America Is Paying a High Price for Cheap Meat

There’s the beef. Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP/Shutterstock

Workers’ rights in the United States are exceptionally limited, while the coronavirus pandemic is exceptionally widespread. This is not a coincidence.

There are many reasons why America has suffered more coronavirus deaths per capita than most Western European nations. But one is (almost certainly) that our nation’s relative paucity of labor protections has turned its slaughterhouses into COVID-19 distribution centers.

As of last week, 24,715 meatpacking workers had been infected with the novel coronavirus, while at least 86 had died from it, according to data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network. By contrast, across all of Europe, the best available data suggests about 2,670 coronavirus cases have emerged in meat-processing plants and slaughterhouses, including four fatal cases.

This discrepancy is partially explained by the extraordinary scale of America’s meatpacking plants. In Germany (one of Europe’s top pork purveyors), meat production is far less concentrated into megafacilities that pack thousands of workers within their confines. As a result, COVID-19 outbreaks in any one European plant will typically produce far fewer infections than one at a U.S. behemoth.

But size isn’t all that matters. As Mother Jones reports:

American meat workers aren’t just working in larger facilities, they are often working faster than their European counterparts, too, says James Ritchie, assistant general secretary of the Geneva-based International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations, a federation of 427 trade unions from across the world.

Slaughter line speeds have long presented major concerns for worker health and food safety in the United States, where some employees have resorted to wearing diapers because they don’t have time for bathroom breaks, Ritchie says. Those conditions could make it impossible to comply with coronavirus precautions, he said: “You can’t even stop to cough into your hand or your elbow because the line speeds are so, so fast.”

There’s heterogeneity in line speeds between different European countries. But as a general matter, the relative strength of labor in Europe appears to serve as a greater constraint on how fast firms can force their employees to work — and thus, on how much they can prioritize profit over their workers’ basic hygiene. The average European pork-plant line processes 400 pigs per hour; in the U.S., that figure is closer to 1,000.

Meanwhile, in countries where paid sick leave is a ubiquitous benefit — and health insurance is guaranteed by the state — workers have much greater capacity to stay home when they are sick.

The hyperexploitation of American meatpacking workers does arguably produce some benefit for U.S. consumers — our meat prices are lower than those in most developed countries. But giant meat producers and their shareholders are the primary beneficiaries of their plants’ execrable efficiency; meat-packers have been posting record profits.

Meanwhile, America’s failure to protect its meatpacking workers from the coronavirus is inextricable from its failure to spare the rest of its residents from exceptionally high rates of death and infection. Only America’s prisons and nursing homes have rivaled our slaughterhouses in their efficiency at disseminating COVID-19. And recent research suggests that the novel coronavirus requires spaces like meatpacking plants in order to perpetuate itself.

All viral outbreaks thrive on super-spreader events in crowded indoor spaces. But the novel coronavirus appears to be unusually dependent on such events. The media conversation about SARS-CoV-2 has popularized one key epidemiological variable — R, the average number of people an afflicted individual infects. Before social-distancing measures were enacted, the coronavirus had an R of about three. And yet, this average obscures the profound variation between individuals. Estimates vary, but multiple research teams believe that the typical COVID-19 patient does not infect a single other person, a reality that is concealed by the prolific transmission rates of so-called super-spreaders. In fact, according to a new study from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, about 10 percent of coronavirus patients are responsible for 80 percent of all new infections. This means that the coronavirus’s high R is potentially mitigated by its low k — a variable that describes how reliant a disease is on clusters of infection in order to spread. Viruses with a high k, such as the 1918 influenza, can spread diffusely through a large number of individuals. Those with a low k — such as the novel coronavirus’s close relatives SARS and MERS — cannot sustain themselves without super-spreaders. This was one reason why both of those coronaviruses burned out quickly and never recurred. Research from the University of Bern suggests that the coronavirus has a slightly higher k than SARS or MERS but one that is much lower than that of the Spanish flu.

A virus with a low k value needs a bit of luck to get off the ground. If such a bug gets itself into the right human — say, one who’s too committed to choir practice to let a cold keep them home — it can gain a foothold in a community. If it infects a bunch of lonely homebodies, meanwhile, it will die out before making its presence felt (as the novel coronavirus ostensibly did in France last December).

This novel coronavirus’s apparent reliance on super-spreaders, combined with what we’ve learned about outdoor spread and the efficacy of masks, suggests that the pandemic could be substantially curtailed through much less painful methods than the lockdowns we’re now exiting. With high levels of mask-wearing and observance of moderate social-distancing protocols, we may be able to enjoy many forms of retail commerce and outdoor public recreation without fueling high levels of infection. But there is a fundamental tension between curbing the pandemic and holding large, crowded indoor public events, since these provide the coronavirus with the super-spreading opportunities it requires to sustain itself. And every day, meatpacking plants across the country convene such events.

Perhaps the economic costs of completely shuttering production at these plants are unacceptably high. But at the very least, these facilities should have to adopt elevated workplace safety standards and benefits to continue operating during the pandemic. In Germany, where outbreaks in the industry have been far less severe, meat producers have voluntarily embraced a variety of new safety measures, and the nation’s Cabinet has proposed new rules that would outlaw subcontracting in the meat industry, and double the fines on employers that violate maximum-working-hours laws.

Providing America’s meatpacking workers with analogous benefits and protections is the minimum demanded by economic justice and public health. Our indifference to their lives is killing us.

America Is Paying a High Price for Cheap Meat