Covid-19 & The Vulnerabilities of the Meat Industry

If there is anything COVID-19 has consistently demonstrated it is showing the major vulnerabilities in the global food industry. In particular, meat production in countries such as the United States is at grave risk of crumbling under pandemic provisions. As the outside world standardizes social distancing, American meat continues to pack thousands of animals and workers into confined arenas with predictable consequences.

It wasn’t always this way: As many as four million family farms have dissolved between the years 1948 and 2015, yet in that same period total farm output more than doubled. The number of animals linked to this market which are killed in the United States annually (figures for 2017)  is a staggering 9 billion chickens, along with 32.2 million cattle, 241.7 million turkeys and 121 million pigs, at the center of which is a population of 328 million consumers. The current practices of raising livestock indicates a modern shift in agriculture; a shift that has hijacked the natural growth of an animal and expedited it in the name of profit and productivity.

Livestock raised with the intent of slaughter rarely see a life outside of confined cages and antibiotic induced maturation. Thousands of animals packed into unsanitary living conditions are left overcrowded, nutrient deprived, and the perfect incubators for pathogen transmission. Though the genesis of the COVID-19 remains unclear, we do know that other corona viruses such as Sars-Co V-2 were a product of natural evolution – an evolution that originates in animals but does not discriminate among potential hosts. When a pandemic hits there is no differentiation between the health of humans and the health of animals, coronaviruses spread just as blindly between all of us.

Individuals working with potentially infected animals are of greatest concern. More than 10,000 individuals working at poultry and meat plants in the US have contracted COVID-19, yet companies like Tyson have not given any indication that they will be slowing down. In some respects COVID-19 is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to worker welfare in the meat industry.

Slaughtering animals and processing flesh on a day-to-day basis necessarily affects the general wellbeing of workers in the animal industry, with meat workers facing severe psychological concerns that often go unaddressed and eventually evolve into a culture of desensitization with associated personal and societal effects. Such a culture is profitable for a company when it creates an implicit expectation of working despite suffering. This assumption proves to be especially dangerous in the wake of a pandemic, with an entire nation’s food supply nearing devastation. Today meat processing workers are expected to show up to an unsafe work environment, or lose their job and entire livelihood. Either way their life is on the line.

In the early stages of the pandemic more than 640 COVID cases were linked to the Smithfield pork factory in Sioux Falls, making it the nation’s largest single-source coronavirus hot spot. The outbreak forced the meatpacking plant to close its doors creating a backlog in un-slaughtered animals. States such as Iowa backlogged 600,000 pigs after the nation’s shutdown forcing conversations of unprofitable disposal.

As a result, farmers nationwide were forced to conduct unprecedented depopulation procedures such as gassing millions of chickens and shooting thousands of pigs. Farms were unable to keep up with an overabundance of meat, yet thousands of people were lining up daily to receive food they could no longer afford under a harsh economic recession. This stark irony implores a question of our larger food system sustainability. What good is industrial meat achieving if it is not feeding the people it relies upon?

The integrity of the meat industry has long been a question of concern among consumers. For decades these meat packing and slaughtering operations have maximized efficiency and profit by industrializing a process that used to be carried out in or close to the home, by individual families. This consolidation of industry has bottlenecked the food supply chain to become reliant on a few major companies, who in turn refuse to stop production despite dangerous outbreaks.

COVID-19 is demonstrating what happens when the meat supply of a nation depends upon a system of production that demands close quarters, long days, and genetically homogenous animals. The hazardous reality of the vast majority of meat production urges a serious reassessment of the delicate food chain when entering into a post pandemic world. If it wasn’t obvious pre-pandemic it has become painstakingly clear now that the health of a nation relies upon the health of its food supply, and the world is severely sick.

For The Yucatan Times
Kassidy Freitas

Kassidy Freitas writes environmental features on wide-ranging topics for multiple news and media sources.