“As dozens of plants that closed because of outbreaks begin reopening, meat companies’ reluctance to disclose detailed case counts makes it difficult to tell whether the contagion is contained or new cases are emerging even with new safety measures in place,” according to the Times. The article added that while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported nearly 5,000 meatpacking workers were infected with the virus as of the end of last month, the nonprofit group Food & Environment Reporting Network estimated last week that the number had climbed to more than 17,000. And the outbreaks may be even more extensive.
A Washington Post analysis found that the number of Tyson employees with the coronavirus exploded from less than 1,600 a month ago to more than 7,000 this week.
The problem is not limited to the United States. Slaughterhouses in Brazil, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom and France have reported the spread of the coronavirus among employees. At a single Cargill beef processing plant in the Canadian province of Alberta, 949 of about 2,000 employees were infected with the virus and two died. As in the United States, these facilities are staffed mostly by immigrants.
To those of us who watch Big Ag closely, the ongoing problems have a familiar ring. This is an industry that has always put increasing profits above the well-being of workers, animals, the environment and public health. That’s why we take on Big Ag and have never failed to point out the significant threat industrial animal agriculture operations, or factory farms, pose to humans and animals alike.
Our concern for those who work in such plants is grounded in long history and experience. Poultry workers, for example, have among the highest rates of injury in the country, as they are forced to shackle terrified, struggling birds, all while being exposed to blood and feces.
Factory farms are often located in areas populated primarily by lower income folks. These populations are then plagued by higher rates of asthma and other health problems caused by fumes emanating from giant lagoons of animal waste.
As for the suffering of animals trapped in these large-scale operations, that is incalculable. The pork industry confines mother pigs in crates so small the animals can’t turn around or take more than a step in any direction. Chickens used for meat are bred to grow abnormally large in a short period of time, leading the animals to develop crippling leg problems and other (often fatal) health issues.
Now, with the pandemic forcing a spotlight on these and other inhumane practices of Big Ag as never before, the question most Americans need to be asking is this: is the rush to supply America with meat worth so many lives, human and animal? Especially at a time when plant-based proteins, including some that taste and feel like the real thing, are so easily and widely available?
The pandemic offers us an opportunity to move forward in a better, more humane way, by reducing our consumption of animal products and embracing plant-based foods. For those looking to replace the taste and texture of meat, there are many plant-based, protein-packed meats now available at most grocery stores. Many national chain restaurants offer plant-based meats, as do hundreds of local restaurants nationwide. And the industry is flourishing, with companies investing millions in cultivated meat, which is produced by growing the cells that comprise meat in a food production facility instead of inside an animal.
In our recently released recommendations to avoid another pandemic, we identified a shift from animal-derived meat to plant-based proteins and cultivated meat as a key strategy. We’re planning to work with lawmakers to identify and implement reforms that will shape how our food industry emerges from this crisis. We’ve also joined other non-profits, like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in condemning the meat industry’s disregard for workers. LULAC’s Iowa branch is currently promoting Meatless May, a boycott of corporately produced meat.
You can do your part to help. Please visit the HSUS’s “Eating Humanely” resource for tons of useful information and delicious recipes for plant-based meals. The pandemic has been a difficult and trying time for all, but let’s take this opportunity to convince the nation’s biggest meat producers to reform their practices, even as we look at our diets and see how we can contribute to making a change that serves our nation, its residents and the animals well.