The Pitch | Butcher Kings: COVID-19 Exposes a Meat Industry “Too Big to Fail”

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When thinking of COVID-19’s fastest-growing hotspots, forget our urban centers.

The Midwest’s new ground zero? Meatpacking plants.

As of late April, forty percent of Nebraska’s new coronavirus cases were linked to a JBS meat processing plant. Half of South Dakota’s cases were linked to a Smithfield plant. Similar hotspots are hitting rural KansasMissouri, and Iowa — in all, nineteen states.

As of May 8, more than 11,500 meat processing and meatpacking plant workers have contracted COVID-19. That’s four times more than in Kansas City, St. Louis, Wichita and Lincoln combined. Nearly fifty workers have lost their lives.

Meatpacking plant outbreaks are hitting rural areas where ventilators and beds are scant. In Grand Island, Nebraska, a rural hospital was so overwhelmed it needed three helicopter companies to airlift patients.

The story of COVID-19 and the meatpacking industry is a story any Midwesterner should know. We celebrate our burnt ends, pulled pork, and fried chicken. We are America’s ranchers and farmers. We are the small-town workers who toil in these plants. Shouldn’t we, of all people, know why COVID-19 is exploding in our food industry, and why this tiny virus has the power to cripple our food chain?

A deeper look into this story — and the decades that preceded it — reveals a painful saga. We find the incredible lengths that industry leaders took to stay open amid mounting deaths, protests, legal battles, and outcry from local health officials. And we understand why they pushed so hard in the first place.

As deaths and cases began to soar in April, John Tyson, CEO of Tyson Foods, took out a full-page ad in The New York Times to defend keeping plants open. He weighed COVID-19 cases with company operations, calling the two “a delicate balance.”

“The food chain is breaking,” he argued. If Tyson were to shutter, his letter implied, an entire industry would go with it. John Tyson wasn’t too far off.

If Tyson has to close temporarily, another company can’t step in to fulfill the demand. The sad truth is, there isn’t another company. Our meat processing economy is so top-heavy, with so few competitors, that it’s dangerously fragile. A single company’s temporary work stoppage could cause the whole thing to go under.

This, dear reader, is called an oligopoly.

Virtually all — upwards of 80% — of our nation’s chicken, beef and pork is processed by four meat industry conglomerates: Smithfield, JBS USA, Tyson Foods, and Cargill. Our grocery meat aisles give a misleading perception of choice. These four companies control nearly all of the bacon, hotdogs, sausages, eggs, chicken, pork, and beef cuts in our grocery stores. Fast food meats, restaurant cuts, and rotisserie chickens are owned by them, too.

Tyson, for instance, owns Hillshire Farms, Jimmy Dean, Ball Park, Sara Lee, and State Fair, among others. The company controls how its brands look and feel, and how they capture different segments of market share. Buy any one of those products, and your money flows to Tyson.

Half of these “Big Ag” big four are foreign-owned. The foreign policy and national security implications of half our meat supply are a concern, one would presume. Smithfield was acquired by a Chinese conglomerate in 2017, and it controls 25% of hog slaughtering in the United States. JBS is a $43 billion Brazil-based conglomerate. It’s the largest meat processor in the world, and it also happens to be under fire for supporting a socialist regime in Venezuela. Venezuelan president Diosdado Cabello, who has close ties to the owners of JBS, recently put out an assassination order on Florida Senator Marco Rubio after he called for a federal investigation into JBS.

While it’s common for Midwesterners to say we don’t begrudge someone their profits, a monopolized industry functions more like a king than a company. These butcher kings have become so large that they make their own rules. They control the health and safety of their workers, they dictate the income of their farmers, they influence lawmakers, and they may even control how much we, as consumers, may pay.

Long before COVID-19 dragged the meat industry into the national consciousness, meatpacking workers claimed a pattern of abuse and negligence so severe they called it “modern day slavery.”

Meat processing and packing workers — the women and men who skin, debone, chop and package animals in massive facilities — are more likely to be injured on the job than cops. A recent study found they suffer an average of two amputations a week. Workers reported unprotected exposures to electrocution and harmful chemicals, limited breaks, poor ventilation, crowding, and a culture of humiliation that pushes them to exhaustion.

Of course with so many locations, a large company can have some facilities with better safety and health records, and some with worse. Any one plant isn’t necessarily representative of the entire industry. While some claim COVID-19 spreads in meatpacking plants because of cold temperatures and close working conditions, some workers give a different answer.

When COVID-19 hit, workers claimed companies covered up outbreaks, failed to provide essential protections as basic as soap and hot water, and pushed workers to stay on even if they felt sick.

In Milan, Missouri, Smithfield workers claimed they weren’t given time to wash their hands or even wipe their noses after sneezing and were bribed to keep working regardless of health. In Greeley, Colorado, JBS workers claimed the plant didn’t take temperatures or require social distancing in break rooms, provided no soap or hot water in the bathrooms, and told workers they’d be fired if they didn’t come in.

Compared to the rest of the U.S. workforce, meatpacking workers are particularly vulnerable to unscrupulous behavior.

From California’s grapes to Florida’s tomatoes to our heartland’s animal stocks, the packaged foods in our grocery stores are, largely, the work of immigrants. Industrial food processing is our economy’s Ellis Island. The League of United Latin American Citizens estimates 80 percent of meat-processing workers are undocumented immigrants or refugees, including refugees from war-torn countries like Somalia and Myanmar. Half live below the federal poverty line.

Immigrants are less likely to report OSHA violations, and have lower turnover rates than non-immigrant workers. Experts claim that only stronger immigration status protections could enable immigrants to hold their employers accountable at the same rates as the average non-immigrant worker.

The meat industry is charged with keeping wages suppressed, too. In 2019, a sweeping class-action lawsuit targeted producers of 90% of America’s poultry products. The suit claims that seventeen companies’ HR leaders colluded “off the books” to suppress worker pay across the poultry industry for at least a decade.

Our butcher kings leave our Midwestern workforce vulnerable to dangerous conditions and wage gouging. But it’s not just our workforce at risk. Our farmers, too, have been crying foul about a rigged system for decades.

As Christopher Leonard, author of The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Businessexplained, “A feedlot owner in Nebraska, for example, or a chicken farmer in Arkansas, will often have no viable choice of who they can do business with. …when you only have two options of who to do business with, those two companies don’t have to compete with each other… And so I saw time and again, farmers do not have a real choice when they’re facing bad practices or they’re being underpaid.”

Starting in the 1980s, Smithfield pioneered vertically integrated pork farming, a practice which led to an 82% drop in family-owned Iowa hog farms between 1982 and 2007. The practice is widely replicated by other farm industries.

The dramatic drop in small rural farms — and the diversified economic power that they created — is widely credited for today’s high rates of rural poverty and economic decline. As the big meatpackers grew, they forced farmers to sell at lower and lower prices, wiped out farms, and decimated the infrastructure of local agri-business that surrounded those farms. Nationwide, the number of slaughterhouses has plummeted from 10,000 to one-tenth of that.

The meat industry displaced hundreds of counties’ worth of skilled rural labor and local entrepreneurship, and replaced it with a handful of massive factories offering low-skilled, low-paying assembly line jobs.

This consolidation also wiped out local economic independence and resilience. In Iowa, a whopping 85 percent of consumer food is imported, despite the state’s world-famous farmland. Grocery stores are being replaced by Dollar General stores, which don’t sell fresh meat or produce, let alone locally-raised food.

The massive power of Big Ag has broken the relationship between growers and consumers, and along the way, it broke regional food culture and local economic ingenuity. Monopolization turned our food economy into a bottlenecked supply chain that, under COVID-19, has finally shown how fragile and unhealthy consolidation can be.

When Big Ag controls more of the market, it controls more of the profit. Before COVID-19 began, the beef processing industry was under USDA investigation for price-fixing, and since COVID-19 caused supply scarcity, the price-fixing has gotten worse.

“Just last week, packed beef was going for $100 more than live cattle. Meat is going off the shelf at higher prices but the farmers aren’t getting a higher price,” said J.D. Scholten, an Iowa Democratic Congressional candidate who grew up amid cattle farming and beef processing.

Whether it’s our food workers or family farmers sitting on the chopping block, the decline of rural America is a sadness Midwesterners know in our bones. Farm foreclosures are reaching levels not seen since the farm crisis of the 1980s. Farmer suicide rates are soaring.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s groundbreaking investigative work “The Jungle” vividly exposed foul conditions in Chicago’s meat processing plants. His sensational exposé sparked public outcry and one of America’s first food protection laws, the Federal Meat Inspection Act. More than one hundred years later, the meat industry has stronger allies. President Donald Trump issued an executive order to keep meatpacking plants open, and his administration has repeatedly stood with the meat industry at the expense of its workers.

After South Dakota’s massive 1,000-case plant outbreak made national headlines, the Centers and Disease Control (CDC) and Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) used it as a model for new COVID-19 guidelines for meatpacking plants, and issued them on April 26. Despite the overwhelming scope of the outbreaks, the CDC and OSHA’s rules are voluntary and they allow asymptomatic carriers to continue working. The Department of Labor has the power to make those rules mandatory, but it has not taken action.

On May 7, our nation’s top health official, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, told a group of Repubican and Democratic lawmakers that meat industry workers were to blame for spreading COVID-19, and not the companies. (This claim is not supported by health experts.) Azar opposed expanding testing at meatpacking plants and instead, encouraged lawmakers to send police officers to workers’ homes to enforce social distancing.

In Nebraska, where plant outbreaks spiked so quickly that the state became the fastest-growing hub of COVID-19 in the United States, local health officials pushed for plant closuresBut Governor Pete Ricketts blocked them, and compared meat to toilet paper: “You want to talk about some of these protests going on right now? Think about how mad people were when they couldn’t get paper products.”

While the Trump Administration and some Republicans seem lockstep with the meatpacking industry, more advocates are breaking ranks and speaking out.

In early 2019, a group of family farm advocates spanning the country — including the Wisconsin Farmers Union, National Family Farm Coalition, American Grassfed Association, Organization for Competitive Markets, National Black Farmers Association, and the Association of American Indian Farmers — gathered in Sioux City, Iowa to lobby Democratic Presidential candidates for a “Farmer’s Bill of Rights.”

Organized by Missouri-based Family Farm Action Alliance, the Farmer’s Bill of Rights calls for antitrust legislation to break up Big Ag. It got attention. Presidential candidates Julian Castro, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan and John Delaney were in Sioux City that day, and each spoke in favor of it (Joe Biden wasn’t yet in the race). Senator Cory Booker introduced a Senate Resolution supporting it. And today, more Democratic lawmakers and candidates are standing up for stronger food economies.

Scholten joined the rally in Sioux City too, and he’s been a vocal advocate for family farms. (He’s running for Congress to replace white supremacist-supporting Republican Rep. Steve King.)

Scholten is calling for an end to the food system’s consolidation, which under COVID-19 created a crushing economic bottleneck that leaves millions of pounds of food to rot on farms, while food banks and grocery stores sit empty.

An overhaul of the antiquated 99-year-old Packers and Stockyards Act, our food economy’s anti-trust legislation, is high on his list. And he’s fighting for better wages and working conditions for food workers, because just like family farmers, food workers are part of the economy, too.

“We’re losing sight of our base of agriculture and our food system,” he told The American Prospect. “Who are we doing this for?”

Beyond Presidential and Congressional candidates and leaders, more than fifty food, environmental, labor and animal-protection organizations recently joined forces to pressure Congress to stand up to Big Ag by opposing corporate bailouts and investing recovery aid in small family farms.

In the meantime, meat industry workers have been taking COVID-19 survival into their own hands.

The Milan, Missouri plant that barred workers from wiping their noses? A worker sued the plant — and won. The plaintiff, named Jane Doe to protect her identity, didn’t ask for a dime; her suit sought to make the plant safe. A federal judge granted her plea on April 27, and the plant remains America’s sole facility required to meet CDC and OSHA guidelines.

More workers are staging protests and speaking to the press, leading to new public pressure and transparency in an industry known for its carefully crafted public image.

On March 30, over 800 workers staged a walk-off protest in Greeley, Colorado. After a reporter covered the walkout, he heard from “a flood of people” about the plant’s practices and conditions. Because of those workers, the reporter was able to “break open the usually impenetrable concrete walls of the beef plant during a critical time.”

Unions, too, are speaking out. The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents meatpacking workers, is pushing lawmakers to make the CDC and OSHA guidelines mandatory and give meatpacking workers priority access to testing and protective equipment. They’re also calling for Big Ag to be transparent about its practices “to ensure that meatpacking workers, elected leaders, and the communities they serve know exactly what steps they are taking to keep workers safe and our food supply secure.”

The larger story of meatpacking plants, and their crippling run-in with COVID-19, will become a slice of American history that Midwesterners should understand. As for our monopolized meat industry’s crippling effects on our workers, farmers, and supply chain, a question remains.

As Crystal Rodriguez, a Smithfield plant worker in Colorado whose father, also a Smithfield worker, died of COVID-19, asked a reporter: “They have so much money and so much knowledge of everything. Why didn’t they help protect us?”