Hundreds of workers at a Tyson meat plant tested positive April 29 for COVID-19 — days after the president ordered meat processing plants to remain open, prompting advocacy groups that oppose factory farming to step up calls for breaking up the nation's "big four" meat producers.
Activists say the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the deep-seeded problems of a highly centralized food system.
Nebraska-based Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) says the current system in which four companies — Cargill, JBS, National Beef, and Tyson — control more than 80 percent of the nation's beef supply must be overhauled.
"What the COVID-19 pandemic response has shown us is that the biggest links in our food supply chain are the weakest," Ben Gotschall, interim executive director of OCM, in a statement.
"In the interest of our economic, food, and national security," he continued, "the United States needs to remove these weak links by breaking up the Big Four meatpackers and taking steps to ensure that we never again reach today's harmful level of market concentration."
Gotschall said the goal should be "a system based on fair, transparent, and competitive markets so that we can have more farmers and ranchers on the land, producing food with more value in more places."
"Consumers and producers alike can benefit from a system designed not to extract profits for a few large corporations, but to enrich our rural and urban communities and nourish our nation’s people," he added.
That critique echoes recent remarks from Raj Patel, a research professor at the University of Texas and author of books including Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.
"The pandemic is exposing the big lie of industrial agriculture and its claim that this is the only way to feed the world," Patel told The Intercept. "When one big supply chain runs everything, the entire system becomes fragile. The reality is that smaller and more diverse networks of agriculture are the most resilient."
The Sioux City Journal reported that 669 workers at Tyson's beef plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, the company's biggest meat processing plant, were known to have tested positive for COVID-19. Just one day earlier, health officials announced that 890 workers at a Tyson pork processing plant in Logansport, Indiana tested positive for the disease.
In Wisconsin, more than 900 cases of COVID-19 have been traced to JBS meat-packing plants in Brown County, and three have died. There have been similar outbreaks at facilities in Iowa, Colorado and elsewhere.
Rates of infection around these plants are higher than those of 75 percent of other U.S. counties, the analysis found.
The rash of coronavirus outbreaks at dozens of meatpacking plants across the nation is far more extensive than previously thought, according to an exclusive review of cases by USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
And it could get worse. More than 150 of America's largest meat processing plants operate in counties where the rate of coronavirus infection is already among the nation's highest, based on the media outlets' analysis of slaughterhouse locations and county-level COVID-19 infection rates.
The coronavirus crisis and outbreaks at the plants and slaughterhouses have forced many of the facilities to temporarily shutter, a move that's also brought cruel death sentences for millions of animals.
Ante-bellum working conditions
Trump signed an executive order keeping meat packing plants open, declaring them part of the nation's "critical infrastructure," even as the facilities emerge as hotspots of the highly infectious coronavirus. The directive came under criticism from food system reform advocates, who said it puts low paid workers' lives in further danger given the poor working conditions, including a lack of protective equipment and close working quarters.
Ricardo Salvador is senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In a scathing take-down of the nation's food system that is "still grounded in antebellum — if not medieval — human exploitation," Salvador said the coronavirus crisis has put a spotlight on the worker abuse.
"This disregard for the well-being of these workers is not new, it's just that the general public is now forced to acknowledge it," he wrote in a Medium post.
Salvador says people can help rectify the situation by putting pressure on decision makers, including Big Meat CEOs and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue. Salvador also suggests people tell their "congressional representative to classify farmworkers as first responders and — instead of cutting their wages — provide them with pandemic premium pay increases, among other critical health and safety protections."
"Elected leaders need to hear that the public will not support moves to further enrich the superrich while making the lives of the working poor and immigrants even more desperate," he added.
The new calls to break up "Big Meat" came as OCM joined over a dozen organizations in issuing a demand for repealing Trump’s order to keep slaughterhouses open. The demand also urges the enforcement of anti-trust powers "to restructure this industry in ways that radically and greatly reduce the concentration of risk in any one facility."
Joe Maxwell, co-founder of Family Farm Action Alliance, is one of the signatories to the proposal. "The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the frailty of the current monopoly-controlled food and agriculture supply chain. The president ordering plants to stay open, jeopardizing the health of the workers and their communities, is not the answer," Maxwell said in a statement.
"It is time (Trump) and others recognize that the current heavily concentrated food system is a liability and a food and national security risk," Maxwell continued. "The time has come to diversify our food processing market and to make investments and to provide support for small and mid-sized processing plants, solving this crisis and ensuring a resilient food supply system for the future."