When the Covid-19 pandemic ends, our masks are off, and things are back to normal, a future autopsy of the pandemic will be written on how businesses and industries were affected. A major part of the report will cover the meatpacking plants. They have been the hotbeds for the virus. Their day of reckoning showing how the virus was extended by their decision making will come.
Meat packing plants and meat consumption always brings back memories of discussions that I have had with a retired knowledgeable doctor from Iroquois County. Generally, these conversations occurred while having dinner. After his obligatory vodka martini, I witnessed what he was about to eat. He is a vegan. In front of him would be a plate full of vegetables and perhaps a salad. He then educated me on the dangers of pursuing a western diet, which generally consists of high intakes of red meat, processed meat, pre-packaged foods, etc. “A diet rich in meat is a risk factor for cardio-vascular disease. It will produce a lot of clogged arteries my friend, and the clogging persists at the rate of 2 percent a year.” I was always impressed with that statement. “I think it’s time for you to seriously consider vegetables and salads.”
Americans have not paid much attention to that kind of advice. According to a Gallup Poll only 5 percent are vegans. Americans consume one-sixth of the total meat produced in the world. Four companies in the U.S. control 80 percent of beef processing and they get billions of subsidies annually from the federal government. The small local abattoirs who probably have better meat on their meat stands get squat. Meanwhile employees in the meat plants work shoulder to shoulder in cold, dry conditions, a perfect breeding ground for the virus.
According to a recent CDC report, over 4,000 workers at these plants were diagnosed with the virus. Twenty died. the Smithfield pork processing plant located in Sioux Falls, South Dakota employed about 3,700 people. When it closed 518 of its employees had tested positive for COVID-19. Two are dead. With the Tyson meat packing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, of the more than 1,300 COVID-19 cases in the county, 90 percent were connected in some way to the plant.
Governors began shutting down these plants. With their profits heading south, top management became upset. They appealed to President Trump to keep them open, not because they were concerned about the virus, but rather because they claimed meat supplies to consumers would be interrupted. This brought Trump’s April 2, 2020 executive order under the Defense Production Act of 1950 (a Korean War measure), mandating that meat packing plants stay open, even with the COVID-19 cases increasing and without mandating that CDC guidelines be followed to protect employees.
The order can be read online. It states that it is designed “to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.” It also states that “closure of a single large beef processing facility can result in the loss of over 10 million individual servings of beef in a single day.” If there were 10,000,000 people on Memorial Day who could not get meat for cheeseburgers on their grill that day, does this make it a national emergency? There is no food shortage. No one needs meat.
When the report of the 2020 COVID-19 virus and meatpacking plants is finally written, it will be right out of Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle,” only worse. That book detailed meat packing plants in Chicago cutting corners, exploiting workers, and placing workers lives and consumers lives at risk. In early May the Wall Street Journal wrote a disparaging investigative report about cruise ships that set sail knowing the deadly risk of COVID-19 to its passengers and crew. The ships still ferried them to U.S. ports of call, where they were dropped off exposing many other people to the virus.
Like the cruise ships, meatpacking plants have been incubators for the new virus. Not only is the situation the same, but by virtue of Trump’s order, the meatpacking plants continue to sail on with employees exposed, delivering meat to consumers. After Sinclair wrote his book and gained a lot of notoriety, he made a statement that his celebrity arose “not because the public cared about the workers but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef.”
The meat packing plants now seek blanket immunity, not just from workers’ claims but from consumers who might get sick eating their meat. If companies have no confidence that they can operate profitably without hurting their employees or the public, does it make sense that they should be allowed to remain open while the pandemic persists?