Why Accountability May Be The Next Big Meat Industry Trend

A recent U.S. House subcommittee report has detailed how the largest meatpacking companies worked closely with the Trump Administration to keep meat facilities running at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The new House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis Report validates the concerns of many worker advocates and journalists, who demanded action in early 2020 to protect meat processing workers. The report’s revelations are just the tip of the iceberg for why stricter oversight and regulations are so necessary for the meat processing sector.

Some of the report’s key findings include:

• The meat and poultry industry was aware of the risks that Covid-19 posed to workers.

• Meat companies falsified claims of an impending meat shortage and had millions of pounds set aside for storage and export contracts.

• Meat companies enlisted Trump USDA appointees to push back against health protections for workers, even against the recommendations of USDA staff.

• Meat companies worked closely with the USDA to force meatpacking workers to stay on the job, despite deadly conditions and growing infection rates, including preventing state and local health departments from keeping facilities safe and infection-free.

• Trump’s Executive Order was lobbied for and written at the behest of meat companies so they would be insulated from safety regulations and protected from liability over safety issues, mass illness and death.

An earlier October 2021 US House Select Subcommittee report found that outbreaks in the meat plants caused huge viral clusters in these communities, with over 44% of workers testing positive for the virus and thousands of community members sickened or killed by the spread. Researchers estimated that an additional 5,000 Covid-19 deaths and 330,000 cases could be attributed to the rapid spread in meat facilities.

The North American Meat Institute, a leading meat industry trade group, said the report “distorts the truth” and “uses 20/20 hindsight and cherry picks data to support a narrative that is completely unrepresentative of the early days of an unprecedented national emergency.”

The meat and poultry industry generates over $210 billion in annual sales and employs over 500,000 workers. Despite not being necessary for human survival, meat is heavily marketed to U.S. consumers, including through the beef checkoff, and occupies a disproportionate amount of advertising mindshare. Meat and poultry typically account for 5-10% of grocery store sales and are a key driver of customer loyalty and quality perception for retailers. Yet the business model of conventional meat is an environmental and social catastrophe.

Just a few conglomerates control up to 85% of beef, poultry and pork processing, including Tyson, JBS, Smithfield, Marfrig, Cargill and Seaboard. Billions of animals are slaughtered daily after living in crowded and inhumane feedlots. Such conditions are ripe for the spread of virulent pathogens, risking future pandemics even as millions of animals are cruelly culled. The meat industry generates millions of tons of carbon emissions linked to climate change and is responsible for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gases from food production. Corporate consolidation has put downward pressures on wages and unionization rates since the 1970’s. The meatpacking workforce is largely immigrant and people of color: over 42% of meat plant workers are Latin/Hispanic.

This business model has generated enormous profits for shareholders and a handful of executives. Pandemic profits in the meat sector surged by 500% while stock buybacks and dividends topped $4 billion earlier this year. Tyson’s most recent earnings report revealed that over $500 million in price increases were passed through to consumers, at an incremental gross profit rate of 25%. When you consider that retail gross margin is calculated by retail price minus cost, divided by retail price, it is no wonder that meat profits have skyrocketed alongside price hikes.

Food justice and worker advocates want to see action taken to rein in the industry. According to Navina Khanna, Executive Director of the HEAL Food Alliance:

“This report corroborates what workers and organizers have been saying for years. We’re glad to see that the House is taking seriously these now proven allegations that the meatpacking industry and USDA colluded to prioritize corporate profits over the lives of working people and their families. Time and time again, the giant corporations that control the meatpacking industry take deliberate actions to line their own pockets, with zero regard for the lives of working people or their communities.

“This time it resulted in preventable illness for thousands and hundreds of lost lives. At the height of a deadly pandemic, through coercion and lobbying, they refused to enact basic safety precautions, like providing PPE, and provisions for workers to call in sick without penalty if they or a family member was exposed to COVID-19. The corporations not only deprived their employees of federal benefits and blocked public health regulations and state and local oversight to keep plants open, but also literally wrote a presidential executive order to shield themselves from any liability for workers’ deaths. They did this under the guise of a domestic food shortage. Meanwhile, they exported the majority of their product, and raked in record profits.

“To date, the federal government has failed to protect the very workers that they deem essential. Congress, OSHA, the DOJ, the DOL, and the USDA must do more to prioritize the safety of this predominantly Black, Latinx, and Asian workforce, and enforce our basic civil rights laws. We are calling on the Biden administration and Congress to act. Our elected officials must hold corporations like Smithfield, Tyson, and JBS accountable for these workers’ deaths and the harm to public safety, and to prevent future instances of government and corporate corroboration. We hope this investigation conducted by the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis is a wake-up call that leads Congress to heed the call to create comprehensible and enforceable workplace protections, starting with the passage of the Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act, which we so clearly and desperately need.”

Unions that represent meat processing workers, such as UFCW and RWDSU, as well as other worker-led organizations have also been advocating for The Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act. Key provisions of the bill include:

· preventing the U.S. Department of Agriculture from issuing any line speed waivers unless meat and poultry plants show that an increase in line speeds will not adversely impact worker safety.

· strengthening health and safety standards and communication.

· expanded safety inspections of plants, with attention to line speeds, work site temperatures and bathroom breaks.

· strengthening protections from retaliation over safety concerns.

· new pandemic safety reporting to require plants to report the number of employees who become ill.

· restoring country of origin labeling so that consumers know their food came from well-regulated domestic facilities

The bill also directs OSHA establish an industrywide protocol for protecting workers from repetitive stress injuries and a mandate to enforce safety conditions in plants. Meatpacking plants consistently report the highest rates of injuries, including amputations, and more than a third of meatpacking workers have carpal tunnel syndrome along with other debilitating conditions.

According to Axel Fuentes, Executive Director of the Rural Community Workers Alliance, who organizes meat processing workers in Missouri and the Midwest, “Weak existing laws have failed to protect workers in the meat processing industry both before and during the COVID pandemic. Now we have an opportunity to improve these working conditions and prevent the deterioration of workers’ health through passing and implementing new laws and policies. I urge Congress to listen to workers’ needs and act swiftly to pass this bill.”

The House Select Committee report is the latest impetus for prioritizing workers and communities who have borne the externalities of the meat industry. Unions and worker advocates have quite reasonably demanded greater legal and safety protections. And while such actions won’t resolve all of the calamities caused by conventional meat production, they are necessary and vital steps towards food justice.

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/errolschweizer/2022/06/08/why-accountability-may-be-the-next-big-meat-industry-trend/