America’s meatpacking plants endure some of the highest rates of workplace injury of any U.S. job sector. COVID-19 has introduced yet another occupational hazard.
These crowded facilities have become frighteningly successful vectors for COVID-19 contagion.
On Sunday April 26, a news release entitled, ‘A Delicate Balance: Feeding the Nation and Keeping Our Employees Healthy’ appeared as a full-page ad in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It was also widely posted on social media.
Written by John H. Tyson, Chairman of the Board of Tyson Foods, the statement, declared: “In small communities around the country, where we employ over 100,000 hard-working men and women, we’re being forced to shutter our doors. This means one thing – the food supply chain is vulnerable. As pork, beef, and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain. … Farmers across the nation simply will not have anywhere to sell their livestock to be processed, when they could have fed the nation. Millions of animals – chickens, pigs and cattle – will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities. The food supply chain is breaking.”
And with that, Southern and Midwestern farmers began euthanizing livestock.
Two days after the publication of Tyson’s letter, President Donald Trump declared that meatpacking plants were “critical infrastructure” under the Defense Production Act of 1950 and prohibited their closure.
While this was happening, vegetable farmers were forced to let their crops rot in the fields or plow otherwise harvestable food into the ground. Dairy farmers, already grappling with low prices, found themselves dumping more than 3.5-million gallons of milk every day (an estimate from Dairy Farmers of America). And everywhere, food pantries, facing unprecedented demand, were running out of food. This clearly reveals just how vulnerable, and how unjust, our food supply system can be. It also emphasizes the need to fix it.
Zoonosis – Diseases Transmitted to Humans from Animals
Lots of diseases, including most pandemics, (e.g. H1N1 [swine flu], H5N1 [bird flu], Ebola, Lyme disease, malaria, rabies, ringworm, West Nile virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome [SARS], HIV/AIDS) originated in animals.
The influenza pandemic of 1918, which infected roughly 1/3 of the world’s population of 500-million people, killing an estimated 50-million, including 675,000 Americans, is believed to have originated on a pig farm. That was long before CAFO factory farms existed.
CAFOs – Confined Animal Feeding Operations
CAFO farms can generate a myriad of environmental and public health problems. CAFO manure contains potential contaminants including plant nutrients (e.g. nitrogen, phosphorus) and pathogens (e.g. E. coli, growth hormones, antibiotics, animal blood, silage leachate). The volume of waste produced depends on the type and number of animals farmed. A feeding operation with 800,000 pigs can produce over 1.6 million tons of waste a year. That amount is one and a half times more than the annual sanitary waste produced by the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (GAO, 2008).
The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2000 National Water Quality Inventory found that 29 states specifically identified animal feeding operations (AFOs), not just CAFOs, as contributing to water quality impairment (Congressional Research Service, 2008).
In order to protect their livestock from diseases that might kill entire populations, resulting in huge profit losses, CAFO farmers commonly treat their animals with antibiotics. And poultry fed antibiotic-feed show significantly higher weight gain than those fed non-antibiotic feed (Settle et al. 2014). Animals growing at a greater rate than they would otherwise, reduces operating costs and increases profit.
But use of antibiotic feed is threatening human health. Every year 2 million people experience serious illness due to untreatable bacterial infection and 23,000 die because the bacteria that made them sick is antibiotic-resistant (Young 2013). When antibiotic-resistant bacteria spreads to a large group of people and cannot be treated, we have what is known as a superbug. And many scientists believe that superbugs are the inevitable consequence we will face, if CAFOs continue to use antibiotics indiscriminately in the feed of the nation’s largest source of meats.
Then there’s the animal cruelty issue, which I won’t get into here, other than to say that 9-billion animals, including 8.8 billion chickens are raised and killed on large, overcrowded U.S. CAFO farms every year (Humane Society of the United States).
Locally Sourced Meat – A Better Alternative
There’s a better way to keep your freezer full; meat CSAs. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm programs directly connect farmers to consumers. You know right where your food is coming from. You’re supporting local farming families that raise top-quality pastured and grass-fed livestock; working with nature, rather than against it. Pasture-based farming improves animal health, maximizes cost-efficiency, and minimizes farm pollution. You reap the rewards by purchasing affordable, quality meats (and eggs) produced using sustainable farming practices.
You buy a share and you pick it up when it’s ready. It’s that simple. And most farms offer share sizes to fit everyone’s needs. You can receive meat on a regularly scheduled timetable or one-time-only.
If you are in Northern New York, you can learn more, and find pretty much every type of locally grown and/or prepared food imaginable (and more), online here, elsewhere around the state, contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office.
Photo of pigs at Kate Mountain Farm provided.