COVID-19 outbreaks in the meat industry: a global scandal

The focus for weeks has been on the health workers and the care workers who have been in the front line facing the dangers from COVID-19. It is right that the media focus has been on them, with the shortages of PPE and the dire political mismanagement of this health crisis which seems to characterise most governments in western countries. There must be (and there will be) enquiries into this when the crisis is over.

Citizens must be ever watchful to look out for aspects of this crisis that are NOT being flagged up as headline news. Sometimes we have to be very careful of social-media driven stories which are not based on factual information, but there are times when we as individual citizens should flag up our concerns if we believe that serious COVID-19 issues are being down-played.

The Irish meat industry in crisis

The meat industry’s COVID-19 crisis is not the headline news it should be. As with many things we are learning about governments’ priorities during this crisis – in which our health is secondary to the success of the economy – this enormous problem of COVID-19 outbreaks in the meat industry is being downplayed for reasons which are self-evident. We cannot undermine confidence in the safety of the food supply chain: that will damage the economy. It may also lead to social unrest if people do not trust their food.

I first picked up on this in a story in The Guardian about Ireland at the beginning of May. The shocking figure was reported that, in the largest pork-processing company in Ireland, with 350 workers, “up to 140 were off sick last week” (1 May 2020.)

Two weeks later, today’s Guardian (14 May 2020) reports an update on the COVID-19 situation in Irish meat processing plants which is frankly horrendous: “Official figures show that there have been outbreaks at 12 plants in the Republic of Ireland and 571 workers have tested positive.” But Ireland is not the only place where COVID-19 is decimating the work force in meat processing plants.

It is always good to get out of the national newspapers and take a look at the industry trade media when looking at a story like this. So here is the story in the “Just Food” website which tells us “Ireland has six clusters of COVID-19 in meat factories.” (4 May 2020) and because it is an interested commercial/industry page, it is very reassuring that everything is under control. Or is it under control? By yesterday, the same source is reporting 12 clusters of COVID-19 in meat factories (13 MAY 2020). COVID-19 among workers in Irish meat factories – a main source for UK imports including burgers for Macdonalds – is clearly out of control.

At least 4,500 Tyson workers have caught COVID-19, with 18 deaths. The meat giant still doesn’t offer paid sick leave, as the industry blames workers for outbreaks.

COVID-19 meat industry crisis in USA and Canada

This has been the case for many weeks in the USA and Canada where the meat industry is in crisis due to the number of employees infected. According to Business Insider (11 May 2020) “Experts told Business Insider last week that meat-processing plants were the next coronavirus hot spots, as many of the largest clusters of COVID-19 cases have been linked to slaughterhouses.” And as the number of COVID-19 cases has skyrocketed, some politicians and meat-industry insiders have blamed workers, many of whom are low-waged immigrants, saying that it is their fault that the COVID-19 virus is being brought into the workplace.

In Canada the largest meat processing company Cargill is now dealing with multiple COVID-19 outbreaks at its plants. It recently reopened one of its plants in Alberta after almost half of its 2,000 employees there tested positive for coronavirus. The union that represents federal food inspectors says the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is threatening to discipline employees who refuse to be reassigned to work at COVID-19-infected meat plants.

Germany COVID-19 meat processing crisis

After hundreds of Eastern European workers tested positive to coronavirus in the big German slaughterhouse “Westfleisch” in Coesfeld, one thing is sure: in the current crisis it is mainly the poorly paid who have to pay for cheap meat – even with their lives. The management of Germany’s third largest meat processing company assured that it will take responsibility for its employees, but it doesn’t have many “employees” in the slaughterhouses. In reality, the entire industry only employs subcontractors there, for whom Romanians, Bulgarians or Poles work, as “self-employed” people.

The scandal has an international dimension that goes far beyond Eastern European workers. The German meat industry now produces so much and so cheap that even exports to China can make a profit. The companies work on a global scale and manage to reduce the prices in the international market, meanwhile their poorly paid workers – not even dignified by being regarded as “employees” – fall sick with COVID-19.

What meat are you buying this weekend and how many low-paid workers have caught COVID-19 to provide it?

I did not go in search of this story. I have no axe to grind: I am not (yet) a vegetarian. I simply noticed the news stories that are not in the headlines at present, and I asked some questions; I did a little elementary research that is open to anyone with Internet search facilities.

My conclusion is that I will not be buying any meat this weekend. I would find it difficult just now – after reading these accounts from Ireland, the USA, Canada and Germany – to imagine the situation would be any different in Spain’s meat industry. I might even find it difficult to eat the remaining three packs of meat that I have in my freezer, such is my disgust with the situation I have read about above.

COVID-19 is exposing many unpleasant aspects of the world in which we live and if you think we can return to the way we lived before this crisis, then, my friend you are not one of those on whom we can rely for a safer, fairer and more sustainable future. So reflect on that. We should never return to the world as it was before COVID-19.


2 thoughts on “COVID-19 outbreaks in the meat industry: a global scandal

  1. Well researched, well written, and frankly a horrifying piece of news. I’m VERY seriously thinking about returning to a veggie diet now. What an awful dilemma; there are so many people in the world who just could not countenance the idea of giving up meat that I wonder where it will all end. Thanks for the heads-up, Gareth xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Maggie. I’m not finished with this subject yet. I will explore the Spanish meat industry and COVID-19 next, as that seems a logical next step.

    Since I took an interest in the story from Ireland in The Guardian, it has taken me through a range of different aspects of the meat industry and COVID-19. The Canada situation is much much worse than the few words I used to describe it here: it is quite shocking when you look at the number of infected workers, and the way in which they are being bullied to work in dangerous conditions.

    I had not meant to spend such a large part of the day on this: and it was mainly due to torrential rain that I found the time earlier, instead of fence repairs. I’m glad it rained! I had also planned on cooking a chicken curry this evening and the chicken is still defrosting in the fridge, but I am eyeing the courgettes in the pantry and thinking of a courgette pasta instead! I can’t really face any meat after reading about this disgusting industry. I wasn’t planning on being vegetarian but I am frankly disgusted by what I see. The COVID virus itself is disgusting, but it is also judging our world. We cannot look at things in the same way after this. Ever again.

    Like

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