The United States has been the hardest hit, with epidemics in more than 180 meat and processed food factories. But other countries with highly consolidated meat supply chains – Ireland, Spain, Australia, Germany, Brazil, Canada and the United Kingdom – are also struggling.
“Workers must return to work and farmers must euthanize their animals,” said Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy. “This is a very chaotic and crazy situation. “
The reasons for the epidemics would be a combination of overcrowded working conditions, a workforce often made up mostly of migrant workers living in collective housing, and the fact that factories remained open during the crisis.
The problem is particularly acute when large firms dominate the industry, as has increasingly been the case. Many small slaughterhouses have been closed in recent years in favor of fewer but larger factories that could have thousands of workers, which has led to what an observer has called “the narrowest bottleneck in American agro-industry ”.
In the short term, the problem is causing the instability of the supply chain, with the purchase of panic meat in the United States and the euthanasia of millions of farm animals. Questions are asked about the risks of infection and even death for workers. In the long run, the problems will raise questions about the stability and lack of resilience of the current system, which is dominated by a handful of large international companies, including Cargill, JBS, Smithfield and Tyson.
In the United States, there were nearly 5,000 cases and at least 20 fatalities among workers at meat plants by the end of April. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting says there are now more than 10,000 cases linked to meat plants. Difficulties with physical remoteness and hygiene, as well as overcrowded living and transportation conditions, are listed as potential risk factors by US health officials.
More than 20 meat factories have been closed in recent weeks, and a single outbreak – at the Smithfield pork plant in South Dakota – has seen more than 850 confirmed cases. Workers may have continued to work while feeling sick due to economic insecurity, health officials said. Tyson poultry workers were offered a bonus of $ 500 to continue working.
In Germany, more than 300 cases have been confirmed at the Müller Fleisch plant in Birkenfeld. The owners called it “the most serious crisis” in the history of the plant. The common living spaces for the largely migrant workforce have been partially blamed.
In Canada, 949 cases were confirmed at a Cargill-owned Alberta meat packing plant in the largest single facility outbreak in the country. In Australia, about 70 cases have so far been confirmed at Cedar Meats in Melbourne, which has been closed for thorough cleaning. Prosecutors in Brazil are currently trying to shut down factories – including some run by JBS and BRF – where cases have been detected. Cases have been confirmed in nine factories, according to a government report seen by Reuters, which said more than 16,000 people may have been exposed.
In Spain, there was a dispute at Litera Meat in Binéfar, Aragon, about the number of workers infected with the virus. The first serological tests were positive for around 200 workers. Management subsequently tested 284 workers to see if they were currently carrying the virus and had 11 positive results.
Irish factories have also been hit hard. Official figures show outbreaks in ten factories with more than 560 workers affected. Outbreaks have been reported at the Liffey Meats plants in Cavan and Kepak in Roscommon and Longford. More than a third of the workforce – 120 workers in total – at the Rosderra pork factory in Co Tipperary is reported to have tested positive for the virus, while last Friday, Dawn Meats closed her factory Westmeath following positive cases.
“We are seeing the results of years of consolidation of the meat industry and vertical integration aimed at increasing profits through efficiency and low wages,” said Marion Guardle, professor of nutrition, studies food and global health at New York University at the Guardian, “whatever the effects on animals, workers and the environment.” Covid-19 reveals the costs for workers grouped together in already unsafe working conditions in jobs that often lacked sick leave and health benefits. These are all problems that go back to the early 1980s, when the movement of shareholder value forced companies to focus on profit. “
“I think it woke up a lot of people about how this system is being consolidated and how not very resilient it is really vulnerable,” said Lilliston. “The people who ask about food security in the United States are a bit new. There is also a greater awareness of workers’ rights – the lack of power, working closely together, the lack of enforcement and government inspection. I think there are going to be spinoffs, but it remains to be seen if action will be taken. “
“It is clear that centralizing processes in fewer and fewer centers, coupled with just-in-time supply chains, leads to a lack of resilience,” said Professor Tim Benton, director of risk research emerging at Chatham House, a London think tank. “It is not so easy to hire a slaughterer on the street as it is to hire casual work in supermarkets or even in agriculture.”
The Guardian has contacted all of the companies named above. Cargill, JBS, Tyson and BRF have detailed the important work they do to deal with these issues, including, in the case of JBS, working with infectious disease physicians to develop a protocol and, in the case of BRF, work with a global council specialized in risk management. Tyson has set aside $ 120 million to give its employees “thank you bonuses”. All four said they had special measures in their factories to protect workers, including distances, staggered breaks, keeping vulnerable workers at home and distributing face masks.
Cargill said, “We are also sensitive to the fact that farmers and ranchers need a place to move their livestock. This is a difficult balance to strike for our entire industry … We recognize that farmers and ranchers rely on the global food system for a living, so keeping the market moving – to the agricultural economy and for the people and animals that rely on us for their food and nourishment.
Litera Meats told the Guardian that it focuses on worker safety and that “common sense, prudence, collaboration and understanding” are the principles that guide the answer. Liffey Meats said workers’ health and safety was his priority.