacking plants stay open during the coronavirus epidemic. This is recognition that a meat supply shortage in the U.S. has political consequences.

A rung up on the supply chain, animal feedlots, have no place to ship their pigs, cattle, and chickens. Producers have started to “euthanize” animals in large numbers. For example, the state of Iowa processes about 50,000 pigs a day, and a significant number are slated to be “depopulated.”

There is anecdotal evidence that workers who do speak out about compromised safety are being threatened with job loss. Some managers have asked line workers to continue to work through mild symptoms. One Smithfield processing employee remarked, “If you’re not in a casket, they want you there.”

The Administration’s executive order underscores the political importance of meat in this country. There are economic ripples that reach major feed crops, rural bank loans, local property taxes, and even K-through-12 education funding. Glynn Tonsor, a professor at Kansas State University’s department of agricultural economics, thinks the problem will start to improve by June as meat processing plants find ways to operate in a COVID-19 world. On the other hand, longer-term employee illness could significantly slow down production for over a year, according to David Anderson, professor and extension economist in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University.

In the face of worker safety though, the Executive Order lacks teeth. Sick workers cannot be forced to show up to the plant. They cannot easily be replaced either; these are skilled jobs. The added federal COVID benefits on top of state unemployment insurance may also incentivize more workers to stay out longer. There is the harsh realities of the illness and threat of illness. Kim Cordova, president for workers at a JBS Meatpacking Plant in Greeley, Colorado, told The Washington Post that they are “treating workers like fungible widgets instead of human beings.”

The unions seem to be taking the middle ground by emphasizing the importance of America’s food supply as well as worker on-the-job safety, citing guidelines from the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Yet the food supply is shrinking and some meats may increase in price more quickly than others. The production levels for pigs, for example, can be adjusted more efficiently than cattle because they get to production weight faster.

What is not given enough attention is the fact that the industry predominately employs immigrant minorities and people of color, the very same groups who are disproportionately dying of the virus.

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Photo by Charlie Solorzano

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