by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Coronavirus

May 8 2020

Weekend reading: Bite Back!

Saru Jayaraman and Kathryn De Master, eds.  Bite Back: People Taking On Corporate Food and Winning.  University of California Press, 2020.

Bite Back by Saru Jayaraman, Kathryn De Master - Paperback ...

It is a heartbreak that this book is being released at a time when book tours have to be virtual.

If the Coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it is about the basic inadequacies and inequities of our food system, and how badly we need to do something about them.  Just one example: slaughterhouses as viral epicenters forced to stay open by presidential decree.

What can be done?

Start here.  Buy this book.  Read it.  Act.

This book has been a long time coming.  I wrote its Foreword.  Here’s what I said (the version as published was edited slightly).

Our food system—how we produce, process, distribute, and consume food—is broken, and badly.  We know this because roughly a billion people in the world go hungry every day for lack of a reliable food supply while, perversely, about two billion are overweight and at increased risk for chronic diseases.  All of us bear the consequences of atmospheric warming due, in part, to greenhouse gases released from industrial production of food animals.

It is true that a great many factors have contributed to the breaking of our food system, but one in particular stands out as a cause: the companies that produce our food put profits above public health. They have to.  Capitalism demands this priority.

Yes, food companies make and sell products we love to eat, but they are not social service agencies.  They are businesses with primary fiduciary responsibilities to stockholders.  Like all corporations, they must put profits above public health.

If we want to reverse this priority, we are going to have to get organized, mobilize, and act.  Bite Back, a truly extraordinary book, tells us how.

Bite Back is a manifesto.  It is a call to action to reverse the harm caused by corporate takeover of our food system.  It is an advocacy manual for, as the editors put it, “disrupting corporate power through food democracy.”  It is a guidebook for empowering all of us to resist corporate power and to collectively gain the power to make our own decisions about how to create a food system that best prevents hunger, improves health, and reverses climate change.

The operative phrase here is “food democracy.”  This book embeds democracy in its very structure.  The first part of each of its sections—Labor, Seeds, Pesticides, Energy, Health, Hunger, Trade–reviews how the requirement that corporations focus on profits has harmed workers, undermined small farmers, imperiled health, damaged the environment, and imposed highly processed “junk” foods on world populations.

But the second parts are about democracy in action.  Each highlights the work of individuals or groups who have resisted corporate power—and succeeded in doing so.  Here, we see how community organizing, grassroots advocacy, and bottom-up leadership can stop or reverse some of the more egregious corporate damage.  These chapters make it clear that advocacy can succeed.  They demonstrate that resistance to corporate power is not only necessary; it is also possible.

            The food movement in the United States has been criticized for its focus on personal food access rather than putting its energy into mobilizing forces to gain real political power.  Why, for example, do we not see a grassroots political movement emerging among participants in federal food assistance programs to demand better-paying jobs, safer communities, and better schools?  I’m guessing that the power imbalance seems too discouraging.  This book aims to redress that imbalance.

Bite Back presents voices from the food movement, all deeply passionate about their causes.  Read here about the importance of grassroots organizing, why advocates must stay eternally vigilant to maintain the gains they have won, and why uniting advocacy organizations into strong coalitions is essential for gaining power.

A particular gift is the Afterword, which is anything but an afterthought.  Subtitled “Taking Action to Create Change,” it is a superb summary of the principal elements of successful advocacy.  It explains the basic tools of community organizing—setting goals, building organizations and coalitions, identifying the people who can make desired changes, developing strategies and tactics, and gaining real power—and how to obtain and use those tools.

Together, these elements make Bite Back essential reading for anyone who longs for a food system healthier for people and the environment.  This book is an inspiration for food advocates and potential advocates.  Join organizations!  Vote!  Run for office!   Whatever you do, get busy and act!   Our food system and the world will be better—much better—as a result.

                •                                                                                     –Marion Nestle, New York City, March 2019

 

 

May 7 2020

Uh oh. Foodborne illnesses are rising

The CDC’s latest report on foodborne illness does not have good news.

Of eight pathogens tracked by CDC’s FoodNet system, illnesses caused by five have increased since last year and three are about the same.

During 2019, FoodNet identified 25,866 cases of infection, 6,164 hospitalizations, and 122 deaths …In 2019, compared with the previous 3 years, the incidence of infections caused by pathogens transmitted commonly through food increased (for CampylobacterCyclospora, STEC, VibrioYersinia) or remained unchanged (for Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella). These data indicate that Healthy People 2020 targets for reducing foodborne illness will not be met.

The CDC’s conclusion?

FoodNet surveillance data indicate that progress in controlling major foodborne pathogens in the United States has stalled. To better protect the public and achieve forthcoming Healthy People 2030 foodborne disease reduction goals, more widespread implementation of known prevention measures and new strategies that target particular pathogens and serotypes are needed.

Note that Coronavirus is not a cause of foodborne illness, and has never been shown to do so.  Coronavirus affects the food system in other ways: closing restaurants, schools, and other institutions; sickening farm workers, slaughterhouse workers, grocery store workers–and food inspectors.

Now more than ever is time for diligent attention to food safety procedures.

May 6 2020

Where are unions when we need them?

If Covid-19 does anything useful, it will be to expose how badly treated are low-wage farm, slaughterhouse, and grocery workers, suddenly deemed essential.  It also exposes the bad treatment of restaurant workers, now unemployed, and many paid so poorly that they do not even qualify for unemployment insurance.

Where are labor unions when we need them?  The union that organizes slaughterhouse workers explains why it is so weak.

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.

The good news: signs of a newly emergent worker movement in recent strikes.  These are listed here.

The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic is a good reason to support this movement.

Organize!

Addition: This article, just out, has a good summary of the history of meatpacking unions.  

For several decades after World War II, conditions in meatpacking plants steadily improved as a result of pressure from workers themselves.  Starting in 1943, the United Packinghouse Workers of America, a labor union, organized meatpacking employees in major cities. At the height of its influence, this union secured “master agreements” with the largest firms, such as Armour and Swift, ensuring standard wages and working conditions across the industry.  One source of the UPWA’s influence was its ability to build interracial alliances.

May 5 2020

More on the crisis in meatpacking

Who knew that meatpacking plants would become the flash point for everything that’s wrong with our food system.  An alarming 18% of packinghouse workers are infected with Covid-19—the ones known.

Public health authorities insisted that the plants be closed, and Food Dive lists the ones that did.

Because the plants closed, farmers have nowhere to send their ready-for-slaughter animals.  But, says Civil Eats , don’t blame them for having to cull their animals.  It’s not their fault; it’s the fault of the big companies that own the animals.

Farmers under contract don’t own the animals they are raising, and therefore cannot simply find a new market for them…The reality is that farmers don’t have to option sell the animals anywhere else. If the company tells them to euthanize an entire flock of the bird it owns on the spot, farmers have no choice but to comply—even as consumers clamber over empty shelves in the supermarkets, farmers are forced to depopulate.

What happens to the dead animals?  There really are no good options.

Burning, burying, or composting up to 70,000 hog carcasses a day—or even grinding them into dust—could have serious consequences for our air and drinking water.

What happens to the workers, now forced by presidential order to go back to the plants?

In interviews with poultry workers in Georgia, Arkansas and Mississippi a similar pattern of alleged negligence, secrecy and mismanagement emerged at facilities operated by some of the largest food manufacturers in America…For more than a century, the meatpacking industry has been a symbol of how corporations are able to exploit workers in the name of efficiency. The Covid-19 outbreak has opened another chapter.

Trump, says The Guardian,  is marching meatpacking workers off to their deaths.

With his executive order on Tuesday night, the president is in effect overruling safety-minded governors and mayors who have pressured numerous meat, pork and poultry plants into shutting temporarily after they had become hotspots that were spreading Covid-19 through their surrounding communities. With such a move, Trump is – let’s not mince words here – is showing contempt for both workers’ health and public health.

What is this really all about?  Read this analysis in Dissent.

Why has the pandemic thrived in meat factories? It was a perfect storm caused by a whole raft of dysfunctionalities, from the rise of giant agribusiness companies to the hollowing out of the nation’s regulatory state, and the hyper-exploitation of a vulnerable, largely immigrant working class which staffs the lines. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspections have long been laughable at these plants. Fines, when leveled, tend to be a few thousand dollars, a pittance for billion-dollar corporations. The low-wage workers who staff the plants live in cramped quarters, sometimes with more than one family sharing the same dwelling—so if one person gets sick, the disease can spread quickly…By intervening so directly in the food-chain crisis, the Trump administration has thoroughly politicized the conditions under which food is produced.

I suppose we must thank the Covid-19 pandemic for so clearly exposing deep structural problems and inequities in our food system.

Will a new labor movement arise?  See tomorrow’s post.

Addition

State Attorneys General have written a letter expressing anti-trust concerns about how consolidation in the meat industry has led to this crisis.

Given the concentrated market structure of the beef industry, it may be particularly susceptible to market manipulation, particularly during
times of food insecurity, such as the current COVID-19 crisis. During an economic downturn, such as that caused by the current pandemic, firms’ ability to harm American consumers through market manipulation and coordinated behavior exacts a greater toll, providing an additional reason for conducting a careful inquiry into this industry.

May 4 2020

Tone deaf ad of the week, UK version: Krispie Kreme

Thanks to  Jane Snell for alerting me to the UK’s Krispie Kreme efforts to deal with Covid-19.  It provides a Krispie Kreme Coronavirus Update website.

In addition to delivering surprise doughnut packages, we opened our first drive-thru in Manchester on 16th April. The drive-thru is serving NHS, Police and Fire workers, who will be eligible to receive complimentary hot drinks and one of our three-packs of original glazed doughnuts. We hope to have all nine of our drive-thrus opened by the 27th April, to serve NHS, Police and Fire workers, to support them in the battle against COVID-19.

The Update’s Community page, “Serving Smiles,” says:

We’ve all been asked to do our bit. To stay at home and patiently sit. To social distance. To wash our hands. To clap for carers. To call our grans. Big or small we all have our part to play. And ours? It’s delivering moments of joy each day. Now more than ever you all deserve a treat. And we want to remind you that life can be sweet. So we are back up and running throughout the British Isles. We are here to serve. Here to serve smiles.

It gets better: Krispie Kreme wants you to join its social movement.

The site comes with a Coronavirus Q and A.  I know you will be relieved to see this one:

The CEO says “I want to reassure you that the safety and wellbeing of our staff will always be our No 1 priority.”

Yeah, right.

I don’t see anything here about worker pay, alas.

Or about how eating fewer doughnuts might be a good idea right now.

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.