COVID-19 infection rates in counties with large meat processing plants are 75% higher than other U.S counties. The impact of the novel virus on rural communities is compounded with the socioeconomic limitations that many meat workers face.
Meat workers, historically, have held some of the most physically demanding jobs available. In the United States manufacturing industry, meat facilities workers are more likely to get sick or injured on the job than any other sector. Many employees work for minimum wage salaries and do not have access to decent health benefits.
In addition to the environmental risks of meat processing plants, workers also lack visibility to the outside world. Many struggles go unnoticed by the general public, who continue to demand cheap and readily available meat.
The COVID-19 pandemic shines a light on these crucial issues, especially concerning the working conditions of meat workers.
The lack of rights and livable benefits in many companies makes these workers particularly vulnerable, working in an industry that relies on efficiency to meet market demand. With workers falling ill in March, companies grappled with finding solutions that supported their employees without disrupting demand. In the end, they failed to do either.
The food production industry, especially meat processing facilities, rely on intensive temperature control to keep the manufacturing operation running smoothly. While environmental restrictions prevent bacterial disease and other issues while processing meat, it also tends to keep facilities cold and damp. With the spread of COVID-19, meat workers packed into tight spaces in cold conditions was the perfect climate for disaster.
The impact on US meat facilities is more severe than other countries, especially compared to facilities in Europe. The meat industry in the US is highly centralized, with large processing plants and less automation. This makes infectious diseases harder to control and makes it difficult to recover from significant outbreaks.
COVID-19 infection rates in US counties with large meat processing plants are 75 percent higher than other counties. The impact of the novel virus on rural communities is compounded with the socioeconomic limitations that many meat workers face. Worker conditions may be poor, and many individuals simply lack the luxury of choosing to stay home from work if they feel unsafe. High infection rates ravaged plants because workers had no choice but to remain - protected or unprotected.
COVID-19 cases have spread to over 115 meat processing plants to date, impacting about 5,000 workers. Many workers express discontent with how companies handled the spread of the virus, claiming that little was done to protect workers and prevent the spread of disease. However, with a highly centralized meat industry, the power to make decisions lies in a few select hands.
For example, four companies control 80 percent of beef processing in the United States. Having control over the industry supply makes these companies especially vulnerable to disruption, forcing them to choose between efficiency and worker protection.
COVID-19 did not cause the inherent problems with meat worker conditions, it merely exposed them. Before the pandemic, it was easier to be unconcerned about where meat came from, who touched it and how it was distributed.
With the faults of the industrial food system peaking through, average citizens are witnessing some of the issues of these processes. Improving working conditions in the short term may fall on the company, but the consumer, government and civil society all hold long-term responsibility.
The concentration of meat processing plants and ownership over meat supply in the United States makes it difficult to make quick changes to worker conditions. Efficiency is emphasized in all areas of supply and demand, and the health of many workers suffers because of it. Without changes to the system itself, any immediate improvements will be short-lived. More significant changes are required to truly protect the health and rights of meat workers.
With new plans to re-open meat processing facilities, many meat workers are quitting rather than working in such dangerous conditions. While this may not affect production in the short term, the long term impact on the meat supply is unknown. It is vital to negotiate possible improvements to manage both the health and safety of meat workers and consumer demand. Protecting meat workers should be the ultimate goal.
Sacrificing their health for the production of cheap meat at low prices is not a sustainable solution. COVID-19 exposed historical issues within the meatpacking industry. Maybe it can help solve them as well.
Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.