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24 July 2020updated 04 Oct 2023 11:47am

“Existential crisis”: how Covid-19 exposed the meat industry’s abuses

As the pandemic has swept the globe, it has passed with particular virulence through the world’s meat-packing plants.

By India Bourke

“Nobody rose in Packingtown by doing good work… The man who minded his own business and did his work – why, they would ‘speed him up’ till they had worn him out, and then they would throw him into the gutter.” When these words were penned in 1905, as part of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle on the horrific conditions in Chicago’s slaughterhouses, the stir they caused stretched all the way to the White House.

Yet the consequent revolution in food safety law did little to improve things for the packers themselves. Furthermore, the new laws gave an advantage to large meat processing operations that could more easily absorb the added costs – emphasising a reality that Covid-19 has once more exposed: that animal life is not the only expendable commodity in the modern meat industry; workers are, too.

As the pandemic has swept the globe, it has passed with particular virulence through the world’s meat-packing plants. In the US, more than 17,000 cases and nearly 100 deaths linked to meat-processing facilities were recorded in April and May alone, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Brazil, where total cases are second only to the US, a study by the Public Ministry of Labour showed infections in the south and centre of the country clustered around towns with meat plants. Even Germany, which has been lauded for its approach to tackling Covid-19, has endured an “existential crisis” at a Tönnies abattoir, with more than 1,300 infections among 2,000 staff. (Though these are by far not the only examples, with nations from Canada to Wales recording meat-industry hotspots.)

The proximity between workers as they stand for hours, dismembering carcasses, is partly responsible for the scale of the spread. Yet so, too, is the more general disregard for regulation and welfare common across the industry: from the low pay and mental-health problems suffered by slaughterhouse workers, to livestock farming’s vast greenhouse gas emissions, to the continued caging of animals in extreme confinement, to the overuse of antibiotics (which is now threatening human antimicrobial resistance) and industrial farms’ role as a breeding ground for zoonotic infections (a new strain of swine flu was identified in China in June).

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The pandemic has shed new light on some of these abuses, such as exploitative working conditions and overcrowded accommodation for Europe’s migrant meat-workers, as a new study by the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions has detailed. And it has created new opportunities for wrongs to arise.

An investigation by Jane Mayer for the New Yorker has shown how food-shortage scares during the pandemic have been used to further deregulate the already scantily protected US industry. “The Labor Department released [a]… statement that all but indemnified companies for exposing workers to Covid-19,” Mayer wrote, and have meat firms have benefited from waivers authorising them to increase the number of birds that workers must process per minute.

See also: India Bourke on how nature became the pandemic’s latest victim

There have also been horrific scenes of mass animal culling on US farms due to reduced slaughterhouse capacity, including reports of firefighting foam being used to kill thousands of chickens. While in Brazil, Amazon deforestation has spiked during the crisis, potentially opening the way for further expansion by the beef companies funded by UK-based banks and finance houses, according to a report by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s journalism team.

But although Covid-19 may be exposing the systemic nature of the meat industry’s problems, many have been sounding the alarm for years. Ellen K Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, extensively outlined the challenges in her 2016 book, Chickenizing Farms and Food, in which she forewarned that industrial farming’s “collateral damage” is not constrained by national boundaries – and that viruses are “the most efficient travellers”.

Will the pandemic help change this situation? Not likely, Silbergeld explained over the phone.

“I wish it was going to but I don’t think so,” she said, adding that people just “don’t want to think about slaughterhouses”. Numerous studies have been published on the conditions faced by meat workers – including her own 2014 joint publication with Emmanuel Kyeremateng-Amoah, which examined high rates of acute injury and chronic disease – yet “nothing has changed”.

There are, however, moves to try to use this moment of heightened attention to press for reform. In an attempt to overcome the reluctance of meat-workers to speak out (and risk losing their jobs), the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) has launched a whistleblower campaign, fronted by the actor Joaquin Phoenix, to help people report their concerns anonymously.

According to Kelsey Eberly, a staff attorney at ALDF, the huge companies that control all aspects of the food chain – from how animals are raised to where and when they are killed and sold – are “at the root” of the many interlinked injustices. The Covid-19 crisis is laying bare “the problems advocates have been trying to change for years”.

A range of lawsuits have taken aim at some of these problems, including inadequate protection for workers during the pandemic. And trade unions and animal rights activists are using this moment of crisis to issue joint statements, creating “an opportunity to work together to protect both people and animals”, said Eberly.

Whether these efforts will finally right the wrongs that Sinclair wrote about more than a century ago is uncertain. Silbergeld’s scepticism is partly based on the fact that when Sinclair, in his own words, “aimed for the heart” by detailing the suffering of humans and animals alike, he actually “hit the head” of those more concerned about the hygiene of the food they were consuming.

Yet there are also wider shifts stirring in these locked-down times. As Eberly notes, “the larger injustice of the virus falling on people of colour is starting to get out there”, and the US meat industry is no different, with refugees and migrants often providing the bulk of the labour. For Eberly, there is still hope that “people are starting to question things” and that “after the pandemic we won’t go back to the broken system”.

See also: Amelia Tait on how veganism went from food niche to multibillion-pound industry

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