On April 27, meat giant Tyson Foods took out a full-page advertisement in major newspapers that carried an alarming message. “The food supply is breaking,” it said. The ad went on: “We have a responsibility to feed our country…Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America.”
Tyson was arguing that packing plants were “essential” and had to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, two days after the ad ran, President Trump signed an order declaring meatpacking plants “essential infrastructure” and requiring them to remain open. Safety experts said the order would prevent health officials from closing plants they determined were pandemic vectors and could also undermine efforts to, for example, put more distance between workers — something meat companies have long resisted. Throughout the pandemic, Big Meat has argued that instituting such safety measures would threaten to starve Americans of protein.
But we were never in danger of running out of meat. It turns out that when that ad ran, there was plenty in storage. An even bigger indicator that Tyson’s Chicken Little proclamation was baseless is that a lot of meat was going overseas earlier this year. In fact, according to the food chain analyst Panjiva and the USDA, in April, Tyson and Smithfield exported 1,289 tons and 9,170 tons of pork, respectively, to China. USDA says overall U.S. pork exports to mainland China in April reached the highest monthly total since the agency began tracking this information two decades ago.
So much for supplying “food to our families in America.” Another myth being circulated by Big Meat is that worker safety is its top priority. According to the Food and Environmental Reporting Network, as of Sept. 22, nearly 500 meatpacking plants had confirmed cases of COVID-19 — 42,708 meat workers have tested positive, with 204 dying from the virus.
In July, the HEAL Food Alliance (the Land Stewardship Project is a member-organization of HEAL) and other members of a nationwide coalition filed a civil rights complaint alleging Tyson and JBS have engaged in racial discrimination in the way they have handled COVID-19. The CDC reports that nearly 90% of infected meatpacking workers are people of color.
Corporations that receive federal assistance are required to comply with civil rights laws. The USDA awarded Tyson $275 million from 2019 to 2020 and JBS USA and its subsidiary Pilgrim’s Pride $193 million during the same period. But when JBS and Tyson plants became hotspots for COVID-19, the companies declined to adopt CDC recommendations for keeping workers at least six-feet-apart. Earlier this month, the U.S. Labor Department cited Smithfield Foods and JBS for failing to protect employees from COVID-19. It's good to know that regulators are paying attention, but given that the government proposed fining Smithfield a paltry $13,494 and JBS $15,615 for the violations, these aren't exactly the kinds of sanctions that will change behavior. It’s clear that more enforcement of packing plant safety procedures is needed, as well as reforms such as the slowing of line speeds.
What is also needed is public investment in a different model of processing. As mega-packing operations have taken over, local “locker” plants have diminished. These are the independent plants that serve farmers who are direct-marketing to consumers, restaurants, and co-ops.
For the small plants that remain, farmers are reporting waiting times to get animals processed stretching to a year or more. A recent survey of farmers conducted by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and numerous groups, including LSP, found lack of small-scale processing capacity is hamstringing the local food movement. This is especially frustrating considering that almost 65% of the 111 survey respondents said demand for their product had gone up since the pandemic hit. Over half said they would raise more livestock if more processing was available. More animals integrated into cropping operations is key to creating a widespread sustainable farming system.
As a result of work on the part of the Land Stewardship Project and our allies, the state Legislature recently provided $100,000 for smaller Minnesota meat and poultry processors to expand their capacity. That’s a start, but more is needed, including regulation reform that makes it easier for small processors to upgrade and ship across state lines. Other creative ideas include community-owned meat processing.
Tyson and its Big Meat colleagues are right — the food supply is broken. What they won’t admit is that fixing it requires departing from a system based on putting employees, local farmers, communities, and other “essentials” at risk simply to plump up corporate profits.
Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter and the author of Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic.