Could COVID-19 Move Us Towards More Ethical Meat?

Farmers, celebrities, and a few experts praise the benefits of regenerative farming techniques in Netflix’s new documentary. (Source: Kiss the Ground)

Written by Ariana Lipsman | Edited by Carol Coutinho

In Food SustainabilityFood Sustainability

We’ve had to go through so many changes this year because of COVID-19. Working from home, wearing masks every time we step out the door, asking people who else they’ve come in contact with, crossing the street to stay away from others. We’ve also watched COVID put millions of us in danger, including those working in our food supply chain. Earlier in the pandemic you may have noticed a sparse-looking meat section at your local grocery store, or any grocery store, for that matter. This is because the most affected link in the chain has been the meatpacking plants. This offers a glimpse into how the big meat industry in America works, as well as its major flaws. The pandemic has provided an opportunity for smaller, local farms and meat processing operations to fill the gap, and we’re seeing what could be a new system emerging.

What happens at a meatpacking plant?

First off, what exactly is a meatpacking plant? It’s where livestock is taken to be slaughtered, processed, and packaged. Fifty years ago, this process was usually handled on a small scale by individual butchers with their own shops who would buy their meat from small, local farms. Industrialization gave rise to meatpacking plants that employed numerous workers who divided up the tasks of animal butchering. This created a faster, more streamlined system that allowed the meat industry to grow rapidly. With the advent of trains, meat could be quickly transported all over the country without it spoiling, eliminating the need for locally-sourced meat.

Butcher cutting meat

Over the past fifty years, a few companies, like Tyson, JBS, and Cargill, have bought up nearly 85% of the beef packing industry, 66% of pork packing, and 51% of chicken processing (4). Gradually, they absorbed smaller companies in each stage of the meat production process, from farm, to slaughter, to packaging. These companies now set the price and quality of the products, controlling the meat production process from an animal’s birth to the grocery store shelf. (4) The mind-boggling amount of meat they are able to provide allows them to drive the price down to a level that even the lowest income households can afford, but this comes at a sacrifice in quality. Their animals are raised in crowded, inhumane living conditions, and are often full of antibiotics to prevent their living conditions from making them sick, and growth hormones to make them larger and meatier.

Meat business graphic

Buff, Elizabeth. “Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm: A Look Into Who’s Behind the World of Big Ag”. 2014. jpg file. 

Cracks in the System

Because of COVID, two large cracks in this industry have begun to show:

1. Meatpacking Plant consolidation:

There are a small number of gargantuan meatpacking plants that the big corporations rely on to get their vast amounts of meat processed. A mere 40 plants process 70% of all cattle and pigs in the country. So, if even one of those plants is shut down, a massive amount of meat goes unprocessed (1). In April, enough meat processing plants were shut down to slash the daily number of slaughtered pigs and cows by an unheard of 40% (1). This debilitates the farmers who depend on those plants to process their animals. The closures also cause the flow of meat to grocery stores to dwindle. This is called a “bottleneck”- a tight, crucial point in the system that determines its production flow. Hence, your empty meat section. So why are these meatpacking plants getting shut down? Why are they so vulnerable to the spread of COVID? The answers to these questions brings us to the second crack.

Aguilar, Ana. “Farmers Supply Chain”. 2020. jpg file. 

2. Human labor:

Most food processing plants that handle pasta, bread, and rice use machines to process their products. Meatpacking plants however, rely on human labor. This is the key reason grain-based foods are still in plentiful supply. By late April 2020, the CDC had received data showing that 17 states had meatpacking plant workers who were infected with COVID. The amount of infected plant workers per state ranged from .6% to a frightening 18.2% (5). This high rate of infection has to do with the working conditions inside the plants. 

For efficiency, plants have an assembly line system. Workers stand close together to continually cut up meat as it goes by on a conveyor belt. These giant plants can have as many as 6,000 employees, all in the same indoor facility. The main priorities of these operations are speed and efficiency. The average production line can process over 1,000 pigs an hour and 8,000 chickens per hour (6). 

These speeds can also be dangerous when combined with sharp cutting tools like knives and saws. It’s no surprise then, that there are a huge amount of work-related injuries that happen at these facilities. They also make it difficult to practice behaviors that prevent the spread of COVID, like covering coughs and sneezes (6). With so many employees, social distancing is also virtually impossible. 

The big corporations have been able to inflict these dangerous conditions on their workers because of their massive size and grip on the industry. In April, JBS, one of the main meat production corporations, sent a cease-and-desist letter to its workers’ union, claiming that the union was trying to “coerce” JBS into creating workplace safety practices at one of its plants (2). The plant had reopened after a two week shutdown when 120 of its workers tested positive for the virus, and 5 died. The president of the plant’s workers union stated, “I think the workers are being sacrificed” (2).

The Allegheny Front. Workers are in close proximity in meatpacking plants.” 2020. Jpg file.

A change in the system

In the midst of this crisis, small-scale ranchers, farmers, and independently-owned meat processing companies are stepping up and joining together to fill in the gap left by the giant meat processing plants. 

Left with huge amounts of livestock and nowhere to process them, ranchers have had to come up with another way. The result has been a system of co-ops, ranchers who have pooled their resources to come up with solutions that benefit them all and serve their community. And they are being met with high demand. 

Private butchers and small, privately-owned slaughterhouses have also seen a massive boom in business. In some places, ranchers are even selling directly to consumers. This is not only because of meat shortages in grocery stores, but also because of the fear of consuming food that comes from places with high rates of COVID levels. Small meat processing operations have less employees, and can easily enforce COVID safety precautions in their operations.

 

Independent rancher

 The Food and Environment Reporting Network interviewed several small-scale butchers and slaughterhouse owners, who found that “the very things that make their operation[s] inefficient — [their] limited output and environmental philosophy — are what make [them] so attractive.” Two butchers interviewed in the piece explained that “people want good, healthy food and a connection with their producer…And they don’t want to go into the grocery store”(8). These small operations all have one thing in common, which is the ability to adapt quickly, a skill that giant meat production companies lack. The corporate meat giants are projected to lose nearly $13.6 billion in beef sales, according to an Oklahoma State University study (8). 

Civil Eats interviewed Donna Kilpatrick, owner of a sustainable ranch and co-founder of the Grassroots Farmers Collective. This co-op sells the meat from her ranch, as well as 32 others, online. She states that “Demand is off the charts. That’s what I hear from everybody doing e-commerce” (9).  Luckily for her, she is able to have her animals processed at a nearby, privately owned meat processing company that is working at its maximum capacity for the co-op.  

The key to the success of this co-op system of small businesses is access to meat processing companies and slaughterhouses. There are only about 800 federally inspected slaughterhouses in the US, and getting a USDA certification is expensive (10). This could form a bottleneck of its own, but small-time ranchers are already at work to solve this.

 

In the Bay Area of California for instance, until recently, many ranchers had to drive long distances to reach one of the small handful of USDA-approved slaughterhouses in all of California. They had to plan their entire operation around when the slaughterhouse allowed them to bring their livestock, which could sometimes be many months away. When their slaughterhouse shut down, ranchers saw an opportunity. In July, 16 of them created the BAR-C, or Bay Area Ranchers Co-Operative. Their plan is to put together a mobile slaughterhouse and a packaging facility that will service up to 80 ranchers in the area (7). 

This will put power into the ranchers hands, allowing them to operate on their own schedules and butcher their own animals in an ethical way, on their own property. That eliminates the stressful drive for the animals, as well as the poor conditions and fear they experience once they get to the plant.

 

Rancher family

The co-op small business model is more environmentally friendly since it doesn’t require a huge amount of driving or gathering of cows into massive groups for extended periods of time before they’re slaughtered. It also encourages locally sourced eating, since co-ops are supported by their own communities. Because of COVID meat shortages, there have been huge amounts of community support for these well-run co-ops. 

While COVID has brought many terrible things to our society, in the case of meat production, it has exposed a flawed monopoly and opened a door for innovation. There is an opportunity here for locally sourced meat that is far more ethical, environmental, and connected to the community that it came from. Though these times can be dark, there is still hope for a brighter future.

 

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