Tyson Foods recently warned, “the food supply chain is breaking.” I agree, but probably not for the same reasons.
Anyone who has read Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, knows the meat packing industry has a problematic history in the US. The book played a role in passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Food safety was not Sinclair’s goal. In an interview for Cosmopolitan Magazine, published under the title What Life Means to Me, Sinclair states that he failed in his goal for the book. He wanted to shine light on the injustices suffered by immigrant workers in the meat packing industry. Instead, the public overlooked the workers and focused on contamination of the meat they bought and ate. In Sinclair’s words, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
Now, 114 years later, the public is again “hit in the stomach,” as it worries about the availability of safe meat, while workers are suffering. Immigrants still fill most packing plant jobs. BBC reports 80 different languages are spoken by the approximately 3700 workers at the Smithfield processing plant in South Dakota, which was closed due to a coronavirus outbreak. An immigrant workforce is less likely to be well organized because of language barriers and is unlikely to complain, for fear of losing their job and/or being deported. Although the injury rate for workers in meat packing plants is declining, it remains higher than the rest of the manufacturing industry. However, like many jobs involving agriculture and immigrant labor, we don’t know the real rate because of underreporting.
At this point, you may be wondering why an eco-justice blogger is writing about immigrant workers in a meat packing plant. It’s because what we do to the land, we do to people; and what we do to people, we do to the land. This connection is seen in a report of water pollution from meat packing plants. Plants that have workers’ issues also have pollution issues. Ecojustice and social justice are intertwined.
The supply chain referenced by Tyson Foods is not just the meat packing plant. The supply chain starts with farmers and ranchers and includes all their suppliers. It also includes shipping to/from the packing plants, storage and wholesale distribution centers, and the retail restaurants and stores where consumers buy the meat. What’s not well known is that control of the entire meat supply chain in the US has been concentrated into a few corporations. Most of these corporations, including JBS (Brazil) and Smithfield (China), aren’t owned or headquartered in North America.
As with any corporation, the meat supply chain exists to feed the profits of the corporations. Yesterday, I heard news of a meat shortage in grocery stores, which in a free market should drive up price. Instead, I saw Facebook posts from rancher friends who are being pushed to accept lower prices for their cattle. The international corporations are using imported beef to lower the price, while US law allows imported beef to be labeled US beef, as long as it is packaged here.
With the meat industry controlled by a few corporations, farmers and ranchers are pushed to accept the corporation’s terms for animal husbandry. Unless the farmer/rancher can develop an independent niche market for their animals, they are reduced to a worker in the food supply chain. With this loss of control, it’s more difficult for them make decisions for the well-being of animals, the land, and the meat consumer. The consolidation of meat production into international corporations has led to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Even though the CAFO may be family owned, corporate contract requirements often drive them to operate in ways that are counter to the long-term well-being of their family, their land, and the surrounding community.
The meat supply chain failed long before the pandemic. Consumers just didn’t see it, because few of us live near a farm, ranch, or packing plant. And maybe, if we’re being honest, we don’t want to know. If we know, then we must face the consequences of our choices. The public has become comfortable with the ready availability of a variety of meat products, as seen in the steady increase of meat consumption since the end of World War II.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think it’s morally wrong to eat meat. I just think meat, and the people and the land that produce it, have been commodified to the point where we no longer see or value its true cost, nor do we respect the life that is taken for us to eat meat. The result is violence to people, to animals, and to the land.
Rev. Dr. Mark Brocker, in his book “Coming Home to Earth,” states: “In the process of living we cannot avoid killing other life. ‘Violence’ has often been used as a general description of all killing, consumption, and destruction on earth. A distinction needs to be drawn between (1) killing, consumption, and destruction essential for the flourishing of life, and (2) exploitative killing, indulgent consumption, and wanton destruction that diminishes life. ‘Violence’ refers to the latter.”
Violence is reflected in post-traumatic stress disorder and domestic violence among packing plant workers.
Violence is reflected in a male suicide rate among ranchers and farmers that is significantly higher than average for all working age males.
Violence is reflected in the mass wasting of animals to maintain contract production schedules and the mass causality of animals during storms, when the animals are confined and unable to respond to known and anticipated natural events.
The meat supply chain has been broken for a long time. I don’t know how to fix it. For now, I do what I can, which is to not eat meat unless I know its story. I also look for, listen to, and try to lift up the voices of farmers, ranchers, and packing plant workers. They are closest to the problem, and I believe that means they know more about potential solutions than I do. Finally, I lament the innocent suffering of the people, animals, and land that are harmed by the meat supply chain.