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  • Writer's pictureJosey Goggin

Meat in the Time of Coronavirus

Updated: May 22, 2020

If you’ve ever thought about becoming a vegetarian, this May is the time to try it out. Vegetarians cite different reasons for choosing to avoid meat. Their health. The environment. Animal cruelty. Now we have another one.

Worker safety.

Upton Sinclair is rolling in his grave.

In the wake of the coronavirus sweeping the United States, working conditions in meat processing plants have in recent weeks moved to the forefront of discussion. Outbreak hots spots and super spreader situations are spiking in communities built around meat processing plants in the middle of the country. (See a partial list of plants impacted below).

We must find a way to protect them.

A number of inherent structural issues exist in how meat is produced and processed in the United States. They have intensified in the face of this highly contagious virus.

  • Inside meat processing plants, workers are continuously in close contact, often working shoulder to shoulder on the processing lines. Their work shifts mean thousands of workers arrive and depart at the same time, using the same doors, the same locker rooms, the same corridors. Shift changes mean shifts with varying levels of exposure and illness cross paths and exponentially amplify each worker’s risk of illness. Movement around the plants, between processing lines and cafeterias, breaks rooms, locker rooms (all inherently crowded locations due to their short-term use), occur through narrow corridors. These constraints are imposed by design priorities in the layout and construction of the physical plant meant to improve productivity and maximize profits. Those physical conditions will not change. The walls will not move. Not in the time span necessary to protect plant workers.

  • Meat processing plants, located in rural communities throughout the heartland, employ thousands of workers. Small towns like Crete, Nebraska, population 6960 with 2199 households, rely on those plants for economic survival where 2000 folks are employed by Smithfield Foods’s pork processing plant.

  • The people who work at these plants tend to be among the most marginalized of our national workforce, including single parent households and recent immigrants, who often don’t own a car and carpool to work and live in multigenerational family housing situations.

Dr. James Lawler, director in the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, who is among a team of specialists touring plants to observe conditions and give recommendations for how to move forward safely under the conditions created by the coronavirus noted: “There’s a different calculus involved for people who have a white-collar job and ample savings accounts and reserves built up,” Lawler said. “We can afford to take a couple weeks off. These are folks working paycheck to paycheck, and they can’t step away from work for a week or even a day. We have to figure out how to get around the perverse incentives that exist to keep them going into work even if they’re ill.”

People should not have to risk their life and their health, nor that of their families, to keep their jobs. On Monday April 27, 2020, workers at the Smithfield pork plant in Crete, Nebraska were informed the plant would close for at least two weeks to contain a growing coronavirus outbreak, after at least 48 workers had tested positive. But the next day, as news of an imminent executive order lifting company liability and declaring the meat packing industry as critical infrastructure leaked to the press, Smithfield reversed their decision.

Fifty workers walked out. (NVA #98: Quickie walkout (lightning strike)).

While the walkout was not union sanctioned, union leaders quickly drove to the plant to negotiate between the plant managers and the workers.

These workers fear for their lives, fear that the conditions they’re working in threaten not only their lives, but also those of their families at home.

  • How do we ensure the people who work in these plants are protected?

  • Do we support companies who are putting profits over people, or not?

  • And finally, are meat processing plants, in fact, critical infrastructure?

Usually, in conditions where worker safety or public health is endangered, the Center for Disease Control analyzes the situation and develops a set of required guideline for safe practice.

But not this time.

Not when we are facing a global pandemic like nothing seen in a hundred years.

No, this time around, the CDC’s most recent guidelines regarding work conditions at meat processing plants during the coronavirus pandemic are voluntary.

Voluntary. Not Required.

This sidestepping of regulation has labor advocates raising the alarm.

If we expect meatpacking plants to stay open, to keep producing, the workers in the plants need personal protection equipment.

They need daily testing.

They need physical distancing.

And they need full paid sick leave and 14 days of quarantine if they fall ill.

Trump’s order made clear that the US government would side with companies in liability litigation over coronavirus exposure as long as they were following CDC and OSHA standards. But with voluntary guidelines and liability protected by an executive order, companies have little to no motivation to embark on the costs of making their corridors one way, of staggering shift arrivals, or re-configuring workstations so workers can maintain the recommended social distance of six feet.

In fact the executive order gives them reason not to.

While some plants are implementing new protocols of taking temperatures and installing plexi-glass in cafeterias to separate workers, can we trust them to make the full range of changes required when suggestions like slowing down processing lines and spacing workers will certainly impact their bottom line?

So far we don’t have evidence to suggest the corporations behind the plants will.

So what do we do?

Can we, in good conscience, continue to buy meat products produced by Tyson and Smithfield [1], and JBS, and Cargill and others?

I say, no. No. I can not support a company that endangers the health of others in my community, who, through their actions, are putting their bottom line profits over the public health of every single person in this country. Which brings me to the final question above: Are meat processing plants, in fact, critical infrastructure?

If human beings were carnivores, like lions and tigers, wolves and coyotes, dogs and house cats, well then, perhaps such a statement might make sense. If human health was fundamentally dependent on meat, and meat alone, as a source of protein perhaps I could be persuaded.

But we aren’t.

We human beings are delightfully, luckily, flexible omnivores.

We eat across categories of foods and are not dependent on meat alone. We can eat fruits and vegetables. Legumes and grain. Nuts and seeds. Animals AND plants. Trump's rhetoric took on a war-time effort tone in recent weeks, as he unsuccessfully attempted to turn his disastrous coronavirus leadership into something like the societal wide efforts of World War II.

Interestingly, during World War II, the US Food Administration asked people to reduce their consumption of key food staples to aid the war effort, including what just this week Trump declared critical infrastructure. Meat.

This effort became known as Meatless Mondays. And the country took to it with vigor and patriotism and wholehearted community spirit.

In 2003 a public health advocate brought the notion back to life in what has become a global movement called Meatless May. We find ourselves today, on May 1, Workers Day, facing a reality where the people who provide meat for our tables must make a choice to endanger their lives or lose their jobs to do so, daily.

It is left to us, the consumers, to act.

So what will I do? I will boycott those corporations, every single one. (NVA #71: Consumer Boycott)

Meatless May, or Meatless Monday if facing a whole month without meat seems overwhelming, is a simple, healthy, nonviolent way to send the message that meat processing plants are not “critical infrastructure,” that you value people over profits, that you are willing to boycott for the sake of the health of people thousands of miles away from you.[2]

This May, try a vegetarian diet, and support your fellow citizens in the heartland.[3]



[1] Smithfield is in the midst of a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of workers who say they did not receive adequate protective equipment which may explain why Smithfield appears to be paying employees when they shut down their plants for cleaning or quarantine. [2] If no meat for a month seems impossible you can avoid the corporations endangering our fellow citizens by sourcing your meat from local farmers (a quick search for “where can I buy a quarter cow in California?⁠” on google turned up a surprising number of results including Eat Wild.)

[3] Please call your congressional representative and ask that the people impacted by closures are ALL covered by unemployment benefits, citizen or not.

Nonviolent actions employed:

NVA #44: Mock Funeral (see plant # 31 below)

NVA #71: Consumer Boycott

NVA #98: Quickie walkout (lightning strike)

NVA #112: Reporting “sick” (sick in)

Companies with active outbreaks/closed at some point as of May 1, 2020:

  1. Tyson - Perry, Iowa (1200 tested)

  2. Tyson - Camilla, Georgia (undisclosed positives, 4 dead)

  3. Smithfield Foods - Crete, Nebraska (at least 48 positive)

  4. Smithfield Foods - St. Charles, Illinois (at least 19 positives, one dead)

  5. Smithfield Foods - Martin City, Missouri (undisclosed positive cases)

  6. JBS - Plainwell, Michigan (86 positive, one dead)

  7. JBS - Greeley, Colorado (245 positive minimum, six dead)

  8. JBS - Grand Island, Nebraska (237 cases tied to workers positive, a jump from 10 two weeks earlier) Hundreds of worried workers have called out sick from the JBS plant in recent days, he said. (NVA #112: Reporting “sick” (sick in) )

  9. JBS - SW Worthington, Minnesota (33 employees + 6 close family members)

  10. Cargill Meat Solutions - Hazelton, Pennsylvania (130 positive) (NVA #112: Reporting “sick” (sick in) )

  11. Cargill- Fort Morgan, Colorado (56 positive, one dead)

  12. Bell and Evans - Lebanon, Pennsylvania (dozens positive, at least two dead) Workers here held a mock funeral (NVA #44: Mock Funeral) on Friday, May 1, 2020 demanding the plant be closed until measures to protect workers are in place.)

Additional Resources:


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