COVID-19, Factory Farms, and Risking Human Lives

Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA via AP

Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA via AP

February 26, 2021. A U.S. House subcommittee is launching an investigation of COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants, causing the deaths of over 250 employees nationwide. Rep. James E. Clyburn, Chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis issued a press release which stated:

“The Select Subcommittee’s investigation follows reports that nearly 54,000 workers at 569 meatpacking plants in the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 270 have died. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified meatpacking plants as a source for “rapid transmission” of the coronavirus. More than two-thirds of employees at meatpacking plants are Black or Hispanic, and almost half of employees live in low-income families.”

December 1, 2020. The Animal Legal Defense Fund has released a comprehensive white paper, “COVID-19 and Factory Farming: Rethinking our relationship with farmed animals to reduce the likelihood of the next pandemic and reform the food system.” On zoonotic disease transmission, the report states: “The treatment of animals and workers on factory farms, combined with the impact of industrial agriculture on the environment and marginalized communities, creates a perfect atmosphere for viruses and other pathogens to circulate among animals, mutate, and potentially spill over to human populations. 100 Since 2011, at least 13 disease outbreaks have originated with birds farmed for food.”

October 24, 2020. The Journal Neuroepidemiology published a piece by Mayo Clinic professor David O. Wiebers, MD, that calls for an end to factory farming to prevent the creation and spread of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19.

May 13, 2020. The number of COVID-19 cases linked to slaughterhouses is now over 10,000, and at least 45 workers are known to have died, according to a USA Today report. So far around 40 meatpacking plants have shut down despite President Trump’s executive order that as “essential businesses”, they must remain open. The closures prompted US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to release a statement warning “further action” against plants that don’t reopen.

In Arizona, the JBS slaughterhouse in Tolleson has remained open, despite reports of workers contracting COVID-19. Plant employees recently told ABC15 they “fear catching coronavirus and want the company to shut down the facility for up to two weeks to ensure it is properly cleaned.” However, the plant continues to operate. This is the same facility that recalled over 6.5 million pounds of beef in 2018. The slaughterhouse also has a history of cruel treatment of animals. In July of 2017,  the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a notice accusing the facility’s president of enabling “egregious” and “inhumane” practices with livestock. The USDA inspector noted two downed cows suffering in holding pens. The report described a cow “lying on her side and unable to rise, mentally incoherent, having difficulty breathing, and repetitively making a kicking motion with its legs while moaning as if in pain.” Suffering animals are not unique to the Tolleson slaughterhouse, but are a component of the abuse of America’s large-scale industrial agriculture. COVID-19 has made it strikingly clear that this country’s dependence on factory farming and mass slaughter for cheap meat has deadly consequences.

On May 11th, the Washington Post published the op-ed Meat is Not Essential. Why Are We Killing For It? by Jonathan Safran Foer that questions why President Trump used the Defense Production Act to keep slaughterhouses open at the risk of human illness and death. As he states, “The industry has continued such cruel practices with relative impunity, because workers are too dependent on their jobs to effectively resist unscrupulous managers, and the public has continued to underwrite the abuse. But manslaughter is a new level of depravity. The magical thinking that imagines calling meat “essential” in a time when schools, bypass surgeries and funerals are not, amounts to a sort of state-sponsored witchcraft “…. “Letting the monstrous factory farm system fail would allow safer, more just and sustainable models of agriculture to gain a foothold. Yes, meat supplies would be lower, but food supplies would not be. We would have more than enough protein.” Foer ends the piece on a hard-hitting note: “Your next meal is the moment to withdraw your support from the most cruel and destructive industry in America.”

Matthew Scully’s latest piece, The Human Cost of ‘Culling’ Livestock and ‘Depopulating’ Farms delves into the killing of millions of confined farm animals in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Factory farmers use euphemisms like ‘depopulation’ and ‘culling’ to mask their brutal, painful methods of killing pigs, cows, chickens, and other animals confined in large industrial

Photo: Animal Legal Defense Fund

agriculture operations across the US. He discusses that during a global pandemic, the Trump administration ordered slaughterhouses to remain open and deemed them “essential”. The administration and USDA are also fast-tracking a rule to loosen regulations and speed up pig slaughter operations. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the euphemistically-titled Modernization of Pork Slaughter allows slaughterhouses to kill pigs at extremely high line speeds, which was previously limited to killing 1,106 pigs per hour. The rule also cuts the training and numbers of inspectors overseeing slaughter operations, jeopardizing consumer and worker safety. ALDF and other organizations filed a lawsuit to block the rule. In support of the lawsuit, USDA inspector Jill Mauer’s statement was filed in federal court on April 10th. She confirmed that under the deregulated system, pigs are often still breathing when dropped into scalding tanks as evidenced by tank water found in their lungs.

According to Scully, while inhumanely killing millions of animals and deregulating slaughterhouses, the pork industry is asking for public sympathy and funding, referring to mass killings as “tragic choices,” “gut-wrenching decisions,” and “devastating last resorts.” He states, “Sometimes the failures in a system reveal the essence of the whole. Abnormal circumstances can clarify problems that pass for normal. Doubtless, in their “depopulation” measures, the livestock farmers themselves feel they have “nowhere to go,” forced by their own manias of consolidation and hyper-efficiency to make one harsh choice after another, all the conscientious alternatives long ago ruled out. Yet if somehow it troubles them, in their culling labors, to treat millions of living creatures as nothing — bulldozed away, like so much piled-up trash — then now’s a good moment, for all of us, to notice that the system is just as merciless when it is working to perfection.”

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COVID-19, Factory Farms, and Risking Human Lives

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