Meatpacking plants have proven to be major hotspots of the coronavirus pandemic, with some forced to temporarily shut down as a result. From a pork plant in Iowa to a beef plant in Colorado, these closures are disrupting an invisible supply chain that consumers have come to trust. But there was nothing stable about them to begin with.
Recent interviews with packing house workers have revealed difficult working conditions. In some cases, they stand shoulder to shoulder all day. They carpool work and are offered no paid sick leave. Even in better days, conditions were tough, with dangerous machinery and production line speed causing regular injuries.
In all, at least eight meatpacking plants and five processed food plants are now closed in response to COVID-19 outbreaks.
“This COVID event is kind of a warning shot from nature,” said Bob Martin, Program Director of Food System Policy for Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future. “We can’t continue to exceed planetary boundaries. We can’t continue to push the human-wild animal interface being caused by the industrial system, which also has an environmental impact because you’re converting forest land to cropland to raise corn and soybeans to feed animals in large-scale operations.”
For years, Bob studied the public health environment, animal welfare, and rural community impact of large-scale animal operations. Now, his focus, and the entire center’s, “has pivoted to understanding how COVID is disrupting the system, and working through our coalition partners tracking legislation and response to it.”
“We’re not virologists. We’re not epidemiologists. We understand the things that can disrupt the food system. The COVID impact is more serious than a weather event, but it has the same disruptive character.”
“One of the things about an event like this is that cracks in the system split wide open under pressure,” he said.
Bob explained how the industrial system of animal agricultural production, the predominant way food is produced, has always been extremely fragile.
“The system of animal production, from farm to processing, is overwhelmingly the industrial model,” Bob said. This is based off a ‘just-in-time’ theory. Like a car manufacturer with parts in an assembly plant, “the industrial animal agriculture is geared to a steady flow of animals into the processing plants. When that end component is disrupted, it sends ripples back up the supply chain.”
Millions of hogs and chickens have already been slaughtered and buried in landfills because processing plants “haven’t been able to operate at the capacity that the whole system was designed for. The animals are flowing in at a certain rate. Because the flow is coming from the back of the system, not at the processing, you can’t say, ‘Okay, I’ve got to hang onto these extra 10 million hogs.’”
Ultimately, Bob argued, “it’s really the design of the system.” The U.S. has gone from about 10,000 state and federally inspected slaughterhouses in 1967 to about 2,700 of them. “There’s too much concentration of slaughter capacity. They’re not redundancy into the system.”
So, outbreaks in small-town production plants send ripples all along the supply chain, down to the customer shopping at their local grocer or getting lunch at a fast-food drive-through. And so, about 1,000 Wendy’s locations have taken burgers off their menus. Grocers like Kroger and Costco are limited customers’ meat purchases. This might last a while, even as plants open up with significantly decreased capacity.
When 190 meatpacking and processed food plants and four farms show confirmed cases of COVID-19, that changes the way we think about our food. It lifts a veil off the entire process, bringing to light how seemingly miraculous it is that grocery aisles have been so plentiful for so long. And perhaps, for some, it has us rethinking where we get our protein.
“I don’t think plant-based is necessarily the answer,” Bob said. “It’s part of the answer.”
His focus is on how the animal protein system could be overhauled into a regenerative one, “which would reintegrate animals into the crop production system and into the landscape.” By incorporating animals as part of the crop rotation, “a producer doesn’t need outside resources like liquid nitrogen and mined phosphorus to put on their crop fields. They get it from animal waste.”
But here’s where a more plant-based diet comes in. According to Bob, for a regenerative system to work, Americans simply can’t consume as much meat as they do. The American Heart Association suggests that the average American should eat about three ounces of meat a day — but estimates show that they’re eating about 10 ounces. “One of the things that would take pressure off that is encouraging plant-based alternatives,” he said.
In the eight weeks ending April 18, sales of plant-based meats were up a shocking 265% over the previous eight weeks, according to the Good Food Institute. These companies are expanding, offering more competitive prices, and even inspiring at-home hacks. At the top of this chain: Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
Fifteen years ago, biochemist Pat Brown heard that the emissions from agriculture, forestry, and livestock outpaced those of transportation entirely. With this jarring statistic in mind, he decided to take a risk and create an alternative to energy-intensive meat. Today, Impossible Foods is valued at nearly $4 billion.
Brown’s argument remains that a plant-based diet is better for the economy, for the environment, and for food security. “Anytime there’s a spotlight illuminating what’s actually involved in slaughtering animals and producing meat it is bad news for the meat industry,” Brown said in a recent interview. In April alone, Impossible Foods went from selling to 150 grocery stores nationwide to 2,700, with plans to increase to over 10,000 by the end of 2020.
Some plant-based meats, like the ones chemically engineered to taste like a burger, may be better for the environment, “but not necessarily for your health,” Bob said. He suggests taking into account proteins like beans and lentils, too.
According to a recent study, if Americans replaced half of their animal-based food consumption with plant-based ones, we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions sharply (1.6 billion tons!) by 2030.
This doesn’t just mean replacing meat. It also extends to products like butter. And it’s not too far-fetched: right now,the US plant-based butter industry is worth $198 million and counting.
As the Good Food Institute’s Caroline Bushnell told Forbes, “Due to COVID-19 supply chain disruptions, some milk that is used to make butter is now being dumped. As is the case with plant-based meat, plant-based dairy supply chains are much better poised to respond in real-time to changing market conditions and are not vulnerable to the type of disruptions inherent in industrial animal agriculture.”
Let’s consider this rupture a warning and a spark, a moment that inspires change for good. Good for us, good for our supply chains, good for the environment.
Rightly, Bob pointed out, people are currently more focused on getting this virus under control. But when the time comes to rethink our food system, it will have to start with government intervention. “It’s got to be a government-led change because the power of the companies is so great,” Bob said, “They’re going to keep doing business, I think, until they’re forced to do otherwise.”
In late April,Tyson placed a full-page ad in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, in whichthe company’s board chairman John Tyson wrote, “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.”
This is all true. But Tyson’s ultimate case? To remain open. Days later, President Trump signed an Executive Order to keep slaughterhouses running, without federal regulations on how to prevent further COVID-19 outbreaks. As Eric Schlosser wrote in an enlightening piece for The Atlantic, with this move, “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.”
Bob’s thoughts on that Tyson ad? “It was brilliant positioning because their workers are getting sick and dying,” Bob said. “They’re trying to protect themselves against public criticism.”
Then came word from the White House, underscoring Tyson’s position. “For a meat company to get an Executive Order out of the White House shows power.”