by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Coronavirus

May 22 2020

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.

May 21 2020

The meat problem 3: Culling animals, Harvest Boxes again

I’m trying to keep up with meat crisis items.  Here are two.

CULLING

This is too upsetting to even talk about.

HARVEST BOXES AGAIN

The USDA’s current version of Harvest Boxes for food assistance is called the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, as I wrote about in a previous post.

The idea is that all those food animals and other foods that are being destroyed because of food chain problems will be collected, packed in boxes, and distributed to food banks  to be further distributed to people in need.

The USDA has now issued the contracts to companies who have bid to do this work.

Oops.  Some getting millions of dollars in contracts have no experience with this sort of thing.  As Politico reveals,

Most of the most well-known companies in the business, from large national names like FreshPoint, a division of Sysco, to more regional companies like Keany Produce, based in Maryland, were left off.  Muzyk of Baldor Specialty Foods said it’s clear that some companies applied without understanding what’s really required to purchase, pack and distribute fresh food at the scale the program requires. It requires proper cold storage capacity and trucks as well as food safety practices, particularly for produce which is vulnerable to contamination.

The contracts have raised eyebrows throughout the produce industry.

The Packer, which writes about produce-industry matters, wants to know how those contracts were awarded.

But questions immediately began circulating: How does a high-dollar events promoter pull down the largest contract ($39 million) in Texas? Why are companies without Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act licenses, warehouses, coolers or trucks receiving multi-million contracts, some well beyond the annual revenue of the company?…United Fresh Produce Association president and CEO Tom Stenzel wrote to Bruce Summers, administrator of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which is overseeing the contracts, with a list of 15 questions.

The Packer, also wonders what will go in those boxes

The U.S. Department of Agriculture gives companies participating in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program leeway on what’s going in the produce boxes. The Packer wants to see what Farmers to Families’ contract recipients are packing into their boxes.

This looks like a disaster waiting to happen.  Companies with no track-record for these kinds of logistics are supposed to collect food, pack it, and get it to food banks.

Food banks, largely run by volunteers, are supposed to get the boxes to those who need food.

I can’t imagine how this can work.  In the meantime, the culling continues.

Additions

May 20 2020

The meat problem #2: Meat as a vital component of national defense

Let’s review what’s happened here.

Trump ordered the plants to open via an Executive Order deeming meat essential to the national defense.

It is important that processors of beef, pork, and poultry (“meat and poultry”) in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.  [Nutritional comment: grains and vegetables provide plenty of protein.]

A Missouri Court ruled that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has the primary jurisdiction over worker safety in meat processing plants during the Covid-19 crisis—not health agencies.   The USDA applauded this ruling as “directly in line with what the Federal government has been calling for companies and communities to do in light of the President’s Executive Order.”

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue instructed companies to open, explaining that USDA was now in charge of making sure they do.

He wrote another order saying that “Maintaining the health and safety of plant employees in addition to ensuring continued operations and a plentiful food supply during this unprecedented time is paramount.”

This, alas, defies credulity, and it is no surprise that groups representing slaughterhouse workers say not enough is being done to protect them.  OSHA is not enforcing CDC guidelines for social distancing, frequent hand washing and other such measures.

Indeed, meat processing plants are opening. including a Tyson’s slaughterhouse with more than 1000 workers who have been infected.

The National Pork Board has an interactive map showing the status of pork plants.  It also lists Resources for Pork Packers & Processors.

We will have meat—at higher prices, of course.

But at what cost to workers’ lives?

May 19 2020

The meat problem #1: Coronavirus in slaughterhouses and packing plants

Because the amount of information about what’s happening with meat is so overwhelming. I’m going to be dealing with it all this week.

Let’s start with Covid-19 illnesses and deaths of people working in slaughterhouses—workers and USDA inspectors.

How bad is the Covid-19 situation in slaughterhouses and packing plants?

The Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) is Mapping Covid-19 in meat and food processing plants.  As of May 15:

at least 209 meatpacking and processed food plants and 11 farms have confirmed cases of Covid-19, and at least one meatpacking plant and four processed food plants are currently closed. At least 15,744 workers  (14,271 meatpacking workers, 1,058 food processing workers, and 415 farmworkers) have tested positive for Covid-19 and at least 65 workers (59 meatpacking workers and 6 food processing workers) have died.

In Texas, for example, testing is turning up hundreds of cases of Covid-19 among workers in meat packing plants.

It’s not just workers who are getting sick and dying.  USDA inspectors are too.  Food Dive reports that 197 field employees in the Food Safety and Inspection Service ​(FSIS) tested positive for coronavirus, 120 are under quarantine, and three died (as of May 7).

And now a fourth USDA inspector has died.

Politico reported:

many inspectors were expected to find their own protective gear since USDA wasn’t able to secure face masks for all of its workers. In April, USDA said it would give a $50 reimbursement for inspectors to find their own, according to Politico.

Who is to blame?

According to Politico, Alex Azar, the Secretary of Health and Human Services,

suggested to lawmakers at the end of April that meatpacking employees were more likely to catch the coronavirus based on their social interactions and group living situations than from exposure on the job…But after the story published, spokesperson Michael Caputo said in a statement that “Secretary Azar simply made the point that many public health officials have made: in addition to the meat packing plants themselves, many workers at certain remote and rural meatpacking facilities have living conditions that involve multifamily and congregate living, which have been conducive to rapid spread of the disease.”

Blaming the victims does not explain why inspectors are getting sick.

Of course, conditions at the plants are responsible.  As quoted in the Politico story, 

“America’s meatpacking workers are putting their lives on the line every day to make sure our families have the food they need during this pandemic,” UFCW International Vice President Ademola Oyefeso said in a statement. “Secretary Azar is cowardly pointing the finger at sick workers and peddling the same thinly-veiled racism we have heard from far too many in positions of power.”

Why can’t we get authoritative information about worker illnesses and deaths?

FERN is doing its best to keep track, against all odds.

FERN’s ongoing analysis of Covid-19 cases in the food system has found that more than 14,200 meatpacking plant workers have tested positive for the virus since mid-April. That figure, derived primarily from local news reports and state officials, is likely an undercount given the lack of data available from meatpackers.

Nebraska, for example, won’t allow tracking of cases.

Governor Pete Ricketts said Wednesday that the state won’t be releasing specific numbers of cases at meatpacking plants, saying it’s a matter of privacy.

A Texas plant refused to allow the state to test workers, but then relented under pressure from the press.

State health officials say the JBS Beef plant rejected its efforts to test all employees. The company switched gears Wednesday afternoon after the Tribune reported on the lack of testing at a plant tied to a rapidly growing cluster of coronavirus cases.

Meat plants are a viral epicenter

Along with nursing homes, prisons, and other crowded places, meat packing plants are especially vulnerable, and not just in the U.S.  Slaughterhouses in Germany are also sites of lots of cases, and for the same reasons.

Tomorrow: The order to keep plants open.

May 15 2020

My forthcoming book: Let’s Ask Marion

I’ve just sent back the page proofs for my forthcoming book with Kerry Trueman.  It’s set for publication in late September.  It’s a short (just over 200 pages), small format (4 x 6) set of 18 short essays in Q and A format.  Kerry did the Qs.  I did the As along with introductory and concluding chapters, and a resource list.

The book went into page proofs before the Coronavirus hit.  If anything, the pandemic makes the food topics we talk about in the book even more relevant.

You can pre-order the book from Amazon here.

May 14 2020

The meatpacking problem: a boon for pet food?

I am an avid reader of Pet Food Industry, a top-notch trade magazine for pet food makers.

It has been following the impact of the Covid-19 epidemic on this industry.  Because pet food is an integral part of the food supply chains for humans (it uses byproducts from human food production), anything that affects the human food supply also affects the supply for pets.

The problems now seen in the meatpacking industry affect pet foods too.

A recent Pet Food Industry article explains.

If meat processors lose capacity to supply the human food chain, the livestock may end up in rendering plants, said David Meeker, Ph.D., senior vice president of scientific services for the North American Renderers Association. “We’ve got renders ready and willing to help with that,” Meeker said. “Hopefully that can be done in a way to make good pet food ingredients out of it….We absolutely don’t want them put down with any kind of drug,” he said. “They’d have to be put down like they were meat.”

May 13 2020

Now is the time to strengthen SNAP

Yesterday, I mentioned the commentary in the New York Times—Americans Are Lining Up for Food. What Is Team Trump Doing?—calling on the USDA to expand SNAP rather that transfer responsibility for food assistance to private food banks.  No matter how good they are—and many do fabulous work—volunteer charitable agencies cannot keep up with assistance demands.

SNAP can.

SNAP, as I explained recently, is the last vestige of what used to be a much stronger safety net for the poor.  It is demonstrably effective in raising families out of poverty and reducing levels of food insecurity.

SNAP’s great strength is that it is an entitlement.  We have more than 30 million people newly unemployed in the United States.  Many of them will qualify for SNAP and are entitled to program benefits.

SNAP ought to command widespread bipartisan support, but the program is instead a flashpoint for political battles.

The reality of so many Americans running out of food is an alarming reminder of the economic hardship the pandemic has inflicted. But…Republicans have balked at a long-term expansion of food stamps — a core feature of the safety net that once enjoyed broad support but is now a source of a highly partisan divide. Democrats want to raise food stamp benefits by 15 percent for the duration of the economic crisis, arguing that a similar move during the Great Recession reduced hunger and helped the economy. But Republicans have fought for years to shrink the program, saying that the earlier liberalization led to enduring caseload growth and a backdoor expansion of the welfare state…The Republican distrust of food stamps has now collided with a monumental crisis. Cars outside food banks have lined up for miles in places as different as San Antonio, Pittsburgh and Miami Beach.

Anti-hunger groups make a strong case for a 15 percent increase.  Feeding America is running ads to promote SNAP, for example, this one targeting North Dakota

In the meantime, we have relief funds..

If history teaches us anything, it is that private charity can never replace government policy.  Now, more than ever, we need government for the people.

May 12 2020

USDA gets its “harvest boxes” at long last

Remember “Harvest Boxes”?  This was USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s method for replacing SNAP benefits with boxes of food commodities (see my much earlier post on this).

The idea was widely ridiculed at the time (impractical, logistically expensive, condescending), but the Covid-19 pandemic has resuscitated the plan.

It won’t be called Harvest Boxes.  Instead, welcome to the $3 billion “Farmers to Families Food Box Program.”

Agricultural Marketing Service’s Commodity Procurement Program will procure an estimated $100 million per month in fresh fruits and vegetables, $100 million per month in a variety of dairy products, and $100 million per month in meat products. The distributors and wholesalers will then provide a pre-approved box of fresh produce, dairy, and meat products to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other non-profits serving Americans in need.

It comes with an Infographic.

How will this work?  USDA has an FAQ page.

Q. Please explain the goal of the government regarding execution of these contracts?

A.  The prime contractor receiving an award is responsible for all aspects of contract performance. The aspects of performance include but are not limited to sourcing product for inclusion in boxes, conducting all aspects of preparing the boxes, sourcing and communicating with non-profits and transportation and final delivery of boxes to the non-profit on a mutually agreeable, recurring schedule.

What does this mean?

Contractors will acquire dairy, meat, and/or produce, pack it in boxes, and deliver those boxes to food banks, which will then distribute the boxes to people seeking food.  This puts food banks—charitable organizations largely run by volunteers—on the front line of food assistance.

Should we be doing this?

I’m not the only one thinking this system is logistically absurd and just plain wrong.

Matt Russell, Robert Leonard and Beto O’Rourke, writing in the New York Times, say “Americans Are Lining Up for Food. What Is Team Trump Doing?”

Funding food banks while not expanding food stamps…is a solution driven by ideology rather than practicality. We have great respect for these organizations, but food banks aren’t up to feeding tens of millions of hungry Americans indefinitely.  We already have an amazingly efficient and effective program to do this. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, empowers Americans in literally hours and days to go to their local grocery store and get the food they need.

What’s supposed to be in the boxes?

The USDA explained in its solicitation document what it is expecting to get.

Who is getting the contracts?  Look them up here.  United Fresh, which represents fruit and vegetable growers, has questions about the selection process.   And farmers are asking: how is it possible for companies with no warehouses or storage capacity to prepare boxes?

But that’s not all. 

The USDA also announced an additional $470 million in food purchases for donation to food banks for delivery in July.

As for benefit for farmers, FERN’s AgInsider reports:

“USDA is working as quickly as possible to implement CFAP,” said the spokesperson. “Signup for the direct assistance is expected to begin by the end of May. USDA proposes to use a $125,000 payment limit per commodity, with an overall payment limit of $250,000 per individual/entity and a $900,000 adjusted gross income limit for individuals who do not derive 75 percent or more of their income from farming.”

I’m interested to see how this works, in practice.  We should know in a couple of weeks.