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January 2023, Volume 29, Number 1

Meat and Migrants

Meatpacking workers filed a class-action suit in Denver in November 2022 that accuses 11 firms that account for 80 percent of US red meat production of colluding to set wages. The law firm Hagens Berman won a $195 million settlement from poultry processors and data firms who were accused of collusion to suppress the wages of poultry workers.

Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, sued animal rights activists affiliated with Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) who filmed conditions and removed two piglets from Circle Four Farms in southern Utah in 2017, where a million pigs a year are raised. Two of the DxE activists who faced felony charges for the theft of the piglets, worth up to $42 each, were acquitted in October 2022 after a trial that featured a judge who refused to allow the jury to see exculpatory evidence. Many agricultural states have enacted laws that penalize the unauthorized filming of animals on farms, although courts have often found such laws unconstitutional.

DOL charged Kieler, Wisconsin-based Packers Sanitation Services Inc. in November 2022 with employing 50 children under 18 to clean five midwestern meatpacking plants on overnight shifts. Packers, which employs 17,000 workers to clean over 700 plants, in December 2022 agreed to hire an outside consultant to review its hiring policies and to train its managers not to hire children to fill hazardous cleaning jobs.

The Clear Center (Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research) at UC Davis led by Frank Mitloehner receives almost all its funding from the nonprofit arm of the American Feed Industry Association and supports the consumption of meat. Some environmentalists want consumers to eat less meat in order to reduce methane emissions and deforestation for cattle grazing or to produce soy to feed to cattle. Agriculture is responsible for 15 percent of global planet-warming emissions.

The FDA approved Upside Foods lab-grown or cultivated chicken in November 2022. The process grows animal cells in a controlled environment, creating a product that is biologically identical to conventional meat. USDA must inspect the growing process before the meat can be sold to consumers.

Sales of plant-based meats fell in 2022, and the stock of Beyond Meat, valued at over $10 billion in 2019, fell by over 80 percent. Beyond began selling meat substitutes or vegan burgers at Whole Foods in 2016 that were made by extracting protein from yellow peas and other sources and mixing it with ingredients such as canola oil, potato starch and beet juice color to produce burgers that suggest ground beef. Beyond has struggled to scale up production of meat substitutes developed in its labs.

Fairmark Partners represents chicken farmers who sued chicken processors in April 2022 for not treating them as employees. Farmers grow birds under contract with the poultry processing firms that supply the chicks, feed and medicine. Proposed DOL regulations could convert independent contractor chicken farmers into employees.

California-based Foster Farms complained in January 2023 that Union Pacific was not delivering the corn needed to feed its chickens. One train can carry the equivalent of 400 truckloads of corn.

Producing meat accounts for up to 20 percent of global carbon emissions, which has spurred efforts to find substitutes for meat for environmental, health and animal welfare reasons. Global consumption of meat is about 340 million metric tons a year; frozen plant-based chicken is the best-selling alternative product.

Plant-based meats cost at least twice as much as conventional meat and, due to added ingredients, have raised health concerns. Some 60 plant-based meat firms compete for shelf space and, after an initial embrace, many restaurants have slowed the introduction of alternative meats. Cultivated meat made from cell cultures from real animals is expected in 2023.

Some 30 million to 60 million bison once roamed the Midwestern plains. Several conservation groups are trying to restore bison to the prairies, but are finding it difficult to assemble contiguous land parcels that allow the animals to roam freely. American settlers killed bison in the 1870s and 1880s, partially to force Indians to give up their hunting lifestyles and settle on reservations.

Corban Addison’s book, Wastelands, reviews the consolidation of North Carolina hog farms, from 18,000 farms with an average 75 hogs in the early 1970s to 2,000 farms with nine million hogs, an average 4,500. Many of North Carolina’s largest hog farms are in the eastern part of the state, where many ex-tobacco farms were converted to hog farms. Some residents sued Smithfield Foods, which operates a plant that processes 32,000 hogs a day in Tar Heel and was bought by China’s WH Group in 2013.

Alex Blanchette was a participant-observer on a large midwestern hog farm owned by the processor that standardizes pigs to make them easier to dis-assemble. Blanchette notes in his book, Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm, that industrial pork production has held down pork prices at the expense of human and animal welfare.

Addison, Corban. 2022. Wastelands. Knopf. Blanchette, Alex. 2022. Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm. Duke.

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