Meatpacking Plants Should Not Be Open Right Now

Public Domain. USDA

People's lives are at risk so you can enjoy a burger at home.

At a time when "schools, bypass surgeries and funerals" are considered too dangerous for people to attend, it is absurd that meatpacking should be deemed essential. While meat as a protein form might be tasty to some people, it is hardly crucial to human survival, as has been proven time and again by generations of vegetarians; but the U.S. president does not see it that way. Trump has ordered slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants to remain open throughout this pandemic, despite the fact that these plants have been the site of some of the country's worst coronavirus outbreaks.

In an eloquent piece for the Washington Post, writer and climate activist Jonathan Safran Foer (whose 2019 book "We Are The Weather: Saving the Planet Begins At Breakfast" I reviewed here) questions how we've "arrived at the absurdity of requiring civilians to risk their lives for the sake of a particular food." It comes down to what he describes as an attitude of disposability toward the people who work in these plants. Poor, with minimal education, and often migrants from countries south of the border, these workers are not being "brave" (as wealthier whites ensconced in their cozy quarantines like to say), but rather have no choice, even when faced with the daily possibility of death, because how else are they going to feed their families?

It's important to understand just how challenging meatpackers' jobs are. I've written before about how they're forced to work "shoulder to shoulder in crowded, enclosed spaces, with limited access to protective equipment and no plexiglass barriers, on production lines that have been speeding up in recent months." Many are migrants without documentation, union representation, health benefits. Safran Foer says meatpacking is considered the country's most dangerous occupation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it forces great indignities upon workers:

"It is not just the nature of the job; there is systemic disregard for the safety and dignity of the people working in the meat industry. An in-depth report by Oxfam documents that, for years, workers in U.S. poultry slaughter plants — including those operated by Tyson Foods, Sanderson Farms, Perdue and Pilgrim’s Pride — commonly wear adult diapers or simply urinate on themselves because bathroom breaks are routinely denied by supervisors under threats of retribution."

And now, on top of all this, they're being asked to put their lives at risk so that the rest of us can eat something we don't even need. The meat companies like to make it sound as though coronavirus and draconian public-health measures are at fault for "breaking the food system," but as Foer points out, the entire industrial meat production model broke long ago,

"... by inventing a business model that requires environmental destruction, worker exploitation, animal cruelty and conditions that create 'novel' viruses. (Of the 16 strains of novel influenza viruses that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified as being of highest concern, all but two converted to human viruses in commercial poultry farms.)"

What's to be done?

It's quite simple. Reject this horror show by making different choices at the grocery store. Do not prop up the factory farm system and show support instead for small-scale, ethical producers who embrace regenerative practices, treat animals and humans with respect, and pay fair wages to employees who work in decent conditions. Does this mean less meat that's also far more expensive? Yes. Is that a bad thing? No.

Although Safran Foer does not say it in this article, he's a proponent of the Vegan Before 6 movement, or eating only plant-based foods until dinnertime, then allowing oneself meat, eggs, and/or dairy for a single meal at the end of the day. The logic behind this approach is to make the reduction of animal products more feasible, to ensure that people won't miss out on traditional or celebratory meals, while helping the environment: "Not eating animal products for breakfast and lunch has a smaller CO2e footprint than the average full-time vegetarian diet." It's also far less intimidating.

Read the full article here, and get your hands on a copy of "We Are The Weather", if you can. It's a solid, informative book that will radically alter your relationship with food, primarily animal products.