This, from the Iowa Department of Public Health:
Enjoy the day, if you can.
This, from the Iowa Department of Public Health:
Enjoy the day, if you can.
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.
I’m trying to keep up with meat crisis items. Here are two.
This is too upsetting to even talk about.
HARVEST BOXES AGAIN
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 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.
Let’s review what’s happened here.
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.
We will have meat—at higher prices, of course.
But at what cost to workers’ lives?
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).
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’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.
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.
In this Coronavirus era, anything that helps keep you sane is worth trying.
That’s why I loved this headline: “Meat eaters have better mental health than vegans and vegetarians, study claims.”
I couldn’t wait to see this one.
The study: Dobersek U, et al. Meat and mental health: a systematic review of meat abstention and depression, anxiety, and related phenomena, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 2020.
The majority of studies, and especially the higher quality studies, showed that those who avoided meat consumption had significantly higher rates or risk of depression, anxiety, and/or self-harm behaviors. There was mixed evidence for temporal relations, but study designs and a lack of rigor precluded inferences of causal relations. Our study does not support meat avoidance as a strategy to benefit psychological health.
Seeing a title and conclusions like these, I couldn’t help but wonder who funded it. Bingo!
Funding: This study was funded in part via an unrestricted research grant from the Beef Checkoff, through the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
The funding statement then continues with “The sponsor of the study had no role in the study design, data collection, data analysis, data interpretation, or writing of the report.” The disclosure statement says: “No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).”
Comment: It’s too bad for the credibility of these statements that so much research demonstrates a strong influence of industry funding on research conclusions, and that much of the influence occurs unconsciously; researchers don’t recognize the influence. The basic observation: industry-funded research almost invariably favors the sponsor’s interests.
The meat industry is under intense scrutiny these days for its treatment of animals and slaughterhouse workers—the topics of my next posts. Stay tuned.
Thanks to Daniel Skaven Ruben for being the first to write me about this study.
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.”
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.