The Human Cost of Cheap Meat

Bloomberg Businessweek|May 04, 2020

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The Human Cost of Cheap Meat
Working in a processing plant has always been dangerous. With Covid-19, it’s even scarier
By Peter Coy

It looks like bad times for Big Meat. The meat processing industry was slow to recognize the danger of Covid-19: Workers continued to work elbow-to-elbow and without masks long after other Americans took precautions. Outbreaks of the disease among employees have now forced the shutdown or slowdown of dozens of plants that produce beef, pork, and chicken. Tyson Foods Inc. Chairman John Tyson has placed full-page ads saying “the food supply chain is breaking.” The world is dismayed by scenes of farmers euthanizing hogs and chickens that can’t be sold—even as meat prices are leaping and supermarket shelves are emptying.

But it’s not all bad for Tyson and the other companies that dominate U.S. meat production, including Cargill, Brazilian-owned JBS USA Holdings, and China’s WH Group, owner of Smithfield Foods. The profits from the plants that continue to operate at full capacity have soared: Spot prices for beef and pork are way up because the supply is tight, while the price the plants pay for animals is down because the processors can’t handle all of them.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s invocation of the Defense Production Act to ensure no disruption in the U.S. meat supply effectively gives producers the government’s support in any lawsuits over workers’ exposure to the coronavirus, as long as the companies follow safety standards prescribed by government agencies. On April 28, Trump directed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to “ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations consistent with the guidance for their operations jointly issued by the CDC and OSHA”—that is, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Labor unions and public-health advocates have accused Tyson and others of putting profit ahead of worker safety by keeping plants operating despite Covid-19 infections. But with Trump citing national security, “it’s easier for companies to say ‘we’re just following orders,’ ” says Jennifer Bartashus, a senior industry analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “It is a really good time for those that can operate, even if they’re not operating at full capacity.”

The whole world is feeling the effects of the pandemic on the food supply. In India, starvation looms because a nationwide 40-day lockdown to stop the virus has deprived the poor of money to buy food. A program of free food, fuel, and cash transfers for the poor amounting to less than 1% of the country’s gross domestic product has proved insufficient. In Nigeria, stay-at-home orders from state governments have sparked panic buying. In Brazil, coffee growers worry they can’t keep their employees safe, and, in Honduras, a fruit export giant has been accused of downplaying the risks. Adding to the pressure, Kazakhstan, Russia, Vietnam, and other countries are moving to secure domestic supply by restricting exports that the world depends on.

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May 04, 2020