Dozens of beef, chicken and pork processing and packing plants have shut down across the nation as COVID-19 infections soar among workers. More plants are on the verge of closing on account of sick workers or facilities that need to be sanitized.
Left with few buyers for their animals, farmers have begun to kill and dispose of healthy livestock while they wait for slaughterhouses to reopen.
There will continue to be plenty of meat in grocery stores until the stock of stored frozen foods is depleted sometime in May — unless, of course, people panic about the potential shortage and start hoarding. But consumers are already feeling the effect of the processing plant closures in the form of higher meat prices.
“The food supply chain is breaking,” warned John Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods Inc., in a full-page ad that ran in newspapers Sunday. Tyson closed pork processing plants in Iowa and Indiana after COVID-19 spread among workers, and there are outbreaks of sickness at still-open Tyson plants in other states. We are not quite at the breaking point, but the nation’s food system is certainly under tremendous stress.
It’s a dreadful situation that might have been avoided had the meat processing and packing industry moved faster to protect workers from infection instead of ignoring federal guidelines on social distancing. Now, more than 6,500 meat industry workers have been infected or exposed to the coronavirus, and at least 20 have died, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. At least 100 U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors have contracted COVID-19 and one has died.
And yet things might get even worse under the “fix” that President Trump came up with to head off a U.S. meat shortage. On Tuesday, he outlined a new executive order that designates meat processing plants as “critical infrastructure” under the Defense Production Act and forces them to remain open despite COVID-19 outbreaks. And the magic ingredient? Exempting the meat producers from liability if workers get sick, according to news reports, because it’s “unfair to them.” That is, unfair to the companies, not the workers exposed to the disease.
The order appears to impose no new health or safety obligations on the plants, leaving workers as vulnerable as ever to the virus. This disregard for the health and safety of people already working in appalling conditions is unconscionable. Processing meat is a brutal, high-stress and low-paid job in which people work shoulder to shoulder on production lines. But perhaps the president thinks these workers, most of them people of color and many of them undocumented immigrants, are expendable.
Unless plants are required to build coronavirus safeguards into their production lines, forcing them to stay open will be a recipe for disaster, not just for workers at the plant but for the communities in which they live. Meat processing plants in South Dakota, Texas and Georgia have been linked to COVID-19 outbreaks in neighboring communities. If we want to quell the pandemic, it doesn’t make sense to allow obvious infection hot spots to remain active.
It’s also unclear how the plants can force workers to return to work if they feel unsafe.
At this point, a disruption in the meat industry seems unavoidable. But it’s not without at least one benefit: It’s not a bad idea for Americans to eat less animal flesh. Americans on average eat more than 140 pounds of meat a year, about half of it in the form of red meat, which contributes to cardiovascular disease and other life-shortening ailments.
Meat production also takes a heavy toll on the environment. Methane from livestock accounts for an estimated 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. The Amazon forest, one of the world’s most important biologically diverse habitats, is being systemically razed to make more room for cattle ranching. Climate change experts for years have been urging people to eat less meat and more plants.
Of course, meat is still an important part of the U.S. food supply as well as a major source of employment, and a shortage will be another in a string of pandemic hardships. Nevertheless, it’s not worth the cost in human lives to rush this troubled industry back into production just so that Americans can count on having an ample supply of steak.