From coronavirus and E. coli, to crime, cruelty, and ecocide, the meat industry incubates a cornucopia of ills. Why, then, does government underwrite it with billions in subsidies?
[Note: This story contains graphic details from accounts by slaughterhouse workers.]
“Workers stand shoulder to shoulder, wielding knives. It’s loud, it’s slippery, it’s wet and there’s blood everywhere…”
No, that’s not an eyewitness account of a visit to a Chinese wet market. It’s a union leader’s recent description of the daily routine inside a typical North American slaughterhouse. It’s no surprise, then, that what are essentially industrialized wet markets have provided the perfect launching pad for the hyper spread of COVID-19. The difference is that this time it’s intensively confined people, rather than pangolins or bats or other caged creatures, who are propagating the pathogen.
The largest single-site outbreaks of COVID-19 in Canada and the U.S. have occurred in meatpacking plants, where social distancing is impossible. Investigations have linked the rapid spread of the virus in the plants and their surrounding communities to processing companies’ failure to protect their workforce. Industry employers, including JBS, Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods, and Cargill, did not provide the necessary protective gear to their workers. According to numerous employee accounts, managers also pressured workers to report for shifts when they were showing symptoms of coronavirus infection. In one case, an asymptomatic Cargill worker who tested positive and went into mandatory 14-day quarantine was asked to come back to work after three days. Workers at the same Cargill plant reported that the company began offering bonuses to entice those self-isolating back to work during the outbreak. At a Smithfield distribution facility, a supervisor reportedly told workers the coronavirus couldn’t survive in the plant’s cold temperatures. At a JBS plant, a worker who became ill was refused permission to go home. He remained at work, doing his job handing out smocks and gloves to hundreds of employees. Soon thereafter the worker tested positive for COVID-19. He ended up in the ICU on a ventilator. Thankfully, he survived.
The failure of meatpacking companies to protect their employees, who are mostly immigrants, temporary foreign workers, and undocumented laborers, has turned the communities in which the plants are located into infection hotspots. Coronavirus infection rates in the counties housing the largest U.S. cow, chicken, and pig processing plants, for example, are 75% higher than in other U.S. counties. The number of employee deaths is rising, and infections stemming from the plant outbreaks, which have spilled over into towns and cities across the continent, are in the thousands. In Canada, labor federation officials have requested a criminal investigation.
While all eyes are focused on the compounding contagion, what’s been eclipsed by the current crisis in meatpacking plants is that COVID-19 is but one sickness in an industry that sickens and injures workers, their communities, animals, consumers, and the environment on an unparalleled scale. The unpalatable truth about what goes on in the industry that produces so much of the world’s food is so disturbing that it is intentionally and necessarily concealed. Consumers prefer not to know.
But consumers need to know.
The coronavirus pandemic—the product of a toxic human-animal interface—and the exploding rates of infection among meat plant workers and the communities in which they live, demand that we look at, acknowledge, and—hopefully—remedy the ills of a catastrophic system we can no longer afford to ignore.
How the industry harms workers
The current pandemic notwithstanding, it’s not just the coronavirus that’s making workers sick at North American meat-processing companies. Slaughterhouse and meatpacking workers have long experienced the highest rates of workplace injury of all manufacturing industries. They are three times more likely than the average worker to suffer serious injuries, including amputations, burns, and head trauma. At US meat plants, amputations stemming from workplace accidents occur an average of twice a week. Because of their constant exposure to chemicals and pathogens, workers are more prone to a host of diseases including lung cancer and hepatitis. Countless injuries and illnesses in the slaughter and meat processing industry go unreported because workers, many of whom have no other employment options, fear losing their jobs. For temporary foreign and undocumented workers, job loss can mean deportation.
In addition to higher rates of illness and physical injury, industrial farm and slaughterhouse workers sustain high rates of trauma in conjunction with the brutality of the work, which manifests variously as depression, hostility, panic, paranoia, and even psychosis. Ed Van Winkle, a former employee at a hog slaughterhouse, confessed: “the worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll… Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them—beat them to death with a pipe. I can’t care.”
Researchers have found that the intensification of animal agriculture has resulted in increased emotional distancing between farm workers and slaughterers, and the cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals they raise and kill. The sheer number of animals to be processed and the pressure under which workers are compelled to operate preclude all possibility of meaningful connection between the workers and the animals they handle. That affective disconnect has borne toxic fruit: a greater propensity for violence against those animals by the workers themselves. Studies and undercover investigations, in addition to accounts by employees, have revealed that animal agriculture workers frequently commit acts of deliberate animal cruelty on the job. Virgil Butler, a Tyson slaughterhouse employee-turned-whistleblower, explained how his colleagues regularly found amusement in tying the legs of live chickens in square knots: “they would dislocate the chicken’s legs at the hips and knees. Then loop one leg over the other across their stomach, and pull it tight. Then they would break both legs and loop them back through each other a 2nd time to form a square knot. …I have picked up these birds before and untied their legs. The bones inside their legs felt like a sack of broken glass. They would usually be bleeding in several places where the bones would break through the skin.”
Like coronavirus sickness, the violence intrinsic to the work of killing and dismembering for a living infects the communities in which the plants are located. In Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, murder, rape, and other violent crimes become commonplace among abattoir workers, who get desensitized to violence by the daily brutality of their jobs. The “Sinclair effect,” referring to the spillover of violent behavior from the workplace into the community, has proven true to life. Slaughterhouse employment measurably increases rates of domestic abuse and violent crime in communities: the larger the slaughterhouse, the higher the number of crimes.
Coupled with higher rates of violence are elevated substance abuse rates. Explaining why he thought so many of his colleagues had problems with alcohol, one former “hog sticker” said: “They have to drink, they have no other way of dealing with killing live, kicking animals all day long. If you stop and think about it, you’re killing several thousand beings a day.”
It’s bad for the workers, but far worse for the animals
As detrimental as slaughterhouse work can be for human workers and the communities in which they live, the fate for farmed animals is far worse. The pace of “disassembly” lines is so fast that it’s not uncommon for animals to pass the stunning point and still be fully conscious when they get to the next processing station. Pigs, for example, are meant to be dead by the time their bodies are dropped in the vats of boiling water that soften their hides. Those who aren’t “get up to the scalding tank, hit the water and start screaming and kicking. Sometimes they thrash so much they kick water out of the tank… Sooner or later they drown… I’m not sure if they burn to death before they drown, but it takes them a couple of minutes to stop thrashing,” explained former Morrell slaughterhouse worker Tommy Vladak.
A Washington Post exposé based on workers’ testimonies and backed up by video footage revealed similarly botched slaughtering in cow slaughter plants. One worker at the IBP plant in question, Ramon Moreno, had the job of cutting the hocks off hanging cow carcasses as they filed past on the disassembly line. The cows were supposed to be dead. All too frequently, they weren’t. The live and conscious cows—on some days dozens of them—still had their hocks cut off, and other parts, some cows surviving as far as the abdomen cutting and hide removal stations. “They blink. They make noises. The head moves, the eyes are wide and looking around,” said Moreno. “They die piece by piece.”
Martin Fuentes, a long-time worker at the same plant whose arm was badly broken by the frantic kicks of one such cow, said “I’ve seen thousands and thousands of cows go through the slaughter process alive. The cows can get seven minutes down the line and still be alive. I’ve been in the side-puller where they’re still alive. All the hide is stripped out down the neck there.” Veterinarian and former hamburger plant inspector Lester Friedlander attested to the frequency of the botched slaughters. “In plants all over the United States, this happens on a daily basis,” he said.
Frequent botched slaughters are not limited to IBP. Virgil Butler, the former Tyson slaughterhouse worker, described his work as follows: “With a sharp six-inch knife you slit the throats of the chickens the machines miss. You catch as many birds as you can because the ones you miss go straight into the scalder alive… It was also not uncommon for me to have to kill up to 30 birds in a row. And I know that I didn’t get them all—I couldn’t… And it really bothered me when I missed one and heard the poor bird go through the scalder alive, thrashing and bumping against the sides of it as it slowly died.” Such was the fate of an average 825,000 chickens and 18,000 turkeys per year at meat plants throughout North America in 2013.
Numerous exposés, whistleblower reports, and undercover investigations documenting botched slaughters, deliberate acts of cruelty, and animals skinned, boiled, and butchered alive notwithstanding, in 2018 the USDA approved increasing line speeds in chicken slaughter plants from 140 to 175 birds per minute—almost three birds per second—with predictable results. An investigation that same year found birds getting punched, thrown, scalded alive, and slowly drowned in malfunctioning electrified stunning baths. In 2019, the USDA removed line speed limits in pig slaughtering plants so U.S. meat producers could profit from the gap in supply created by a deadly epidemic ravaging China’s industrial pig farms.
It’s not only the last chapter of farmed animals’ lives at the slaughterhouse that is marked by evident brutality. Industry standards for the farming, transport, and slaughter of farmed animals in the intensive animal operations from which almost all meat and dairy derives necessarily consign those animals to lives of deprivation and affliction. To raise the 83 billion land animals killed each year for food under conditions that would afford them the capacity to engage in their natural behaviors, such as maternal relationships, foraging, social bonds, juvenile play, and freedom of movement, is impossible. There is simply not enough planet on which to do it. Industry’s solution is mass confinement, genetic modification, and intensification and streamlining of production, all of which necessarily reduces farmed cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and other animals to resources, rather than individuals.
The objectification of billions of sentient beings that, unlike plastic products pumped out on assembly lines, experience pain and fear, and have physical and emotional needs, has resulted in an unparalleled degree of suffering. Agribusiness companies are so sensitive to the exposure of that suffering that they have succeeded, in some jurisdictions, in criminalizing the photographing and videotaping of standard industry practices. Those practices include the removal of newborn calves destined for veal from their frantic mothers, whose milk is reserved for human consumption. “Downed” dairy cows who can no longer walk are removed with bulldozers and forklifts. Every year, an estimated 7 billion newborn male chicks, deemed of no use in egg production, are killed, most commonly gassed or shredded alive in maceration machines. Millions of female pigs are confined in crates just large enough for their bodies that prevent them from walking or turning around. Calves are routinely disbudded, castrated, and branded without anaesthetic. Chickens, debeaked without anaesthetic, are kept their entire lives in high-density, ammonia-filled warehouses. Genetically modified to grow quickly, they struggle to bear their own weight and are plagued by physical ailments.
Millions of animals die every year en route to slaughterhouses in Canada and the U.S., killed by long journeys in extreme temperatures, during which they are denied access to food, water, or rest. Of those who make it to slaughter, the final trip down the high-speed kill lines in meat processing plants means thousands of animals each day are denied a quick or painless death. With the current slaughter backlog caused by the COVID-19-induced disruptions at meat plants, industrial farms are culling millions of animals, now classified as waste, on site. The culling methods specified by the American Veterinary Medical Association’s guidelines for “depopulation” include gassing, suffocation with foam, and induced hyperthermia achieved by turning up the heat and switching off ventilation systems.
Slaughterhouse work negatively impacts workers and the communities in which they live, and the intensive animal agriculture industry consigns farmed animals to lives of relentless affliction. The intensive confinement and stress to which these animals are subject has such adverse effects on their development that industrial-scale farm operators are obligated to keep the animals on constant doses of antibiotics. Between 2000 and 2018, the growing demand for meat led to a tripling of the incidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals raised for food.
Human health and the environment suffer, too
What are literally sickening conditions for intensively farmed animals have serious implications for human health. In the U.S., approximately 70 percent of antibiotics are now fed to animals grown for food for the purpose of growth promotion. The resulting rise in antibiotic resistance means that infections in humans once easily treatable can now prove fatal. A 2013 study found that people living near pig farms or farm fields fertilized with pig manure were 30 percent more likely to become infected with antibiotic resistant Staphylococcus. Currently, an estimated 33,000 people in the E.U. die every year from infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In the U.S., more than 2.8 million people contract antibiotic-resistant infections every year, resulting in over 35,000 deaths. Cognizant of the dangers in the 1970s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration attempted to restrict the use of subtherapeutic antibiotics in animal feed. Under pressure from meat and pharmaceutical lobbies, the U.S. Congress overrode the FDA.
Antibiotic resistance is not the only threat to human health posed by intensive animal agriculture. The consumption of animal products themselves is linked with elevated rates of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Americans, who eat more meat per capita than anyone else, have double the obesity and diabetes rates of the rest of the world, and among the highest cancer rates. Millions of people are sickened each year by foodborne pathogens such as Listeria, E. coli, and Salmonella in contaminated meat. But potentially worse is that industrial animal farms, in which billions of cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, sheep, and other animals are intensively confined in unhygienic, stress-inducing conditions, have proven ideal incubators for the transmission of disease and the mutation of viruses, some—like bird flu and swine flu—that have already caused pandemics in the past and will undoubtedly do so again.
As if the pandemic risk alone weren’t cause enough for a complete overhaul of agribusiness, the sector has proven extremely destructive to the planet. The largest study of the environmental damage caused by farming shows that even the lowest impact meat and dairy products cause considerably more harm to the environment than the least sustainable vegetables and grains. Companies in the supply chain of JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, for example, are linked to the destruction of approximately 300 square kilometres of Amazon rainforest annually to graze cows for beef export. Every minute, animals raised for food in the U.S. produce an estimated seven million tons of excrement. Intensive farming for meat and dairy poisons rivers and groundwater, acidifies oceans, razes forests, accelerates the extinction of species, and produces more environment-destroying gases than all the world’s SUV’s, freighters, planes, and other modes of transport combined.
Industrial animal agribusiness exploits and afflicts its workers and their communities, subjects billions of farmed animals to lives of unyielding torment, harms the health of consumers and the planet, and creates the conditions for pandemics more lethal than COVID-19, all while enjoying billions in taxpayer-funded subsidies. For the meat and dairy industry in the U.S., those subsidies amount to $38 billion per year, most of which go not to small and mid-size farmers and ranchers, but to big corporations. The subsidies, along with all the hidden costs externalized to other sectors like healthcare, mean that producers have been able to keep meat and dairy prices artificially low. If all the costs of producing, say, ground beef, were included in the retail price, a five-dollar hamburger would actually sell for $13. Hence the surreal economic calculus that allows a meat producer to stay in business and make a profit even when the market value of his cows is half that of what it costs to raise them.
Why, then, if it’s so clearly harmful in so many ways, does the industrialized farming of animals persist? If governments can shutter entire economies to prevent the spread of one disease, why wouldn’t they prohibit, or at least severely restrict, one industry to prevent many diseases, deaths, and social and environmental ills? That that industry is given carte blanche to continue wreaking individual, social, and planet-wide havoc attests to a self-serving nexus of vested interests. The motive of key players in agribusiness, mega-corporations like Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield Foods, is obvious: profit—profit, over every other consideration, including the lives and welfare of their workers, the communities in which they operate, the farmed animals they disassemble and process, and the environment they despoil.
In the United States, the department that should be regulating industrial animal agriculture, the USDA, time and again has proven to function as its proponent by, for example, pushing for industrial practices like line speed increases that augment industry profits while increasing harm to farmed animals. Even more curious is that this government body that is supposed to oversee the industry manages some $550 million worth of programs that promote the consumption of meat and dairy. Each marketing dollar spent on ad campaigns generated by those programs, such as “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.” and “Milk. It does a body good.,” generate an additional eight dollars in sales of meat, dairy, and eggs. The USDA spends taxpayer dollars to stimulate demand. Workers and consumers pay with their health, workers and animals pay with their lives, and the viability of the ecosystem is increasingly jeopardized. That a number of USDA board members have had financial interests in the food industry makes for glaring conflicts of interest, as does the practice of high level USDA regulators moving into lucrative jobs at major agribusiness corporations. In 2017, mega-meat multinational JBS hired former senior USDA official Al Almanza who, while at the USDA, obliged meat producers by advocating for the deregulation of poultry, pork, and beef inspections. JBS has spent almost $8 million on lobbying in the U.S. since 2007. In return, it has received more than $900 million in government contracts. From repeated failures to enforce the minimal standards of the Humane Slaughter Act, to outright vested financial interests in the meat industry, the USDA has betrayed the public trust as a reliable overseer of animal agriculture.
If the engine of government bureaucracy has failed to rein in the evils of agribusiness, so have politicians. Take President Trump’s recent invocation of the Defense Production Act. The stated pretext of keeping meat plants open is to protect food security and avoid meat shortages. But does it really have to do with food? Animal affairs writer Merritt Clifton says no. “(The) risk of a U.S. food shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic had nothing to do with (it),” he writes. What it’s about, according to Clifton, is “fear of loss of jobs and votes for Republican incumbents in previously politically secure ‘red states’.” He also cites science and business writer Roger Witherspoon’s view that the goal of the executive order is to enable “meat companies to keep their plants open and require the workers to show up without incurring liability if (they) get sick and die.” The order has granted a license to states to force employees who fear catching COVID-19 back to work or risk losing unemployment benefits. Meat, it seems, is essential. “The workers,” says Witherspoon, “are disposable.”
Agribusiness corporations have succeeded in leveraging political and financial interests to hijack all significant attempts at curtailing their freedom to do business however they want, regardless of the costs. Bureaucrats and politicians have assisted, rather than hindered them, profiting along the way. And though it’s easy to assign blame to others when there are such formidable bullies in the room, consumers cannot claim innocence. If there were not continued demand for meat and dairy, there would be no industrial animal agribusiness. Meat producers, retailers, and restaurants know this, which is why, as the tide begins to shift, they’ve started including plant-based meat substitutes among the products they offer.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disabused us of the luxury of denial. Never has it been more apparent that the path to perdition is lined with cheeseburgers and chicken wings, pangolins and parmesan, steaks and lattes, and ribs and bacon. The average citizen may be powerless to tackle agribusiness head on, but each of us has a potent weapon at our disposal: our food choices. As long as we continue buying and consuming the products of industrial animal agriculture, we, alongside agribusiness bosses and compromised officials, share in the culpability for the sickened and exploited workers, the degraded communities, the tortured animals, the poisoned planet, and a diminished humanity. Although we’ve conveniently delegated to marginalized individuals with few vocational options the diabolical task of killing farmed animals and turning them into meat, the scourge with which the animal agriculture industry has for so long afflicted its exploited workforce and its farmed animal victims has finally come to plague us all in the form of COVID-19. The French writer Georges Bataille wrote: “the slaughterhouse is cursed and quarantined like a boat carrying cholera.” We are finally all in the same infected boat. The question is whether we are determined to sink that boat, or make new choices to reach the shore.
This story was originally published on Medium on May 7, 2020.