You would have to go back over a century — to 1906 — when a dour investigative journalist named Upton Sinclair published "The Jungle" to find the last time the American public has been as freaked out by what goes on in slaughterhouses as they are right now.
Sinclair's vivid exposé of the foul conditions then rampant in Chicago's meatpacking industry was so shocking that it led to the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, one of the first laws to protect Americans from harmful food.
But today's public freakout has actually been caused by warnings from the meatpacking industry itself: Forget the silliness with toilet paper, folks, we are on the brink of nationwide shortages of beef, pork and chicken. So serious is the apparent threat to our supply of burgers, bacon and chicken wings that President Donald Trump — though heretofore reluctant to invoke the Defense Protection Act for desperately needed personal protective equipment for front-line health care providers — invoked it now to prevent empty supermarket shelves in the meat departments.
The problem with ensuring that adequate numbers of pork chops and chuck roasts make it to Americans' dinner tables, it turns out, is that Big Agriculture's slaughterhouses are virtual Club Meds for SARS-CoV-2, offering the virus the leisure and freedom to attack — unimpeded — a smorgasbord of workers' ACE-2 receptors. And attack and infect it has: With (so far) more than 6,500 line workers infected with the illness, at least 30 dead and infection rates in the surrounding communities soaring, at least 22 meatpacking plants have already been shut down.
The working conditions that have turned meatpacking plants into COVID-19 hot spots are well known within the industry. The crowded lines, the limited breaks in crowded break rooms (which make social distancing impossible), the poor ventilation onsite and the culture of humiliation that pushes workers to produce at excessive, dangerous speeds, as wells as spraying — without adequate protection — chemicals like ammonia and peracetic acid, which are highly irritating to the human respiratory system and eyes, are well documented. They are also the reasons meatpacking workers are more likely to be injured on the job than cops.
But no one really paid attention to the brutal working conditions until it turned out that they also make the people who work there particularly susceptible to being infected with COVID-19.
As recently as 2019, the Labor Department's Occupational and Safety Health Administration fined a Texas meatpacker over $600,000 for failing to protect the respiratory health of its workers from hazardous chemicals. In other words, it was spraying poisons in the workplace without providing masks and goggles to its workers.
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It wasn't an isolated case of lack of care. Case Farms, a North Carolina poultry processor, was fined $860,000 by OSHA in 2015 for, among other things, repeatedly exposing its workers to electrocution and amputation hazards while providing neither personal protection nor emergency eyewash stations. And in 2018, OSHA records revealed that, for the previous two years, U.S. workers at meat processing plants had suffered an average of two amputations a week (which included the loss of an eye) after suffering severe injuries on the line.
An industry that doesn't automatically, unquestioningly protect its workers from being fumigated with known toxic chemicals or losing limbs can hardly be expected to protect them from invisible pathogens. However, while line workers who inhale toxic chemicals may suffer from chronic health issues, they can still clock in. COVID-19, on the other hand, kills you or makes you so sick you can't work — which de facto shuts down the plants.
We are starting to witness the rippling effects of meatpacking plant closures — which include farmers facing "de-populating" mass amounts of healthy, ready-for-market cattle, chickens and pigs, all while thousands of Americans wait in line at food banks.
The solution — obviously — is to order everyone back to work and protect the meatpackers, like Tyson Foods, from legal liability for getting any of their workers sick. Enter the Trump administration and its nimble executive order last week declaring processing plants critical infrastructure. Helpfully, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and OSHA have issued guidelines to protect meat and poultry workers; less helpfully, the Trump administration has made the guidelines completely voluntary.
But guidelines and executive orders won't get workers who are sick, dead or justifiably terrified of catching COVID-19 to show up on the line.
Sensing the chaos in the meatpacking industry and the absence of federal leadership, environmental organizations that have been (unsuccessfully) lobbying against the U.S. government's alliance with Big Agriculture for decades have begun publishing extremely reasonable-sounding calls to action: cutting U.S. meat production would prevent billions of tons of climate-polluting chemicals, and reducing the numbers of grazing livestock would end the decimation of the iconic waterways of the Western United States (it might ease the drought, too). Even workplace safety advocates are hoping to use this opportunity for progress and calling on Congress to fix our food system.
It's almost like they've never met America.
Industries famously don't regulate themselves, and the meatpacking industry isn't going to be an outlier. SARS-CoV-2 is relentless and brutal and, so far, mysterious to science. More line workers will get sick and die, and more meatpacking plants will close. Things won't get better until there is the real political will to change how the meatpacking industry handles worker safety.
Perhaps a new president and a new administration determined to protect both the safety of American low-wage workers and our food supply could bring real change in the wake of the devastation wrought by COVID-19. Well, anyway, isn't it pretty to think so?