The moral cost of America’s meat-supply obsession

      Comments Off on The moral cost of America’s meat-supply obsession




Share This Story
A member of the Indiana National Guard packs frozen pork meat into a box

A member of the Indiana National Guard packs up frozen pork meat for people experiencing food insecurity during the Covid-19 pandemic. | Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Thousands of meat-plant workers are getting sick and millions of animals are being euthanized during the pandemic.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order this week declaring meat processing plants “critical infrastructure” that should stay open wherever possible. Invoking the Defense Production Act, Trump said that plant closures “threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain.”

Yet keeping the plants open threatens workers’ lives. Facilities across the US have become hot spots for Covid-19 outbreaks: More than 3,000 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 17 have died.

Some plants have been forced to close due to high rates of infection. At a Tyson plant in Waterloo, Iowa, more than 180 employees got sick. At a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, it was more than 640 workers.

But the leaders of these giant companies aren’t happy about shuttering plants, and they’re pushing back. Tyson’s chairman took out full-page ads in the New York Times and the Washington Post, claiming that “the food supply chain is breaking.” And Smithfield’s CEO said plant closures are “pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.”

To evaluate these claims and discuss what America’s obsession with the meat supply might be missing, I called up Leah Garcés, the president of Mercy for Animals. She suggested that while we’re all focused on the possibility of a meat shortage, what we should really reflect upon during this crisis is our profoundly immoral food system.

Like many supply-chain experts, Garcés said we probably won’t see severe nationwide meat shortages anytime soon (though there may be spot shortages of certain meats in some grocery stores). But what we will see, in the processing plants that stay open, is thousands more workers getting sick. And in areas where plants close, we will see millions of animals being euthanized by farmers who have nowhere to send them for slaughter. That means these animals will die for nothing — the meat will never make it to our plates.

I talked to Garcés about the moral dimensions of the crisis we’re facing, whether the pandemic will prompt us to hit the “reset” button on our food system, and how meat companies can stop driving the problem and start driving the solution. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sigal Samuel

What do you think of Trump’s executive order declaring meat plants “critical infrastructure” that should stay open?

Leah Garcés

This is not an appropriate use of the Defense Production Act. Slaughter plants are not critical infrastructure, and they are certainly not worth the price that will most certainly be paid: further death and illness.

This is a slap in the face to workers and protects the industry from being held accountable for the deaths and illnesses it is causing. Our government should be focused on protecting workers’ health and creating systemic solutions to overhaul our outdated, unsafe, and inhumane food system, not providing protections for Big Ag.

Sigal Samuel

Trump’s order came after the leaders of some of America’s biggest meat companies issued dire warnings — like Tyson’s claim that “the food supply chain is breaking” and Smithfield’s claim that plant closures are “pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.” Are those claims true?

Leah Garcés

Our meat supply is not “perilously close to the edge.” These claims are simply meant to stoke fear. US meat producers are still exporting meat, and the industry still has a surplus of meat in frozen storage. The National Chicken Council even said, as they were asking for relief funds [from the government], they have “historically high cold storage supply levels.”

And so I don’t have that concern about shortages direct to grocery stores or to consumers. In terms of our supply, I doubt there’s going to be that issue. But I think the industry will suffer because people are eating out less.

Sigal Samuel

It sounds like what we’ve got is not so much a meat-supply problem — it’s more a problem of getting the meat processed. Can you help me understand why our system for getting meat is so fragile?

Leah Garcés

When [animal behavior expert] Temple Grandin talks about factory farming, she says, “Big is fragile.” It’s a machine that relies on everything working perfectly. Like in the slaughterhouses, all of the chickens have to come to the exact same size so that they fit in their shackles perfectly. If there’s a tiny sliver of a problem, there’s a ripple effect through the whole system. And that means farmers might not get paid, animals might be treated inhumanely, and consumers might not get the product that they were hoping for.

Sigal Samuel

Okay, so right now, it’s in the slaughterhouses where things are breaking down, right?

Leah Garcés

Yes. Covid-19 is very infectious, and if you stand shoulder to shoulder with people, you’re [potentially] going to get it. Well, where are we continuing to stand shoulder to shoulder? In slaughterhouses.

Sigal Samuel

What is it about the way that slaughterhouses are set up that makes it almost impossible for workers to socially distance from one another?

Leah Garcés

Let me describe what it looks like in a chicken slaughterhouse. The chickens arrive from the back of a warehouse in these crates, and then they’re moved onto a conveyor belt. And then workers who stand shoulder to shoulder are rapidly grabbing them by the legs and putting them on shackles that are moving extremely fast — the birds are hung upside down. And then they move rapidly away from the workers and they go through the process of being killed.

From the workers’ perspective, each has a very specific job. One of them has to make this cut and the other one has to make that cut. Another one has to pull this part of the body off. One of them has to put it into a package. And they have to do all that very, very fast. You can’t step away to go to the bathroom, for example, because then your job in the machine is left unattended. [Even before the pandemic] there were reports that women were not getting bathroom breaks and were wearing diapers.

Now that we’re impacted by Covid-19, workers are getting sick in droves because they’re continuing to stand shoulder to shoulder. It’s really questionable whether this is the right thing to be doing as a nation. Should we be putting these workers at risk just to deliver us cheap chicken?

Sigal Samuel

Recent reports say that coronavirus infections have spread through at least 48 meatpacking plants in the US, and 3,000 workers have gotten sick and at least 17 have died.

Leah Garcés

And I bet the numbers are much higher than that, because as we know, there’s underreporting happening. People are being infected and they’re also bringing it home to family members who might be vulnerable, might be older.

In South Dakota, 40 percent of all infections in the state have been linked to a Smithfield pork slaughterhouse. I mean, these are really serious concerns for how we’re going to control this pandemic.

Sigal Samuel

When slaughterhouses close, what happens to all of the animals that were supposed to be slaughtered? Does it cause a choke point where animals on farms are just going to get killed because consumers aren’t going out to eat those products?

Leah Garcés

In a single slaughterhouse, a million chickens are killed a week on average. Now, if even just one of those plants is at 50 percent capacity, it means that 500,000 birds that were supposed to be slaughtered are not going to be slaughtered now.

So what’s happening to them? Well, the answer is that they’re being killed through emergency methods on farms. We know that because one poultry company reported that they were doing that. They said they’re just going to kill them on the farm en masse.

Sigal Samuel

Wait, how do they do that?

Leah Garcés

They referred to these approved methods by the American Veterinary Medical Association. And those methods are through filling the barn with a layer of water-based foam that suffocates the birds.

People might think, “Well, if they go to the slaughterhouse, they’re going to die anyway. Who cares?” But it’s a big difference in terms of the amount they suffer at their death. And it’s also crazy wasteful — the fact that all these animals went through a factory-farmed, horrible life, only to be foamed to death and then disposed of.

Sigal Samuel

I think it’s easier for us to justify slaughtering animals when we know people are going to eat them and that it will sustain [them] — there’s some use being gotten out of it, at least. But if we’re raising these animals and then just killing millions of them and not using them, that becomes a lot more morally difficult.

Given all of this, do you think this pandemic is going to change how people think about eating meat in general?

Leah Garcés

I really hope so. I think it’s one of the best shots we have at getting people to think about how the system needs to be changed. It’s a very rare opportunity to hit “reset” on the food system.

What it’s shown us is that when we only rely on our protein coming from animals and a system that is so fragile, it leaves companies and consumers very vulnerable. While the majority of our protein today comes from animals, it would be far more efficient and sustainable for that to come from plants. And we know that that’s not a crazy idea, because several of the largest meat companies have already begun offering plant-based products, like Tyson and Perdue and Cargill.

Sigal Samuel

It’s interesting how all these big traditional meat companies are getting into the plant-based meat game. Plus, the plant-based meat companies themselves seem to be doing very well in this moment. Impossible Foods just announced they’re expanding sales of their products to another 750 stores across the U.S. so people will be able to get their Impossible Burgers. It sounds like that’s part of the shift you’re advocating for.

Leah Garcés

Absolutely. I mean, demand for meat just grows at about 2 percent or so each year. But sales in plant-based foods have jumped 11 percent over the past year. And so that is something companies that are concerned about their bottom line should be very interested in. If they’re smart, they’ll pivot and diversify and instead of being disrupted, they’ll be part of the disruption.

Sigal Samuel

Realistically, though, when I look at the US, I see a country where eating meat is super entwined with national identity and people eat, on average, more than 200 pounds of meat a year. So when this pandemic ends, are people actually going to hit “reset”? Or is it more likely that we’ll just go right back to business as usual?

Leah Garcés

I think the pandemic is a tipping point. Like I said, companies were already investing in plant-based products and blending them into their portfolio, and that was without a pandemic. Now they’re seeing their entire supply chain disrupted. They’re unable to answer media calls about where animals are being killed and what is happening to workers. So I think the companies are going to be coming out of this saying, “There’s another option here and we should be investing more in that.”

Sigal Samuel

I guess if we can enter a world where companies see it as in their bottom-line interest to make this transition, in addition to being in the interest of animals and human laborers, then there might actually be a shot of this happening.

Leah Garcés

I always think when we’re trying to solve really big, hard social justice issues, we have to look for the win-wins. This is a win-win for consumers, for animals, for workers, and for the companies.

It’s a mistake to just think about these companies as these monolithic beasts that are doing evil in the world. I mean, they’re made up of individuals who want to do good, too. We can appeal to that sense, that they’re just trying to feed people protein.

I know this from experience, because I know Jim Perdue — the head of Perdue, which is the sixth-largest poultry company in the country. He said to me at one point: “Our mission is to be a premium protein company. And nothing about that says that it has to come from chickens.” Lo and behold, six months after saying that they came out with a plant-based blended product, because he said, “What the consumers want, we will follow.”

So I am certain that this can be a win-win for everybody, including these big companies. And they don’t have to be these monolithic beasts, these enemies to us. They can be part of solving this problem.


Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter and we’ll send you a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling the world’s biggest challenges — and how to get better at doing good.

Future Perfect is funded in part by individual contributions, grants, and sponsorships. Learn more here.


Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.