“The food supply chain is breaking” – COVID, the American meat supply, and the employees now at risk

By Matt Paysour

“The food supply chain is breaking.”

Beef production has fallen nearly 32 percent after starting the year at record highs, while poultry production has fallen by about 12 percent in recent weeks. Coronavirus outbreaks have forced closures of some meat processing plants, and at others, restricted the hours that many employees are allowed to work. This has created concern of a potential shortage of meat products in supermarkets.

In response, John Tyson, chairman and heir of meat-processing giant Tyson Foods, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, claiming “the food supply chain is breaking.” Meat processing plants cannot afford to be closed, nor can they meet American consumer meat demand while shuttered.

However, on the whole, relatively few meat processing plants have been affected. Around 22 plants are currently enduring temporary closure, creating the 32 percent decrease in beef production and 12 percent decrease in poultry production seen over the past month. Due to rapid corporate consolidation of the American meat industry over the past two decades, three companies are responsible for selling two-thirds of the beef sold in the United States, and pork and poultry are roughly equivalent. The whole industry—including giants such as Tyson Foods, Smithfield Inc., and JBS—has grown through acquisitions and concentration under an ethic of “too big to fail.” Without a doubt, placing processing and production in the hands of a small number of industrial giants builds efficiency in getting low-cost meat products to consumers, a feature unique to the American food industry.

However, with few companies involved in meat production, just 22 breaks in the supply chain is a risk of major disruption. Prices will rise, and shortages will often ensue. There was evidence of this in 2019, when a destructive fire in a single Kansas cattle processing plant destabilized beef prices and caused hamburger shortages across the country for months. A lack of diversity and competition within meat production makes the food system less resilient to disruptions in single points in the supply chain. Reporting from Bloomberg News puts it succinctly: the food supply chain is breaking because Tyson created it this way.

The impact of large-scale meat production on workers is an even stronger indictment. To date, over 5,000 employees working in meat-processing plants have been infected with COVID-19, and at least 20 have died. Meanwhile, John Tyson’s plea was heard, and an executive order mandated that meat processors remain open because they provide an essential service. These numbers will only continue to rise, especially as this same executive order absolved all corporations of liability for workers who contract COVID-19.

While many large meat processors such as Tyson, Smithfield, and Cargill have begun taking precautions—including personal protective equipment, temperature checks, and partnering with local health departments to track spread—these outbreaks began because precautions were not taken and workers were not protected by workplace changes in the initial stages of the outbreak. The work itself in meat-processing plants, with a heavy focus on speed and efficiency, also requires employees to work in close proximity with cramped quarters for lunch breaks. The work demanded by high-efficiency, large-scale meat production therefore has directly resulted in high risk for employees in these facilities.

Americans have long had some sort of discomfort with the ethics of the American meat industry. Environmental damage caused by concentrated animal feeding operations, poor working conditions for employees, and an overproduction of red and processed meats that have shaped Americans diets for the worse, to name a few. Thankfully, consolidation of the meat industry into its current large-scale operation has already raised substantial bipartisan concern in Congress. Senators Tammy Baldwin and Josh Hawley are leading an effort with the Federal Trade Commission to establish an antitrust investigation into the meatpacking industry. Coronavirus has unearthed a number of latent structural problems and inequities built into American society, and perhaps this latest concern renews further calls for reform into a more diversified, equitable, and localized food system.

Because John Tyson is right. The food supply chain is breaking. But things break more easily when they are broken to begin with.


Peer-edited by Sonia Tandon

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