Weekend reading: Coronavirus, meat, and food systems
Three exceptionally thoughtful and interesting pieces by people who have been writing about food and food systems for a long time.
Jane Ziegelman in the New York Times: America’s Obsession With Cheap Meat
During World War I, the idea that American vitality was tied to a meat-heavy diet dictated how the troops were fed. To give them a fighting edge, tremendous quantities of beef and pork were shipped overseas, enough to provide soldiers with 20 ounces of beef a day or 12 ounces of bacon. The cost was staggering, but the Army refused to trim meat rations…It’s no coincidence that the archetypal American hero, the cowboy, is a cattle herder, or that we claim hamburgers as the quintessential American food. Or that when Mr. Trump welcomed the 2019 football college champions to the White House, he offered them Big Macs and Quarter Pounders. Much of what has defined us as Americans is expressed through our meat consumption.
Eric Schlosser in The Atlantic: America’s Slaughterhouses Aren’t Just Killing Animals
By issuing that order [Trump’s Executive Order], Trump helped an industry that has long been a strong supporter of the Republican Party. He reduced the likelihood that meat prices would greatly increase in the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election. And he confirmed what critics of the large meatpackers have said for years: Some of these companies care more about profits than the lives of their workers, the well-being of the communities where they operate, and the health of the American people.
Michael Pollan in the New York Review of Books: The Sickness in Our Food Supply
Slaughterhouses have become hot zones for contagion, with thousands of workers now out sick and dozens of them dying. This should come as no surprise: social distancing is virtually impossible in a modern meat plant, making it an ideal environment for a virus to spread. In recent years, meatpackers have successfully lobbied regulators to increase line speeds, with the result that workers must stand shoulder to shoulder cutting and deboning animals so quickly that they can’t pause long enough to cover a cough, much less go to the bathroom, without carcasses passing them by. Some chicken plant workers, given no regular bathroom breaks, now wear diapers. A worker can ask for a break, but the plants are so loud he or she can’t be heard without speaking directly into the ear of a supervisor. Until recently slaughterhouse workers had little or no access to personal protective equipment; many of them were also encouraged to keep working even after exposure to the virus. Add to this the fact that many meat-plant workers are immigrants who live in crowded conditions with little or no access to health care, and you have a population at dangerously high risk of infection.