Slaughterhouse COVID-19: Meat Deemed Essential, Workers Expendable
A Meat and Dairy Industries Article from

FROM Caroline Ognibene, AFA
May 2020

The inclusion of meat processing under the Defense Production Act is a critically irresponsible response to slaughterhouse COVID-19 spread and a human rights injustice to workers placed in these high risk environments.

meat processing
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  • The Trump administration has declared meat an essential good, despite the fact that animal proteins are not essential and have already been overproduced and stockpiled.
  • OSHA regulations for worker safety are being self-enforced, enabling meat processing COVID-19 cases to flourish and facilities to take shortcuts.
  • The environmental impacts disproportionately affect Black, Hispanic, and American Indian local residents, and these human rights violations are being sanctioned by the Defense Production Act (DPA).

Make no mistake: while some companies pivot to produce hand sanitizer and facemasks to aid frontline healthcare workers, the continued slaughter of animals has nothing to do with nobly serving the dire needs of the American people.

This is made evident by President Trump’s April 28th executive order, which provides a legal and financial cushion for meat processing conglomerates. Including meat processing under the DPA will only increase our national COVID-19 pandemic vulnerability while exacerbating environmental justice issues.

What does the Defense Production Act (DPA) mean for slaughterhouse COVID-19 cases?

Since its first enactment in 1950, the DPA has been invoked over 50 times. While its exact specifications have changed slightly over time, its fundamental power remains the same. The DPA grants the president the following abilities: to direct private companies to prioritize federal instructions, and to have oversight on the allocation of any manufactured goods or services.

When the Trump administration announced it would be enacting the Defense Production Act in response to the pandemic, it caused confusion over precisely what the Act would be used to do. Initially, President Trump was hesitant to interfere in the private market and relied on voluntary contributions to the production of healthcare materials such as hand sanitizer and face masks. He then pivoted to compel General Motors to produce ventilators.

Then, on April 28th, President Trump issued an executive order labeling meat (beef and pork) and poultry processing as “essential infrastructure.” This order handed power to the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, to continue the production of meat and poultry, and to allocate those ‘essential resources’ at his discretion. Crucially, this is not an edict demanding that all processing plants stay open. But in some places, it’s being treated like one. By categorizing meat as a necessity to national defense alongside ventilators, President Trump has given factory farms undue moral authority. This order also overrides local authorities, sending the message that the federal government can make decisions about factories’ opening and closing.

The implications of this order are deeply problematic. They reveal a lack of concern for human rights, national health, and animal treatment. The justification on which all of these offenses lie, the crux of this executive order, is the notion that meat processing plants are necessary as a “supply of protein for Americans.” In other words, meat is essential. This claim is woefully uninformed and actually ineffectual. Myriad studies show that people can live healthily off of plant-based proteins. The American Dietetic Association has stated that well-planned vegetarian or vegan diets “are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases,” and “are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy and lactation.” Additionally, we are a long way off from facing actual meat shortages; many slaughterhouses across the country still have significant refrigerated inventories. According to the USDA, the national total cold storage of beef in March 2020 is above 500 million pounds, compared to just over 450 million pounds in March 2019.

So, what is the real purpose of including animal slaughter in the DPA despite the growing number of slaughterhouse COVID-19 cases? DPA keeps the money flowing for factory owners, at the expense of workers’ health and wellbeing.

Since their initial development during the Industrial Revolution, slaughterhouses have been engineered for maximum efficiency and production. This means tight production lines, with workers standing elbow-to-elbow. Meat production work is labor-intensive, causing workers to breathe heavily and sweat. As a result, dozens of slaughterhouse COVID-19 hotspots were shut down in March.

In the years since slaughterhouses were first developed, corporate consolidation has given a small number of companies disproportionate power in the supply chain. Consequently, conglomerates like Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods (owned by Chinese-based WH Group) have accrued considerable political leverage. On April 26th, Tyson ran ads in several national newspapers saying the food supply chain was broken, and that America could face a meat shortage. This scaremongering clearly reached the White House, as the executive order was issued just two days later.

Corporations knowingly endangered their meat processing workers following the initial outbreak of the virus.

In April, Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, became America’s largest virus hotspot. Employees reported tightly packed locker rooms and bathrooms in addition to concentrated assembly lines – basically the opposite of the recommended social distancing measures. In the first week of April, state health officials reported over 80 positive cases of slaughterhouse COVID-19 in the Sioux Falls plant, prompting a three-day closure, and a $500 bonus for workers without any absences for the month. By the end of April, the plant reported 518 infections amongst its employees.

On April 9th, the Sioux Falls plant reported that it was being pressured by Sonny Perdue to stay open. First, this was before Perdue received any powers under the DPA. Second, the DPA has yet to be used forcibly on any meat plants. When Smithfield reopened, they did so of their own volition. Smithfield employees and family members protested outside the Sioux Falls plant to bring attention to workers’ safety concerns.

On April 28th, the same day of the executive order, The U.S. Department of Labor issued a joint statement from The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding the enforcement of health and safety regulations for meat processing facilities. At the outset, these measures are but lip service to scientific guidelines surrounding COVID-19 – they include scanning temperatures, increased testing, and Plexiglass barriers in some areas. But these measures do not account for asymptomatic carriers, and are enforced haphazardly. The functional design of processing plants requires people to work and sweat closely to each other. Adjusting this process would require the construction of entirely new factories. Moreover, the enforcement statement hands all regulatory power to the employers at meat plants, and explicitly advises that OSHA will consider good-faith attempts at worker protection as sufficient. Evidence of a good-faith attempt, per the statement, merely requires documentation about why safety regulations could not be imposed. This self-regulatory system allows plants to reopen without robust safety measures to prevent slaughterhouse COVID-19 transmission.

“To the extent employers determine that certain measures are not feasible in the context of specific plants and circumstances, they are encouraged to document why that is the case. In the event of an investigation, OSHA will take into account good faith attempts to follow the Joint Meat Processing Guidance.”

Workers at Smithfield plants in South Dakota and Wisconsin have anonymously complained about the poor standards of health, including the risk that contaminated workers handle meat directly. Tyson employees have similarly reported negligence and mismanagement of the risks surrounding disease spread. At a pork plant in Missouri, Smithfield workers filed a lawsuit through the Rural Community Workers Alliance, arguing that hazardous work conditions exposed workers to COVID-19. Smithfield responded that they had introduced OSHA guidelines where possible. This suit was dismissed in the first week of May, with District Judge Greg Kays referring to the DPA executive order as indication that the federal government will enforce safety regulations, not the courts.

It is clear that under the Defense Production Act and the Department of Labor’s guidelines, meat processing companies have been given the legal flexibility to exploit and endanger workers. Tara Williams, who works in Tyson’s plant in Camilla, Georgia, likened Trump’s executive order and her company’s treatment of its production employees to “modern-day” slavery.

Tyson processing
Workers at Tyson’s Camilla, Georgia, poultry processing plant. Photograph: Tyson/AP

The unsafe conditions at meat production plants harm local communities and disrespect human rights.

The recent Smithfield Sioux Falls $500 incentive to attend work capitalizes on the legal economic statuses of slaughterhouse workers, and encourages the prioritization of production over safety and health. The harm is not limited to the workers alone; as a result of the prolific rate of slaughterhouse COVID-19 infections, cities such as Gainesville, Georgia, home to several poultry processing plants, are suffering disproportionately.[13]

The profit-first attitude in response to the pandemic is consistent with Smithfield’s history. In 2005, a subsidiary of Smithfield signed a contract with Global Horizons Manpower, which has since been indicted for human trafficking and forced labor.[14] Smithfield is now owned by the Chinese company WH Group, which is incentivized to raise hogs in the U.S. due to both larger farms and, in some states, looser environmental regulations.[15] The air and water pollution from raising livestock directly harms the surrounding communities. Smithfield’s Tarheel Plant slaughterhouse in North Carolina was found to discharge a daily average of 1,759 pounds of nitrogen into the Cape Fear River.[16] Smithfield is one of several environmental violators, alongside Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Sanderson Farms.

The Department of Epidemiology at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has found that industrial hog operations in North Carolina

“disproportionately affect Black, Hispanic, and American Indian residents […] This spatial pattern is generally recognized as environmental racism.”[17]

This egregious injustice reveals the selfish and careless nature of meat processing conglomerates.

An ongoing nuisance lawsuit, McKiver v. Murphy-Brown, is the first of many pending complaints regarding the externalized costs of cheap production, and how these costs particularly harm marginalized local communities.

This corporate disregard for human rights is now sanctioned by the DPA.

If executives at Smithfield cared about the American people, they would follow environmental and labor standards regulations. Now, alongside similar meat-packing conglomerates, Smithfield has successfully exerted its political power to override local authority and health advisories. This action announces that slaughterhouse workers are valued as assets, not people, whose health and safety is an easy trade-off for maintaining profit margins.

President Trump’s executive order effectively silences the legal voices of slaughterhouse workers. By describing factory closures as unnecessary, and listing pork as an essential good, the White House has given companies significant legal backing: companies may force workers to return, dismiss workers who cannot, and continue to deny sick leave. The order further entrenches the relationship between industrial slaughterhouses and our government. Just as President Trump first invoked the DPA solely as leverage, and then actually employed it with General Motors, the president – and Sonny Perdue – now have the potential to command that slaughterhouse COVID-19 hotspots continue to slaughter animals and pack meat throughout the pandemic.

Abrupt factory closures undoubtedly cause problems. Factory workers face loss of salary and health insurance. Surplus animals cannot be processed for meat, and are instead euthanized. Allen Harim Foods, for example, has killed millions of chickens without producing any meat.[18] According to the Minnesota Pork Production Association, around 10,000 hogs are euthanized daily in Minnesota alone.[19] Piglets continue to be born every day, and small-scale animal farmers are feeling the financial pain of this waste.

The meat production industry follows a chain of production that has developed from years of consolidation and increased output. It cannot adjust to the pandemic without purposeless slaughter or the sacrifice of its workers. The solution is undoubtedly not to give the owners of mass factory corporations the power to override scientific or local governmental recommendations by putting their workers, and communities, at risk.

A daughter of a Smithfield worker in Sioux Falls accurately summarized to the BBC that

“there are actual human faces tied to all the goods that [you] buy at the store. Those people are being exploited.”[20]

Of course, there is also an animal life behind the processed and packaged meats at grocery stores. Perhaps the current mass euthanizing of animals will call attention to the moral cost of our food production system. It is clear, however, that the behavior of meat processing plants is an affront to human justice, irrespective of your dietary choices.

A painful but powerful byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic is how it forcibly reveals the values of those with operational power. The response from large-scale meat processing plants is demonstrably unhealthy, unproductive, and unjust.

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