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July 2020, Volume 26, Number 3

Meat and Migrants

Meatpacking was considered an essential business during the coronavirus emergency, so most animal dis-assembly plants expected their employees to work. Meatpacking plants are cold, have many metal surfaces, and are often loud, forcing workers to raise their voices to be heard and contributing to the spread of Covid.

Meatpacking plants, nursing homes, and prisons were three hotspots for Covid-19.

About three-fourths of meatpacking workers are represented by unions, which called on meatpackers to slow line speeds so that workers could be spaced further apart. Some workers staged protests, alleging that the plants placed employees too close together to prevent the spread of the virus. The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 250,000 meatpacking workers, reported that 15,700 meatpacking workers contracted Covid-19 by July 2020, and 76 died.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July 2020 released a report on 16,000 Covid-19 cases at 239 meatpacking plants in 21 states that found that 87 percent of meatpacking workers infected were racial or ethnic minorities; these minorities were 61 percent of workers. White non-Hispanics are 39 percent of meatpacking workers, and they accounted for 13 percent of Covid-19 cases. The share of workers infected varied from three to 24 percent across plants.

The US has 800 federally inspected slaughterhouses, but the largest 50 account for most US meat production, including 15 that process 60 percent of US pork. Most of the plants owned by Tyson Foods, JBS USA and Smithfield Foods have over 500 employees and are not required to offer paid sick leave. Nonetheless, some began to offer paid sick leave, and some offered bonuses of up to $500 a month to employees who did not miss any work.

Tyson, JBS and Smithfield closed 15 plants in April 2020, reducing the US pork supply by a quarter. Tyson closed its largest pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa after almost 30 percent of the 2,700 employees tested positive for Covid-19, and closed another plant in Storm Lake, Iowa after a quarter of the 2,300 workers tested positive.

Smithfield Foods closed its 3,700 employee Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant that processes 19,500 hogs a day after over 500 workers tested positive; 30 percent of Covid-19 cases in South Dakota are linked to meatpacking plants. Smithfield, which employs 40,000 workers in the US, was bought by China?s WH Group Ltd in 2013 for $4.7 billion. South Dakota was one of five US states that did not issue stay at home orders during the pandemic.

President Trump in April 2020 signed an executive order that deemed meatpacking plants to be ?critical infrastructure,? making federal authorities responsible for worker safety in meatpacking plants and barring suits from workers who contract Covid-19 at work. Unions asked meat processors to test all workers before reopening closed plants. Trump?s order allowed the plants to reopen without testing workers.

Meatpackers and many other US employers required workers returning to work to sign liability waivers, promising not to sue if they contracted Covid-19 at work. In some states, essential workers who contract Covid-19 are assumed to have contracted the disease at work, making it easier to obtain workers compensation benefits. Many service firms such as gyms and parks required their customers to sign liability waivers.

Most meatpacking plants reopened after deep cleanings at slower line speeds. As a result, there were too many hogs for meatpackers to process, and hundreds of thousands were gassed. Piglets become market-ready after six months, when they weigh about 300 pounds. Large hog farms are constantly raising new piglets, so they have little extra space to hold market-ready hogs that cannot be processed.

Covid-19 is expected to speed changes underway in meatpacking, especially automation. Tyson Foods employs 122,000 US workers to produce 20 percent of US chicken, beef, and pork, and its Manufacturing Automation Center is developing machines that can recognize differences between animals that are easy for humans to understand.

Chickens are more uniform than beef and pork, but consumer preferences for deboned and skinless chicken has added employees in processing plants. JBS?s Pilgrim?s Pride unit says that its deboning machines obtain 99 percent as much meat as humans. Meat robots must learn how to deal with soft material and variability, which is difficult. European meat plants are more automated than in the US.

Average employment in US food and beverage manufacturing was 1.7 million in 2018, including almost 30 percent in NAICS 3116, animal slaughtering and processing. BLS reported 4,100 establishments in NAICS 3116, average employment of 520,000, and total wages paid of $21.7 billion in 2018, for average weekly wages of $800. There were 4,000 establishments with average employment of 494,000 and total wages paid of $15.6 billion in 2009, for average weekly wages of $610. Meatpacking employment rose five percent and weekly wages rose 31 percent between 2009 and 2018.

Almost half of meatpacking employment is in NAICS 311615, poultry processing. There were 733 poultry establishments with average employment of 240,000 that paid $8.5 billion in 2018 for average weekly wages of $685, up from 700 establishments with average employment of 230,000 and total wages of $6.2 billion in 2008, for average weekly wages of $520. Poultry employment rose four percent and weekly wages rose 32 percent between 2009 and 2018.

Executives of Colorado-based Pilgrim?s, which produces 13 billion pounds or a sixth of US chicken each year, were charged in June 2020 with conspiring to raise chicken prices. The five largest chicken processors account for over 60 percent of all US chicken. Wholesale chicken prices rose over 10 percent between 2012 and 2018, and fell sharply in 2019.

The US Department of Justice in June 2020 sought information on the big four beef packers, JBS USA Holdings Inc., Tyson Foods Inc., Cargill Inc. and National Beef Packing. In 2019, a fire at a Tyson beef plant reduced cattle prices and raised wholesale beef prices. During the Covid-19 lockdown in spring 2020, the same pattern of falling cattle prices and rising wholesale beef prices recurred, pushing meatpacker profits to an estimated $1,000 per cow.

Americans eat twice as much meat per capita as Europeans; per capita meat consumption is higher only in Argentina. Meat costs 20 to 30 percent less in the US than in Europe, but Covid-19 may raise the cost of processing meat and accelerate automation in meatpacking plants. China consumes half of the world?s pork. The US exports a quarter of the pork it produces, with China the leading destination.

Sales of plant-based meat substitutes jumped in spring 2020 amidst publicity about Covid-19 in meatpacking plants. Increased production of meat substitutes has reduced their prices.

The Rural Community Workers Alliance sued a Smithfield plant in Milan, Missouri on behalf of workers who alleged that Smithfield created a public nuisance by not protecting employees from Covid-19. The suit was dismissed by a federal judge.

Many meatpacking workers are immigrants who live in crowded housing, so Covid-19 outbreaks can spread quickly in families that include a meatpacking worker. Environmentalists have on several occasions won public nuisance suits that allege farming and meatpacking activities polluted the local water supplies.