by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Meat

Jun 8 2021

What’s known about the cyber attack on JBS?

What with accusations of causing cancer and climate change, putting workers at risk of Covid-19, and exercising inappropriate political muscle (writing Trump’s  executive order to keep the meat packing plants and collaborating with USDA to fight public health measures), Big Meat is under a lot of pressure.

And now we have the latest—a ransomware hack of the largest meat company in the world, the Brazilian company JBS ($52 billion in revenues).

By messing with the company’s IT systems, the hackers shut down all of its meatpacking facilities.

In a press release, JBS said the attack would not seriously affect supply chains, but one expert says the meat industry is likely to feel the effects of this disruption for weeks..

The USDA says it is in communication with everyone concerned: the White House, Homeland Security Department and JBS.

The Counter points out that JBS is not the first food company to be subject to a ransomware attack, and it undoubtedly will not be the last.

Politico (behind a paywall) reports:

Virtually no mandatory cybersecurity rules govern the millions of food and agriculture businesses that account for about a fifth of the U.S. economy — just voluntary guidelines exist. The two federal agencies overseeing the sector include the USDA, which has faced criticism from Congress for how it secures its own data. And unlike other industries that have formed information-sharing collectives to coordinate their responses to potential cyber threats, the food industry disbanded its group in 2008.

Politico also reports that last month, the University of Minnesota’s Food Protection and Defense Institute warned about the threats to meatpacking plants, and how shutdowns would cause meat shortages and price spikes.  And in November last year, the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike noted “a tenfold increase in interactive — or “hands-on-keyboard” — intrusions affecting the agriculture industry over the previous 10 months.”

Politico also said:

A 2018 report from the Department of Homeland Security examined a range of cyber threats facing the industry as it adopts digitized “precision agriculture,” while the FBI said in April 2016 that agriculture is “increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks as farmers become more reliant on digitized data.” The industry also offers plentiful targets: As the Department of Homeland Security’s cyber agency notes , the ag and food sector includes “an estimated 2.1 million farms, 935,000 restaurants, and more than 200,000 registered food manufacturing, processing, and storage facilities,” almost all under private ownership.

The Justice Department says it intends to handle ransomware cases the same way it handles terrorism cases, according to CBS News.

The White House says the hackers are almost certainly Russian cyber-criminals.

JBS has not yet said whether it paid a ransom.  [Added comment, 6-10-21: JBS paid $11 million in ransom].

If food companies have not adequately invested in their IT systems, now is the time.

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May 3 2021

Industry policy influence of the week: meat and dairy vs. climate change

Thanks to Sinead Boylan in Australia for alerting me to this paper about the influence of the meat and dairy industries on climate change policy.  The authors are Environmental Science colleagues at NYU.

The Study: The climate responsibilities of industrial meat and dairy producers.  Oliver Lazarus & Sonali McDermid & Jennifer Jacquet.  Climatic Change (2021) 165:30.

Method: The authors examined the role of 35 of the world’s largest meat and dairy companies in actions related to preventing climate change. But in particular, it investigated “the transparency of emissions reporting, mitigation commitments, and influence on public opinion and politics of the 10 US meat and dairy companies.”

Its overall conclusion: “all 10 US companies have contributed to efforts to undermine climate-related policies.”

Through a questionnaire, it found (these are direct quotes):

  • All 10 US companies have contributed to research that minimizes the link between animal agriculture and climate change (Q11). Three companies—Tyson, Cargill, and Smithfield—have contributed directly to what Brulle (2014) called “climate change countermovement organizations” or organizations that have minimized the link between agriculture and climate change (Q13).
  • Four companies—Tyson, National Beef, Smithfield, and Hormel—have each made statements linking climate change regulation with potentially harming their profitability, either in an SEC form or in an annual report (Q17…).

Through researching OpenSecrets

  • Nine of the 10 companies have spent at least $600,000 on lobbying activities since 2000, with five of those companies spending over $14 million each…Tyson has spent the most on lobbying—$25 million—over the last two decades.
  • Cargill has spent $21.5 million; Smithfield Foods, $21 million; Dean Foods, $16 million; and Dairy Farmers of America, $14 million….
  • Combined, the companies have spent a total of $109 million on lobbying activities since 2000.
  • The other nine US-based companies [the tenth, Koch Foods, did not report] have spent a combined $26 million on political campaigns since 2000.
  • Dairy Farmers of America has spent the most, at $6.3 million since 2000. California Dairies has spent $5 million; Dean Foods, $4.3 million; Cargill, $4 million; and Tyson, $3.2 million.
  • Since 2000, Tyson has spent more on Republican candidates in every election cycle but one, and a similar pattern was observed for most of the companies examined here.
  • US meat and dairy companies act collectively…Together, six of these [trade] groups—the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the North American Meat Institute, the National Chicken Council, the International Dairy Foods Association, and the combined expenses of the American Farm Bureau Federation and its state groups—have spent nearly $200 million in lobbying since 2000, lobbying yearly on climate related issues like cap-and-trade, the Clean Air Act, and greenhouse gas regulations and reporting rules.
  • A recent sustainability report published by the US pork industry noted that “pork production contributes just 0.46% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere” (Pork Checkoff 2020).
  • In 2019, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association published a 21-part series, “Tough Questions About Beef Sustainability,” that, among other things, claims US beef production accounted for just 1.9% of total US emissions in 2014 (Beef Research 2019)

Their analysis also suggests: “the level of influence generally corresponded with emissions. Tyson, for example, is the largest emitter of the 10 US companies.  Tyson received the highest total influence score in response to our 20 questions at 15, tied with National Beef Packing Company, the fourth highest emitter.”

Overall: “In the case of the USA, our analysis provides evidence to suggest that the 10 largest meat and dairy companies have worked to frame the conversation, influence climate-related policies, and minimize the link between animal agriculture and climate change.”

Comment: This issue matters because animal agriculture is estimated to contribute 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions.  This, and industry behavior around this issue, is a reason why sustainability needs to be part of Dietary Guidelines, and “eat less meat” is good dietary advice for people in industrialized economies.

Apr 26 2021

Least credible food industry ad of the week: JBS and climate change

This ad appeared in yesterday’s New York Times.

The ad is signed jointly by JBS and Pilgrim’s, but JBS owns nearly 80% of Pilgrim’s, so this is JBS’s ad.

At the bottom of this ad, you can read about the company in very small print:

JBS is the second-largest food company in the world, producing high-quality beef, chicken and pork products, alokng with innovative prepared foods and plant-based alternatives that reimagine the future of protein….

The company is based in Brazil, where burning of the rainforest to grow soybeans—to feed cattle–produces massive amounts of greenhouse gases.

In this ad, JBS promises to achieve “net-zero emissions” by 2040.

How?  It’s a bit vague on details.

We’re setting time-bound, science-based targets and backing them up with $1 billion in capital over the next decade.  We’re supporting producers by investing $100 million by 2030 in on-farm research.

We will cut our own emissions by 30% by 2030 and eliminate Amazon deforestation from our supply chain within five years.

For the record, JBS’ annual revenues are nearly 40 times higher than what it plans to spend on this over the next 10 years.

The company’s revenues have been declining.  Does that explain its sudden interest in preventing climate change?

This looks like classic greenwashing to me.

Before believing that this is not greenwashing, I’d like to see those “time-bound, science-based targets” and to know who is holding JBS accountable for meeting them.

Feb 15 2021

Industry-funded study of the week: meat and metabolism

I’ve been collecting items about meat.  This is a good week to post them, starting with this.

The study:  Effects of Total Red Meat Intake on Glycemic Control and Inflammatory Biomarkers: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Lauren E O’Connor, Jung Eun Kim, Caroline M Clark, Wenbin Zhu, and Wayne W Campbell. . Adv Nutr 2021;12:115–127.

Conclusion:  “Total red meat consumption, for up to 16 weeks, does not affect changes in biomarkers of glycemic control or inflammation for adults free of, but at risk for, cardiometabolic disease.”

Funder (my emphasis): “This study was funded by The Pork Checkoff and Purdue University’s Bilsland Dissertation Fellowship (LEO). The funder had no role in the design or conduct of the study or the analysis or interpretation of data.

Author disclosures: LEO received honoraria and travel to present related research as a graduate student from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. During the time this research was conducted, WWC received funding for research grants, travel, or honoraria for scientific presentations or consulting services from the following organizations: National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Board, National Dairy Council, North Dakota Beef Commission, Foundation for Meat and Poultry Research and Education, Barilla Group, New York Beef Council, and North American Meat Institute. All the other authors report no conflicts of interest.

Comment:  Red meat is under attack for its strong association with health problems, cancer in particular.  In the 24 studies this group looked at, selected out of nearly 1200, they found no bad effects.  This is a typical result for an industry-funded study conducted by investigators with industry ties.  It would be more reassuring if found by independent investigators.

Jan 7 2021

What Covid-19 is doing to meatpacking workers and communities

A scientific report in Proceedings of the National Academies titled Livestock plants and COVID-19 transmission,” demonstrates the impact of Covid-19 on workers in meat and poultry processing plants.

Our study suggests that, among essential industries, livestock processing poses a particular public health risk extending far beyond meatpacking companies and their employees. We estimate livestock plants to be associated with 236,000 to 310,000 COVID-19 cases (6 to 8% of total) and 4,300 to 5,200 deaths (3 to 4% of total) as of July 21….This study shows that meat and poultry slaughter plants were in fact vectors of the disease…Researchers found that poultry plants showed a significant relationship with COVID-19 cases, with pork plants showing the strongest relationship. Beef plants showed the strongest relationship with deaths from the illness.

The USDA has done its own analysis: “The share of all COVID-19 cases in nonmetro [rural] areas has been growing since late March, increasing from 3.6 percent on April 1 to 15.6 percent on December 7.”

Among nonmetro counties, the highest COVID-19 case rates are found in farming-dependent and manufacturing-dependent counties. The high prevalence of COVID-19 in manufacturing-dependent counties is due partly to higher COVID-19 case rates in meatpacking-dependent counties (those in which 20 percent or more of employment is in the meatpacking industry), almost all of which are manufacturing-dependent counties.

But another USDA report, specifically about the meatpacking industry, looks to me as though it is hiding what is happening in those plants.  It includes a chart indicating no special increase in cases among meatpacking workers.  No surprise, if meatpacking plants are epicenters that spread the infection to the local community (but the report doesn’t say that).

What it does say is this:

The two-week moving average number of new daily cases rose in meatpacking-dependent counties through the remainder of April, reaching a peak of nearly 50 cases per 100,000 by the end of the month. This two-week moving average was more than 10 times the prevalence seen in other rural counties. Even though cases in meatpacking-dependent counties started to decline in the month of May, they remained significantly higher compared to other rural counties, falling to just under seven times the number of average daily cases by the end of May.​…Even though meatpacking-dependent counties are dealing with a second wave, the surge in rural new cases does not appear to be driven by new outbreaks in the meatpacking industry. Meatpacking-dependent counties have maintained an almost identical pattern to other rural counties for a fifth straight month.

Confused?  Me too.  This looks like a whitewash.

Is this one result of the USDA’s moving the Economic Research Service out of Washington DC to Kansas City, a move clearly meant to—successfully—decimate the agency?

Politico asks: can the ERS move be reversed?  Not easily, alas.

It’s a good thing independent scientists and investigators are keeping an eye on this situation.

Leah Douglas of the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) deserves much praise for tracking infections and deaths among farm and meatpacking workers.

Oct 6 2020

How much money is going into agricultural supports?

I’m trying to figure out how much money—over and above what’s appropriated through the farm bill—is going to Big Ag.  I wish someone would add it up for me.

Here’s what I know so far:

The USDA has given producers more than $10 billion in Coronavirus assistance.  This includes nearly $1 billion to Iowa farmers.  Lesser amounts went to producers in Nebraska, California, Texas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Overall, about half went to livestock producers.

According to the Environmental Working Group,

The largest and wealthiest U.S. farm businesses received the biggest share of almost $33 billion in payments from two subsidy programs – one created by the Trump administration to respond to the president’s trade war and the other by Congress in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  The Market Facilitation Program, or MFP, was intended to offset the perceived damage done by the administration’s trade war, which reduced many farmers’ access to lucrative Chinese markets. Payments for the 2018 and 2019 crop years were just over $23 billion – more than $8.5 billion for 2018 and $14.5 billion for 2019.

Chuck Abbott of the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) says:

With its new offer of $14 billion in coronavirus relief, the Trump administration could spend $50 billion — quadruple the cost of the auto industry bailout — in less than three years to buffer the impact of trade war and pandemic on agriculture. Farm groups welcomed the second round of coronavirus assistance while critics said it was “old-fashioned vote-buying” ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

And the largesse does not stop.  The House has proposed a $120 billion rescue fund that includes relief programs for livestock and dairy farmers and food processors, such as “$1.25 billion to assist contract growers of poultry and livestock growers who face revenue losses due to reduced placements related to COVID-19”

This money goes to Big Ag—Soybeans, Corn, Meat—mainly in mid-West Trump country.

What about food for people?  Well, we have the $4 billion Farmers to Families food boxes, although how much of that goes to farmers as opposed to distributors is unknown.

Sep 22 2020

Corporate capture in action: e-mails illustrate the meat industry’s role in keeping plants open despite Covid-19

I’ve written previously (see this one, for example) about the meat industry’s role in keeping plants open despite worker illnesses, but much about the industry’s pressures on government has been based on conjecture.  No more.

In another example of the value of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), two groups have obtained e-mails documenting these pressures.

FROM PRO PUBLICA, September 14, 2020: “Emails Show the Meatpacking Industry Drafted an Executive Order to Keep Plants Open: Hundreds of emails offer a rare look at the meat industry’s influence and access to the highest levels of government. The draft was submitted a week before Trump’s executive order, which bore striking similarities.”

The e-mails indicate that the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), the trade association for the meat industry, essentially wrote President Trump’s executive order invoking the Defense Production Act, which forced plants to stay open and workers to continue working under unsafe and highly virus-transmissable conditions.

For example (and look on the site for #6, which does a longer and even more compelling comparison):

FROM PUBLIC CITIZEN, September 15, 2020: “The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the meatpacking industry worked together to downplay and disregard risks to worker health during the pandemic, as shown in documents uncovered by Public Citizen and American Oversight through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.”

The documents show that:

  • The executive order signed by President Donald Trump regarding meatpacking plants, ostensibly invoking the Defense Production Act, was the result of lobbying by the North American Meat Institute, a meat-packing trade association, which prepared what appears to be the first draft of what would become the executive order;
  • The North American Meat Institute repeatedly requested that USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue discourage workers who were afraid to return to work from staying home;
  • Meatpacking plants asked the USDA to intervene on multiple occasions when state and local governments either shut them down over health and safety concerns or sought to impose worker health and safety standards; and
  • Smithfield Foods repeatedly requested that the USDA “order” it to reopen its meat processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. – despite no legal basis for such an order.

WHAT’S AT STAKE HERE?

Check out Leah Douglas’s ongoing count of Covid-19 cases among meatpacking workers.  Her figures as of September 18, include at least:

  • 804 meatpacking and food processing plants (496 meatpacking and 308 food processing) and 106 farms and production facilities have had confirmed cases of Covid-19.
  • 59,430 workers (42,606 meatpacking workers, 9,571 food processing workers, and 7,253 farmworkers) have tested positive for Covid-19.
  • 254 workers (203 meatpacking workers, 35 food processing workers, and 16 farmworkers) have died.

To state the obvious: corporate capture of government agencies and the presidency is not good for public health or American democracy.

Sep 15 2020

OSHA fines meat packers for Covid failures (sort of)

I have complained previously how Covid-19 has exposed corporate capture of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency ostensibly responsible for ensuring “safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women.”

You don’t believe me?  Try this.

U.S. Department of Labor Cites Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. For Failing to Protect Employees from Coronavirus: The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has cited Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp. in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus. OSHA proposed a penalty of $13,494, the maximum allowed by law.

Or this.  U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR CITES JBS FOODS INC. FOR FAILING TO PROTECT EMPLOYEES FROM EXPOSURE TO THE CORONAVIRUS: The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has cited JBS Foods Inc. in Greeley, Colorado, for failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus. OSHA proposed $15,615 in penalties.

They have to be kidding.  We are talking here, according to Leah Douglas’s statistics, about how more than 2500 Smithfield employees and more than 2700 JBS employees have been confirmed with Covid-19.

If these are the maximum penalties (!), how about assigning them to every one of those cases.

The companies can certainly afford it: Smithfield had $13.2 billion in sales in 2019, and JBS had $51.7 billion.

Never mind, even that pittance penalty is too high for the meat industry to accept.

Furthermore, Smithfield is appealing the fine.  A representative said the fine is

“wholly without merit” because the company took”extraordinary measures” to protect employees from the COVID-19 virus. And during the pandemic, Smithfield took direction from OSHA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Translation: “It’s not our fault.  It’s OSHA fault, the CDC’s fault, the USDA’s fault.

That’s not what the meatpacking workers’ union says.

Today [September 10], the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, which represents1.3 million workersin meatpacking plants and other essential businesses, condemned the new U.S. Department of Labor fine on Smithfield Foods as completely insufficient in the wake of the company’s failure to protect meatpacking workers at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota which reported nearly 1,300 COVID-19 infections and at least four deaths among its employees. As the union for Smithfield workers at this plant, UFCW called today’s fine by the Trump Administration insulting and a slap on the wrist that will do nothing to help those already infected or prevent future worker deaths.

It issued a similar statement on the JBS fine.

The meat industry has rallied to the defense of its Big Meat members.  To wit: Meat Institute Issues Statement on OSHA Citation Related to COVID-19.  

The meat and poultry industry’s first priority is the safety of the men and women who work in their facilities [every time you read a statement like this, think of a red flag on the playing field—a warning that it means just the opposite]. Notwithstanding inconsistent and sometimes tardy government advice, (‘don’t wear a mask/wear a mask’/April 26 OSHA guidance specific to the meat and poultry industry) when the pandemic hit in mid-March, meat and poultry processing companies quickly and diligently took steps to protect their workers. Companies had to overcome challenges associated with limited personal protective equipment…Most importantly, as evidenced in trends in data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network and The New York Times, these many programs and controls once in place worked and continue to work. Positive cases of COVID-19 associated with meat and poultry companies are trending down compared with cases nationwide.

The Meat Institute actually has the nerve to cite Leah Douglas’s data to support its defense—this, while meat companies are refusing to provide accurate data.  (Even the union cites much lower figures despite its reports of workers being forced to stay on the lines without masks despite being ill or risk losing their jobs).

It details its arguments that all those illnesses and deaths are OSHA’s fault in yet another press release on September 14. 

I suppose we will now go through all this again for Tyson’s, where more than 10,000 workers have become ill.

Expect another of OSHA’s “slaps on the wrist” followed by the Meat Institute’s objections.