Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson left the Tyson pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, in disgust. On April 10, after receiving complaints from workers and community members, he and local health officials inspected the facility, which is responsible for about 5 percent of total U.S. pork production, according to industry estimates. “We walked out of that plant tour knowing those complaints were valid,” says Thompson, who is also chair of the Black Hawk Emergency Management Commission. “They had a huge problem.”
On the factory floor, where 2,800 people slaughter, cut, and package 19,500 hogs a day, only a third of workers wore face coverings, Thompson says, some with bandanas and eye masks over their mouths instead of appropriate masks. “They thought they had three confirmed [COVID-19] cases out of that plant, but we knew they were in the double digits.”
Thompson and other elected officials urged Tyson to close the plant immediately for cleaning and test employees for COVID-19. “They didn’t take action,” he says. Now, 1,031 workers at the Waterloo plant have tested positive, and 1,703 cases total have been confirmed in Black Hawk County, including at a long-term care facility for the elderly. Twenty-six people have died. Thompson traces the outbreak to the Tyson plant, one of the county’s largest employers. “They blew a hole in our defensive line.”
For Thompson, as for many Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic is shining a bright light into one of the darkest recesses of the country’s food system: industrial meat processing, comprising slaughter and packing — an incredibly streamlined and consolidated industry controlled by a small number of companies and reliant on low-paid, immigrant labor. It’s dangerous work on a good day, with steadily increasing production speeds, injury rates twice the national average, and illness rates 15 times normal rates, according to the National Employment Law Project.
But COVID-19 has made matters much, much worse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4,913 cases of COVID-19 have been reported at 115 meat and poultry processing facilities in the U.S. as of April 30, and 20 workers have died of the disease. Data collected by the Food & Environment Reporting Network through May 12 puts the number of meatpacking worker deaths at 52 and the number of infected at more than 13,000.
The problems are partly of scale: The CDC points to “difficulties with workplace physical distancing and hygiene and crowded living and transportation conditions,” or thousands of workers laboring in tight quarters and living in small, rural communities. At another Tyson plant, in Perry, Iowa, 730 workers, or 58 percent of those tested, were positive for COVID-19, health officials said. In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, more than 900 COVID-19 cases stemmed from an outbreak at a single Smithfield Foods meat processing plant, according to health officials.
Some workers and union groups blame meatpacking companies for acting too slowly to address COVID-19 related safety concerns. “I felt like they didn’t start to take it seriously until we started getting cases in our town and in our plant,” said one meatpacking worker at a facility in Kansas, where masks weren’t implemented even after some workers tested positive for COVID-19, she says. Following a bout of chills and aches, the worker, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, also tested positive for COVID-19 last week. She’s now isolated, with pay, and recovering.
For longtime critics of America’s meat system, the current public scrutiny feels overdue. “The industrial meat system is about as nasty as you can get,” says Brent Young, whose Brooklyn butcher shop, the Meat Hook, was established in contrast to big meat — and is one of many small purveyors currently thriving even as major processors struggle. (Young, along with Meat Hook co-owner Ben Turley, is also the co-host of the Eater video series Prime Time). “I can’t say anything without recognizing that it’s incredibly sad that [this situation] is going to affect millions of animals and undocumented workers,” Young says. “But as for that supply chain being broken, all I can say is it’s about time.”
On April 22, Tyson finally closed its Waterloo plant, with company president Steve Stouffer saying that “protecting our team members is our top priority.” It’s just one of at least 22 U.S. meat and poultry processing plants that had closed due to COVID-19 cases by April 28, according to estimates from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
Recent plant closures highlight the meat industry’s decades of consolidation into an oligopoly of four companies: Tyson, JBS (a subsidiary of a Brazilian company), Cargill, and Smithfield Foods (a subsidiary of a Chinese company). According to Cassandra Fish, an industry analyst and former Tyson risk management executive, about 50 meat processing plants are responsible for as much as 98 percent of all U.S. meat slaughter and processing. The arrangement has driven prices downward — meat prices in the EU were twice as high as of 2017 — but created a system that’s vulnerable to disturbances like COVID-19, says Christopher Leonard, author of The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business. “All these animals have to pass through an extremely narrow bottleneck.
“We used to think of this in terms of food-borne pathogens. We used to say, when you have these few plants, if you have a problem at one plant, it can have a cascading effect through the whole food system,” says Leonard. “Now [with COVID-19], this is triply true. If you shut down a single slaughterhouse, it knocks out a huge, measurable portion of the whole meat supply.”
The measure of the disruption is striking: As of the first week of May, pork production capacity was down 25 percent, and beef capacity was down 10 percent, according to the food workers’ union. Slaughter of both pork and cattle was down 30 percent year-over-year, according to livestock reports from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. All in all, Fish predicts, that’s likely to translate to a 20 to 25 percent reduction in the amount of available beef during what’s typically peak sales season, between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Pork supply could be down by 18 percent during that period, she anticipates.
Meat company executives sounded the alarm, warning the public of potential shortages. On April 27, Tyson chairman John Tyson took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, addressing plant closures in dire public health terms. “The food supply chain is breaking,” Tyson wrote, warning of “meat shortages and wasted animals. … Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America.”
But the North American Meat Institute, which represents the companies responsible for 90 percent of U.S. red meat production, points to plenty of meat reserves in cold storage; 921 million pounds of chicken and 467 million pounds of beef, according to the USDA, as of late April. Much of this meat was previously allotted to restaurants that are now closed and won’t need it. Pork reserves, originally bound for export to China, can also be released to U.S. customers.
FDA officials say they don’t anticipate serious food shortages for consumers, just temporarily low inventory at some stores as they restock. And even if supply is lower and there’s less variety, Steve Meyer, a meat industry economist with Kerns and Associates in Ames, Iowa, isn’t worried about Americans running out of meat. “From a consumer standpoint, it’s not a crisis at all, in my opinion.”
Still, some chains like McDonald’s report that they’re bracing for diminished meat supplies. Hundreds of locations of Wendy’s, which relies on fresh beef, rather than more abundant frozen beef, reported running out of burgers at some locations by early May, with shortages expected to last a “couple of weeks.” In grocery stores, fresh meat prices were up 8.1 percent for the week ending April 25 over the same week last year, per Nielsen data. But prices weren’t up across the board, according to USDA data: Ground beef was more expensive, but the price of typically more costly cuts, like rib-eye, went down. And while retailers like Costco and Kroger are placing per-person limits on meat purchases, that’s in part to curtail panic shopping, which could perpetuate shortage fears and panic-buying cycles.
Critics of the meat industry even characterize its claims of a shortage as tactical hyperbole: a calculated campaign intended to gain federal support. On April 28, just two days after the Tyson ad appeared, President Donald Trump signed an executive order declaring meat production essential infrastructure. Meat industry executives cheered, but workers’ rights advocates howled. “It’s putting profits ahead of public health,” says Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Food and Water Watch.
“The return on investment for Tyson’s public relations ad was enormous,” says Leonard.
For customers, there may be no immediate meat crisis. But for processing workers, the danger is real. “A lot of us are scared,” says the Kansas meat processing worker who tested positive for COVID-19. “It feels like we’re putting our health at risk, but at what cost?”
Rather than precise OSHA and CDC requirements, the executive order points to looser temporary guidance. “To keep their doors open safely, meatpacking plants — and all essential workplaces — must operate under clear, enforceable OSHA standards — not voluntary ‘guidance,’” says Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. Alarmingly, federal officials seem to downplay the risk: In a May 7 call with lawmakers, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar emphasized the need to keep plants open, and suggested “home and social” aspects of workers’ lives contributed to high infection rates at meatpacking plants.
Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior OSHA official and expert on meat processing who is now director for worker safety and health at the National Employment Law Project, thinks the federal government is less worried about keeping workers safe and more concerned with keeping businesses safe from liability. “Instead of requiring meatpacking companies to implement safe practices, the president prefers to attempt to shield these corporations from responsibility for putting workers’ lives in danger,” Berkowitz wrote in a statement to Eater.
The industry is already under-regulated, says author Christopher Leonard, with processors consistently permitted to push operating speeds faster. “The USDA is controlled almost entirely by the big meat companies, it’s just a categorical fact,” he says. “The meat industry is setting the terms of regulation.”
Even with added safety measures now in place at her factory — plexiglass screens, staggered breaks, and limits on seating capacity at the cafeteria — social distancing is nearly impossible, according to the Kansas meatpacking employee. “It’s very loud, and so a lot of people just pull their mask down to speak to you,” she says. Before she began isolating last week, absenteeism was high: She was forced to pack meat from two conveyor belts instead of one to fill in for a missing colleague. To encourage workers to come in, the plant offered $2-per-hour raises — from $15.90 to $17.90 for her. But if workers miss even one day of work per week, they lose the whole week’s bonus. “It doesn’t even feel worth it,” she says.
Legal experts have questioned the enforceability of Trump’s executive order. It’s “a paper-thin proclamation with limited legal effect,” Daniel Hemel, an assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago, argued in a Washington Post op-ed. But the order at least provides some justification and legal framework for big meat companies to push their workers to keep coming in. “The industry is already trying to use this argument,” says Tony Corbo, who suspects companies will invoke the order in an attempt to avoid liability.
But maybe it doesn’t matter: Tyson’s Waterloo, Iowa, plant, for example, remained closed for weeks despite the executive order, in part because of absenteeism: Workers simply wouldn’t show up, and realistically, Tyson can’t force them to. “I think it’s a well-intended [order], but it doesn’t address the real problem, which is getting workers to work, and keeping them safe when they’re there,” said Meyer of Kerns and Associates.
Processing closures are also creating a logjam effect, leading to problems that echo up the supply chain. “The crisis is at the hog farm,” says Jen Sorenson of Iowa Select Farm, the state’s largest pork producer. Before the COVID-19 crisis, the country was experiencing record pork and beef production. Now hog prices are spiraling downward, costing famers dearly. Many animals will be “depopulated,” an industry euphemism for being killed without being processed and sent to market.
Commercial pigs like Sorenson’s are raised inside barns their whole lives, and grow about two and a half pounds a day. If they’re not sent off to slaughter, they get too large for their quarters — roughly 7.2 to 8.7 square feet per animal, according to an industry publication’s recommendation. Slaughterhouses won’t accept animals if they get too big, and they can even become too heavy for their own legs. There’s nothing to do but euthanize them. In Minnesota, 10,000 hogs are being euthanized per day, Department of Agriculture officials tell the Star Tribune. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced it will establish a National Incident Coordination Center “to provide direct support to producers whose animals cannot move to market as a result of processing plant closures due to COVID-19,” including depopulation and disposal methods.
For now, Iowa Select Farms has changed its hog feed to slow growth, holding its pigs at market weight for as long as possible. “This is why we need to keep our packing plants open,” says Sorenson, who is also communications director and president-elect of the National Pork Producers Council. “We need to keep that food chain moving.”
The mass closure of restaurants has also temporarily disrupted the meat supply chain: About 30 percent of pork, for example, is typically shipped to food-service establishments, per council estimates. The meat industry has scrambled to reroute those supplies to retail instead — which is good news for grocery store customers.
Looking out at her farm, Sorenson doesn’t see the makings of a long-term pork shortage. “There are plenty of hogs and we’re not running out of pork or bacon,” she says. “We’ve got a glitch between the farm and packer that’s got to get fixed ASAP. The supply two months down the road, it’s there — we’ve bred those animals, and we are birthing those piglets, and they’re moving through our farms.”
But if losses for farmers continue to mount, a real shortage could be coming in the long run. “The medium- to long-term effect is we could potentially lose more farms, more family farmers, who are not able to withstand these markets and this situation, and go out of business,” Sorenson predicts.
Meyer concurs. “Producers are losing so much money that some of them are going to go out of business. A year or two from now, we’re going to have lower pork supplies, and then you will see higher prices at the retail level, that’s almost certain.”
While the industrial meat system faces public scrutiny and backlash, America’s network of small butchers, farmers, and microprocessors are experiencing new attention of their own. “There’s a kind of validation,” says Ben Turley of the temporarily closed restaurant the Meat Hook, where business is up thanks to retail and delivery.
When Turley saw Tyson’s full-page ad, he called bullshit. “The food supply chain isn’t breaking; that’s just false. It’s Tyson’s food supply chain that’s breaking. Not ours. They want to make it seem like the end of the world to you. But Tyson is not all of food.”
The Meat Hook is supplied by Gibson Family Farms in Valley Falls, New York, and a small slaughterhouse nearby, Eagle Bridge Custom Meats. “If you take an outfit like the Meat Hook, you take us, and you take the people that slaughter the animals for us, and that’s three businesses currently thriving,” says Gibson Family Farms owner Dustin Gibson, who raises his hogs outdoors and grazes his cows on grass. “It’s awesome to see that they’re being rewarded.”
Kate Kavanaugh, owner of Western Daughters, a butcher shop in Denver focused on grass-fed meat raised according to regenerative farm practices, is encouraged by a recent uptick in sales. “The volume that we are seeing now as a business is the volume that could actually sustain us and our farmers and ranchers in the long term,” she says. It offers “a fighting chance.”
News stories about the meat industry are finally reaching consumers in a meaningful way, says Anya Fernald, CEO of California meat company Belcampo. “In America, we celebrate the high availability of so many different types of foods at such affordable prices. That’s an American privilege.” It’s no accident that cheap meat goes unexamined, she says. “There’s a willful disbelief.”
Belcampo’s meat — grass-fed, organic, and slaughtered at its own processing plant — is much more expensive than commodity meat. Fernald would argue that it’s also much tastier and healthier. But due to its price, meat from small purveyors won’t replace all the cheap protein Americans consume daily. It doesn’t have to, advocates say. “We need less meat in our diet,” says Turley of the Meat Hook. He just hopes consumers choose a little grass-fed meat over a lot of commodity meat. “We need to be eating more vegetables anyway.”
Cheap meat also comes at a high hidden cost, Fernald warns, and we don’t know when it will come due. The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned the public for years that most emerging infectious disease comes from animals, and industrialized animal farming can increase risk. “When we’re creating cheap meat, we’re actually creating a vast pathogen resource, a potential viral breeding ground, and making ourselves resistant to the most effective antibiotics that we have,” says Fernald.
“Propping up the meat industry is the last thing we need right now,” agrees Dr. Michael Greger, a critic of industrialized meat who runs the website NutritionFacts.org. “Not only because meat overconsumption worsens risk factors like heart disease... but because Big Ag may be brewing up Big Flu, a slew of new swine and bird flu viruses poised to potentially trigger the next pandemic.”
It’s a poignant lesson, says Fernald. “COVID is a broader story about meat, because it came fundamentally, it sounds like, from a wet market where animals are trafficked. … The whole story of COVID is a story of human boundaries with the animal kingdom, extractive mentalities about animals, and short-term thinking about animals and the planet.”
As the nation’s largest slaughterhouses and packing plants struggle and close, smaller slaughter and packing operations, on which independent butchers and small farmers depend, have been able to pick up some of the slack. “This has been just an absolute zoo,” says Christopher Young, executive director of the American Association of Meat Processors, which represents about 1,500 facilities with fewer than 500 workers. “I’ve had some of my members describe it as the week before Christmas on steroids.” Young attributes the boom to customers cooking more at home, avoiding crowds at grocery stores, and anticipating possible industrial meat shortages based on news reports.
Workers at small slaughter operations have stayed healthy compared to their counterparts at big plants. That’s by virtue of their size, says Debbie Farrara of Eagle Bridge Custom Meats, which slaughters for Gibson Family Farms. “I do believe it is ‘easier’ for us to make an attempt to keep our staff healthy and to social distance and still get our work done.” Her team of 20 is now spaced out more widely, and she’s also cut back on staff on some days, so that they can have less exposure to one another.
“We’re small enough that with a bit of creativity and effort we can make this work,” says Farrara. “We are grateful that our team has stayed healthy thus far.”
These fewer COVID cases at small plants might be due to little more than simple math, says Mike Lorentz, owner of Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, and co-owner of Vermont Packinghouse in North Springfield, Vermont. “These large plants in rural areas have to draw employees from a very large circle, and then they take that large draw, and they cram them into a small place. That feels like a formula to amplify a socially transmitted disease… it’s exponential.” But there is a cultural element that stems from size, too: Lorentz has established trust and community with his employees. It’s a family business.
In terms of size, Lorentz is a “big little guy.” Still, “there’s such a chasm between little plants and big plants,” he says. “I used to joke that the first day of the year, by about noon, a big plant has done more than what we’ll do that entire year. Now I think we’ve caught up a little bit — we’d be two or three days into January now.”
As a second-generation processor, Lorentz has watched consolidation shape his industry for decades. The total number of slaughtering plants in the country has gone down 70 percent since 1967, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There just aren’t many meat processing plants in the U.S. at all. Fewer than 6,500 federally inspected facilities, according to the USDA; just 617 slaughtering beef, and 612 slaughtering pork. In response to recent news reports about the industry, two senators, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Josh Hawley of Missouri, have reportedly asked the Fair Trade Commission to investigate the practices of Smithfield, Cargill, JBS, and Tyson.
Putting aside the potential effects of consolidation on animal welfare and environmental health, there’s a major human toll. Initially, higher wages lured workers from small to big meat plants, but pay eventually slumped. According to a USDA study, declining unionization coincided with changes in worker demographics as more immigrants entered the meat labor force. Conditions worsened in response, historian Roger Horowitz writes in his book Negro and White, Unite and Fight! A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930-90. “Almost a century after Upton Sinclair’s pioneering expose of meatpacking, packinghouse workers in the United States have tragically returned to the jungle,” Horowitz writes.
By contrast, Lorentz Meats is guided by a quote from the agrarian writer Wendell Berry. It’s inscribed on the walls, and Lorentz recites it from memory like a mantra. “We cannot live harmlessly at our own expense; we depend on other creatures and survive by their deaths. To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. The point is, when we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament; when we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration.”
“I grew up in a family that processed meat,” Lorentz recalls. “My brother was the one that was in charge of the kill floor until 1997, when we bought my mom and dad out, and I worked on the kill floor, and I knew what it meant... Something is going to die to keep moving us forward, and once you start to realize that, you start doing that in a thoughtful way, and it changes the way you look at things.”
Slaughter on the whole has become a much more humane business, says Lorentz, even among the industry’s largest players. For that, he credits the industry-changing work of professor Temple Grandin, whose techniques have been adopted as USDA best practices. But there’s still work to be done on the farm and the factory floor. “Now the question is, ‘How do we treat the people?’ Are we giving them benefits, satisfying work?” Are our “essential” workers protected as such?
For Americans, our consolidated, industrial processing system has made it easy to consume meat without much thought. Cheap and plentiful, it becomes less a choice or privilege and more a right and convenience. But can it really be? With so much of our daily lives in question and our food system straining into visibility, we can’t help but ask ourselves: When we sit down to eat, are we partaking of a sacrament, or participating in a desecration?
Thinking back to the plant in Waterloo, Iowa, Sheriff Thompson says he’s not just angry at Tyson — he’s ashamed of himself. “I walked out of that plant as an elected official feeling like I’d let [those workers] down, too. So many of them are immigrants; they’re easy to take advantage of. These are hardworking people who do their shift and go home, and we never engage them… I didn’t protect them the way maybe we should have.”
Last Thursday, the Waterloo Tyson plant reopened after more than two weeks idle. Face masks and shields will be required, among other safety measures, and all workers will be tested for COVID-19 before returning to the job, Tyson executives said. To see that they actually do return, the company is distributing a $500 “thank you” bonus to workers in early May. It’s conditional upon their attendance.
Caleb Pershan is an NYC-based reporter and former editor of Eater SF.
Disclosure: Eater has a video series, Prime Time, hosted by Ben Turley and Brent Young of the Meat Hook.