Tragedy in America’s meatpacking plants linked to decades-long history of corporate consolidation
The arrival of COVID-19 to the U.S. sent the country and its food system spiraling into crisis. Nonessential businesses and services steadily began to close, and access to healthy food rose to the top of public consciousness. As of the end of June, the U.S. reported nearly 2.5 million cases of COVID-19 amidst an economic downturn and record food insecurity. In the middle of all this, we began to hear more and more about “essential workers,” those whose work was so crucial they were left with no choice but to put themselves on the front lines every day to keep our country running.
Food and agriculture workers make up around 30% of these “essential workers,” the second highest number after health care workers. Despite their significant role in feeding the country during this crisis, food and agriculture workers, and meatpacking workers in particular, have not been adequately protected.
On May 5th, 2020, Trump announced an executive order at the behest of the largest meatpackers, compelling facilities to remain open, despite the fact that many meatpacking plants have been hotspots for COVID-19. According to data reported by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), as of July 7th at least 401 meatpacking and food processing plants have had confirmed cases of Covid-19. At least 40,081 workers (32,630 meatpacking workers, 3,480 food processing workers, and 3,971 farmworkers) have tested positive for Covid-19 and at least 138 workers (123 meatpacking workers, 13 food processing workers, and 2 farmworkers) have died.
These numbers are shocking and disgraceful. Unfortunately, rampant consolidation in meatpacking has left the largest companies with tremendous political power, and they haven’t used it for good. For many producers, these plants are their only options for processing. Vertical integration has left workers with few options as well, leaving them in characteristically unsafe working conditions with little opportunity to advocate for themselves. The plight of food and farm workers in the COVID-era is, in many ways, a direct result of consolidation that has left increasingly few companies at the helm of our entire food system.
Giant industrial meatpacking corporations have pushed out small, local farms and processors to gain both horizontal and vertical control over the market. In the last two decades independent meatpacking facilities have been either bought out or out-competed by large scale slaughter facilities. Fewer independent meatpacking companies exist, and the few corporations that control the market continue to expand rapidly.
According to Foodprint, the four largest companies in each sector controlled 85 percent of the beef packing industry, 66 percent of pork packing, and 51 percent of broiler chicken processing. Additionally, 85 percent of beef cattle slaughtered took place in just 30 U.S. slaughter facilities (out of nearly 650 total), with more than half slaughtered in 13 plants. Through mergers and acquisition, vertical integration of supply chains, and government lobbying, a few large companies were able to gradually control almost the entire market. This lack of competition gives meatpacking corporations a free pass to pay farmers and charge wholesalers and retailers whatever they want — and mistreat their workers. In the past few decades, meatpacking companies have disproportionately increased the price of meat they charge wholesalers and retailers, while cutting wages and benefits for their employees.
Small meatpacking operations are simply unable to compete in this unfair market, and so large corporations continue to undercut their prices, utilize low-wage labor, and remain virtually unchecked by federal regulation.
This level of control and lack of options for farmers provided the political cover for opening up meatpacking plants, despite the spread of COVID-19 and the lack of emergency standards from the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA). The executive order to open the plants also protected the meatpackers from any possible lawsuits related to the virus, exacerbating the lack of accountability for these megacorporations. Workers in meatpacking facilities may be deemed essential, but our consolidated food system has left them and their rights far behind.
Even under normal conditions, meatpacking plants are considered some of the most dangerous jobs in the country. These workers, who are mostly refugees, immigrants, and people of color, work in incredibly stressful and rapid-paced conditions, where they handle knives, saws, grinders, and heavy machinery. In the meatpacking industry, there are 27 cases a day of on-the-job amputations and serious injuries that require hospitalizations. Chronic injuries as a side effect of long hours and repetitive movements have also been documented. These harms are compounded by lack of benefits, faster line speeds that increase risk, exposure to harmful chemicals and little to no access to protective equipment. It is these same inhumane conditions that put meatpacking workers disproportionately at risk to COVID-19.
Close working conditions and lack of PPE, plexiglass or sanitization quickly made meatpacking facilities a deadly epicenter for the virus. The spread was exacerbated by the fact that meatpacking plants instituted little guidance for their workers. Many companies didn’t communicate the presence of the virus in the plant to their workers, nor did they mandate quarantines, provide safety measures, or even offer sick leave. In fact some companies offered monetary incentives to come work, despite reported contamination.
The decades-long consolidation of our meatpacking industry has caused a gaping hole in the resiliency of our food system, made obvious by the COVID-19 pandemic. Corporations lobbied to remain open to maintain their earnings, prioritizing profit over people. The fact that a small number of plants operate at a much larger scale increases our dependence on these processors. Given the nature of our meatpacking systems, shutting down just one plant has had a ripple effect across the entire food system.
Since ranchers only have a few options to send their livestock, closed processing sites means production is halted, which causes food waste, and can lead to meat shortages and price spikes. The large volume of product that comes to just one site requires workers to slice and gut the meat in close quarters. Spacing people apart (for Covid-19 health precautions), would reduce the processing capability of the whole plant. With no smaller plants to process its products, the meat industry has been completely rocked by this crisis. However, COVID-19 is not the first, nor will it be the last crisis we will face. Consolidation increases risk and threatens food security. We saw this during the spread of the Avian flu, and as factory farming gets larger and more environmentally dangerous, we will see it again.
Looking To The Future
There are two lessons that we can learn from this tragic pandemic. The first is that the protection of our essential workers needs to be a priority. Not only is it the right thing morally, and from a racial justice perspective, but they are a large part of what keeps this country fed during times of hardship. During the next stimulus package, Congress must take the steps to enact the COVID-19 Every Worker Protection Act of 2020 (HR. 6559/ S.3677). This act would require OSHA to issue an enforceable Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) that covers all workers and requires all workplaces to implement infectious disease exposure control plans to keep workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The second lesson is that corporate consolidation must be checked and ultimately reversed. Allowing a few corporations to control our food system makes it fragile and unsustainable, and leads to a race to the bottom for labor, food safety, health and environmental standards. A good first step would be for Congress to pass S. 1596/H.R. 6800, the Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act, which would halt further consolidation. Additionally, Senator Warren’s Pandemic Anti-monopoly Act would halt mergers during the COVID-19 crisis. Finally, Senator Booker’s Food System Reform Act would place a moratorium on new Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which are a driving force behind consolidation in meatpacking and agriculture writ-large. It is time for Congress to prioritize workers’ rights, confront Big Ag’s consolidation and ensure our food system is resistant enough to weather this and future crises.