by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Coronavirus

May 1 2020

Weekend reading: Coronavirus and food system resources

Apr 30 2020

Coronavirus: Trump’s order to keep meatpacking plants open

Covid-19 puts the conflict between corporate interests and public health in stark relief.

The Washington Post tells us that President Trump signed an executive order to force meat processing plants to stay open—“to head off shortages in the nation’s food supply chains”—despite the risk posted to workers from Covid-19.

Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to classify meat plants as essential infrastructure that must remain open. Under the order, the government will provide additional protective gear for employees as well as guidance.

What’s this about?  The Counter explains this as the result of a public lobbying by John Tyson, chair of Tyson Foods (Big Meat) in his blog and in a full-page ad in Sunday’s New York Times. I clipped the ad. It complains that health authorities are forcing closure of his plants putting the meat supply—never mind his workers—at risk:

In small communities around the country where we employ over 100,000 hard-working men and women, we’re being forced to shutter our doors. This means one thing – the food supply chain is vulnerable…millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain…We have a responsibility to feed our country. It is as essential as healthcare….Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America. This is a delicate balance because Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority.

To this last statement, one can only respond: yeah, right.

Tyson is one of the meat Big Four along with JBS, Cargill, and Smithfield.  These hold about an 80% share of  the US meat supply chain, worth more than $50 billion a year.  This is a highly concentrated industry; problems have a disproportionate impact.

But let’s talk about worker safety.

Food Dive is keeping track of meat plant closures

A Washington Post investigation found plenty of evidence that Tyson, JBS, and Smithfield told workers to stay on the job when sick.  Workers at one Smithfield pork plant have sued the company on the grounds that they were threatened with disciplinary action if they covered their faces when coughing or sneezing as they might miss some meat on the line.  Smithfield denies these allegations.  In one court challenge, however, meatpacking workers have won.  The courts ordered Smithfield to comply with public health guidelines at a pork plant.

I’m guessing more lawsuits are to come.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and CDC have issued new safety guidance—voluntary, of course—for meatpackers.

OSHA and the Department of Labor make it clear that the president’s order trumps (sorry) the authority of state and local health departments to shut down meat plants.  Too bad if the plants are viral epicenters and put workers—and their families and community menbers—at risk.

And USDA isn’t helping.   It is allowing more crowding of workers at chicken processing plants.

Here’s what the American Meat Institute says about what this industry does for its workers.  Average salaries?  $25,000 annually.

What power do such low-wage workers have?  The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents meatpacking employees, says 72 workers have died, and 5322 are ill from Covid-19.  It lobbies on their behalf, but does not have much power.

Why?  It’s worth reading the history of this organization.

Today, workers have lost power at the bargaining table. Giant meatpacking and food companies are more determined than ever to keep labor costs as low as possible and production as high as possible. This means hiring cheap labor, maintaining intolerably high line speeds, demanding cuts in wages and benefits from unionized facilities…Other companies actively exploit our broken immigration system, purposely recruiting and hiring undocumented immigrants to create a disposable workforce. These immigrants often don’t speak English and aren’t aware of labor laws or their rights on the job. It’s a vulnerable, easily-intimidated workforce too afraid to speak out…This has resulted in an industry where workers have less bargaining power, where it’s becoming harder and harder to earn enough to support families, and where it’s becoming less safe to work.

Covid-19 confirms these points.

I consider this an American tragedy.

Apr 29 2020

Coronavirus and ethanol: fuel and booze

Coronavirus affects everything in the food system.  Here’s what it’s doing to ethanol and alcoholic beverages.

Fuel ethanol

Q.  What does fuel ethanol have to do with food politics?

A.  About 40% of America’s corn crop is used for ethanol for cars, as a result of the fuel standards law requiring ethanol to be blended into gasoline.

Comment: Growing corn for ethanol seems absurd to me, particularly because the energy gain is so low—about 2% according to the USDA.

With that said, Covid-19 is unquestionably bad for the fuel ethanol business.

Booze

Alcoholic beverage companies that donate to Coronavirus causes are seeing huge increases in sales—as much as a tripling.

But beer has a problem.  It—and sodas and seltzers—need carbon dioxide gas to make them bubbly.  Ethanol plants collect this gas as a byproduct.  If they shut down or reduce output, the gas supply goes down.  Expect shortages.

If Covid-19 does any good at all, it is to illustrate the interconnections and contradictions of our often bizarre food system.

Apr 28 2020

Coronavirus: effects on the restaurant industry

Recall that Americans spend about half our food dollars on food consumed outside the home.   Therefore, the virus-induced closure of restaurants affects food supply chains, but it also affects restaurant workers, owners, operators, and patrons.

Restaurant workers

A survey by the New York State Restaurant Association says 80 percent of state restaurant workers have been laid off since the outbreak started—more than 527,000 people.

In a letter to Congress, the National Restaurant Association says 8 million restaurant employees have already been furloughed or laid off, or two-thirds of the entire workforce.

The New York Times reports that restaurants account for about 40 percent of COVID-19 related layoffs, the most of any industry.  This statistic is based on New York State Department of Labor data.

Restaurant owners

To get an idea of what this is like for small restaurant owners, read Gabrielle Hamilton’s account in the New York Times Sunday Magazine: My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore?  Hamilton is the award-winning chef-owner of Prune, a small restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village.

The Wall Street Journal reports that restaurant chains cannot adequately source masks and gloves for their employees.

Restaurant patrons

Tom Sietsema, the restaurant critic for the Washington Post, writes about what it feels like to not be able to go to restaurants.

Gee, do I miss the good old days. And boy, am I trying hard to summon them from home. Honestly, though, my new acquaintances Caviar, Postmates and Uber Eats can never replace all the in-the-flesh servers and chefs who have made Washington a premier restaurant destination in recent years.

The bailouts

Restaurants are having special problems with the government’s forgivable loan program.  It turns out, the expansion of unemployment benefits authorized by the $2 trillion stimulus package sometimes pay workers twice their restaurant salary.

What?  Unemployment benefits pay MORE than restaurant work?  The shocking figures: unemployment benefits go to an average high of $970 per week, but this is nearly double average weekly pay within the food industry.

The $350 billion loan program quickly ran out of money when more than 46,000 loans were approved.   Food services firms got $30.5 billion.

Most of the money went to large restaurant firms: ‘The Big Guys Get Bailed Out’: Restaurants Vie for Relief Funds

The provision, in a section outlining which small businesses qualify for loans from the federal government, allowed big chains like Shake Shack, Potbelly and Ruth’s Chris Steak House to get tens of millions of dollars while many smaller restaurants walked away with nothing when the $349 billion fund was exhausted last week. On Monday, Congress and the White House were nearing a deal to replenish that fund with $300 billion in additional relief.  The inequity caused widespread outrage. Independent owners said it would create a post-pandemic landscape in which chains dominated and small, vibrant restaurants collapsed. Some lawmakers said the outcome had violated the spirit of the legislation.

Chains like Potbelly, Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Taco Cabana qualified to get the maximum $10 million in loans even though they employed thousands of workers.

Some of these companies had been making money but spent it to buy back their own stocks.  As the New York Times reported Some Companies Seeking Bailouts Had Piles of Cash, Then Spent It.” Those companies, includingd KFC, Wendy’s, and Papa John’s, among others, asked for $145 billion in relief.

These companies had been highly profitable in recent years, yet they were seeking help from the federal government. Where had all their money gone? Like much of corporate America, the restaurant chains had spent a large chunk on buying back their own stock, a practice aimed at bolstering its price. Some were even more vulnerable to the economic shock because they had previously increased their borrowing — including to fund buybacks or pay dividends — and strained their credit in the process.

Some companies, embarrassed by the uproar, returned the funds.  The first to do so was Shake Shack (see Danny Meyer’s statement) 

Now the restaurant industry wants its own targeted recovery fund, as it explained in a letter to Congress.

What will restaurants look like in the future?

For sure, they will be different.

The National Restaurant Association, which represents chain restaurants, issued new general guidelines.   These largely defer to government regulations, but leave most practices to owners’ discretion.

Independent restaurant groups are trying to develop more detailed protocols.  They refer to a set of guidelines  issued by the founder of Black Sheep Restaurants in Hong Kong.

I hope that the revelations about how badly restaurant workers are treated and paid will inspire legislative action.

To me, the most shocking revelation is how restaurant workers who rely on tips do not qualify for unemployment insurance in some states because their salaries are so low that they do not meet earning requirements.  That has to change.

Apr 27 2020

Tone-deaf ad of the week: Whopper’s Couch Potato Patriots

Q.  If you are running a fast-food place, how to cope with having to close and lose sales during the Coronavirus pandemic?

A.  Run an ad: “Stay Home of the Whopper

Your country needs you to stay on your couch and order in…Do your part. Staying home doesn’t just make us all safer, it makes you a couch potatriot.”

Never mind that couch potatoism puts you at higher risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and, therefore, higher higher risk for the most damaging effects of this virus.

The company is also offering 250,000 free sandwiches to health care workers.

Thanks to a reader, who wished to remain anonymous, for alerting me to this one.

Apr 24 2020

Weekend reading: Coronavirus effects on food systems

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems has produced a useful report, COVID-19 and the crisis in food systems: Symptoms, causes, and potential solutions

The lockdowns and disruptions triggered by COVID-19 have shown the fragility of people’s access to essential goods and services. In health systems and food systems, critical weaknesses, inequalities, and inequities have come to light. These systems, the public goods they deliver, and the people underpinning them, have been under-valued and under-protected. The systemic weaknesses exposed by the virus will be compounded by climate change in the years to come. In other words, COVID-19 is a wakeup call for food systems that must be heeded.

Covid-19 has three lessons for systems

  1.  Industrial agriculture is driving habitat loss and creating the conditions for viruses to emerge and spread.
  2. A range of disruptions are testing the resilience of food supply chains and revealing underlying vulnerabilities.
  3.  Hundreds of millions of people are living permanently on the cusp of hunger, malnutrition, and extreme poverty, and are therefore highly vulnerable to the effects of a global recession.

Its recommendations

  1. Take immediate action to protect the most vulnerable
  2. Build resilient agroecological food systems
  3. Rebalance economic power for the public good: a new pact between state and society
  4. Reform international food systems governance

Comment: This thoughtful, well documented report establishes a strong basis for action.  If only….

 

Apr 23 2020

Infographic: Coronavirus and pets

Leo Wilson, an editor at CyberPet, sent me his graphic advice to pet owners worried (for good reason) about Coronavirus.  His Infographic has 12 pieces of advice.

Here’s advice #7 about basic health care.

Apr 22 2020

What coronavirus is doing to the meat industry—and its workers

The crisis caused by Covid-19 reveals deep flaws in America’s health care system but also in its food system.  The food system flaws are showing up first in the meat industry, reliant as it is on a low-wage, immigrant work force.

Cattlemen estimate virus-induced losses at more than $14 billion

Using existing market data and futures market data, the total actual and future impact is forecast to exceed $14.6 billion, broken out by sector in the table below.

U.S. Food Supply Chain Is Strained as Virus Spreads

The nation’s food supply chain is showing signs of strain, as increasing numbers of workers are falling ill with the coronavirus in meat processing plants, warehouses and grocery stores.  The spread of the virus through the food and grocery industry is expected to cause disruptions in production and distribution of certain products like pork, industry executives, labor unions and analysts have warned in recent days. The issues follow nearly a month of stockpiling of food and other essentials by panicked shoppers that have tested supply networks as never before.

COVID-19 cases in Iowa packing plants a big part of 389 new cases, state’s largest single-day increase

Iowa had its largest single-day increase in COVID-19 cases Sunday, driven largely by new positive tests at meatpacking plants. State officials said 261 of the 389 new cases of COVID-19 reported Sunday were discovered as part of testing done at Iowa meat processing plants.

The food chain’s weakest link: slaughterhouses

Yet meat plants, honed over decades for maximum efficiency and profit, have become major “hot spots” for the coronavirus pandemic, with some reporting widespread illnesses among their workers. The health crisis has revealed how these plants are becoming the weakest link in the nation’s food supply chain, posing a serious challenge to meat production.

That all appeared to be in jeopardy this week, when the Smithfield plant became the nation’s largest single-source coronavirus hot spot. Its employees now make up about 44 percent of the diagnoses in South Dakota, and a team of researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has traveled there to assess how the outbreak spiraled out of control. Smithfield is the latest meat processing facility to close in the face of the coronavirus.  The startling toll on the workers has drawn criticism from union leaders who say the facility’s owners waited too long to introduce safety measures, and instead encouraged employees to meet the demand for their products that has surged amid the pandemic.

Smithfield Foods Shuts U.S. Bacon, Ham Plants as Coronavirus Hits Meat Sector

Smithfield, owned by China’s WH Group Ltd, is shuttering a plant that processes bacon and sausage in Cudahy, Wisconsin, for two weeks, according to a statement. A facility in Martin City, Missouri, that processes spiral and smoked hams will also close.  The Missouri plant, which employs more than 400 people, processes pork from the Smithfield slaughterhouse in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that the company closed indefinitely. More than 200 employees became infected with the coronavirus at the South Dakota slaughterhouse, which produces 4% to 5% of the nation’s pork.

Instead, restaurant closures due to the coronavirus have contributed to an estimated $5 billion in losses for the industry, and almost overnight millions of hogs stacking up on farms now have little value. Some farmers have resorted to killing piglets because plunging sales mean there is no room to hold additional animals in increasingly cramped conditions.

Poor Conditions at Meatpacking Plants Have Long Put Workers at Risk. The Pandemic Makes it Much Worse

The meat processing industry, where workers toil shoulder to shoulder in crowded, enclosed spaces, has been battered by the novel coronavirus in recent days. Multiple plants have closed after several thousand workers fell ill and tested positive for COVID-19 and a dozen have died—including three other workers at the JBS plant in Greeley, one at a Cargill plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado, four at a Tyson plant in Camilla, Georgia, two at another Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, one at another JBS plant in Souderton, Pennsylvania, and one at the Smithfield  pork factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. As of Wednesday, the Smithfield plant had become the country’s top COVID hotspot, with more than 640 cases linked to the plant.

Corporate focus on profits literally kills workers

The circumstances that engulfed the Sioux Falls pork plant are illustrative of many things: political denial, corporate greed, a Trumpist skepticism toward experts. But the Smithfield plant also epitomizes the stark differences between many wage earners and the professionals of the so-called information economy….The nation needs a stronger social safety net that includes, among other things, paid sick leave and parental leave, guaranteed health care and assistance for child care.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler on unprotected workers and meat inspectors

  • You cannot slaughter animals without workers to do the work, and you cannot sell meat without inspectors.
  • We need to protect both workers and inspectors or we will see more plants shutter and our grocery stores empty.
  • Forcing workers and inspectors to work unprotected is not the answer

Resource

The Counter has a nifty interactive map of closed meatpacking plants as part of a useful Q and A (go to the link to use the interactive parts).