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The coronavirus pandemic is pushing the food supply chain all over the world to its limits, but the latest news emerging from the United States has spotlighted global attention on the danger, cruelty and unsustainable nature of the livestock industry in the country. Meat processing plants are shutting down, farmers are forced to cull millions of animals, while consumers are left with meat shortages on shelves. Amidst the chaos, it is clear that the world must transform its food system into one that is safer, healthier and more resilient to crises.
“The food supply chain is breaking,” warned John Tyson, chairman of the biggest meat company in the United States, Tyson Foods.
Outbreaks of Covid-19 across the country are forcing slaughterhouses and meat processing plants to close down their operations. Producers are left with nowhere to sell their livestock due to shuttered plants, forcing them to cull potentially millions of animals. The United States government has even stepped in to assist with “depopulation and disposal methods” in the broken animal agriculture sector.
In addition to Tyson, Cargill, JBS USA and National Beef Packing – some of the biggest meat companies nationwide – have also shuttered their operations until further notice. Consumers should expect “millions of pounds of meat will disappear,” wrote Tyson, mirroring similar warnings from Smithfield Foods, another American company that is currently the largest pork producer in the world.
Meanwhile, though the overall plant-based F&B industry has suffered alongside businesses across almost every sector of the global economy, plant-based grocery products such as alternative meats have seen a spike in sales. Prompted by food safety and heightened concerns about health amidst the pandemic, consumers are increasingly choosing vegan substitutes with the latest data from consumer data group Nielsen recording a 265% surge in vegan meat sales in the United States over the past 8 weeks.
This trend is likely to last amid fears about meat shortages in the country, and investors are already keen to place bets that plant-based meats will win out. Silicon Valley-based food tech Beyond Meat’s stock, for instance, jumped a whopping 41% last week following news of major meat plant closures, marking the biggest weekly gain since the company went public one year ago.
But perhaps the deeper revelation of the breakdown in the meat supply chain is the inherent dangers of the animal meat industry. Meat processors and manufacturers were prompted to shut down in face of a labour crunch brought on by rapid outbreaks of Covid-19 amongst its employees. According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, at least 48 plants across the country have experienced outbreaks, with more than 2,200 workers testing positive for coronavirus, though the likely figure is much higher due to underreporting.
While it is difficult to pinpoint why the virus spread so quickly among meat plant workers, analysts believe that the nature of the work itself, coming into close contact with other workers in meat processing lines and low wages all factor into blame.
Workers employed in meat factories tend to be poorly paid, and come from marginalised communities who are more likely to live in cramped conditions. In some cases, multiple families share the same tiny flat – making it incredibly easy for the disease to transmit quickly if one person is infected with the virus.
Meat workers are also forced to work in close proximity along processing lines that have been described by some as “elbow-to-elbow”. It is nearly impossible for workers to practice social distancing on the job, making it even harder to avoid getting sick. Recent investigations by the Washington Post have revealed that some employees had been encouraged to stay at work despite feeling ill, and had not been provided adequate personal protective equipment until April – when the United States had already become the epicentre of the virus.
Aside from the unethical human conditions that have been exposed by the pandemic, the animal agriculture industry itself is now forced to make even more cruel decisions. Animal welfare concerns have long tainted slaughterhouses, but now, producers are engaging in active “depopulation” – which refers to the deliberate destruction of large numbers of animals because of shuttered processing plants. Two million birds in chicken processing plants in Delaware and Maryland have already been killed in just this last month.
While supermarket shelves experience major shortages, the mass culling of livestock is piling up millions of pounds of food waste. As if the animal livestock industry doesn’t already contribute enough environmental damage – being responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, huge amounts of water contamination and driving deforestation – the broken meat industry is now actively contributing to disposing of the resource-intensive food. Current global estimates put the carbon emissions generated from food waste at 10%, and this figure may rise even higher as more farmers are forced to “depopulate”.
The current Covid-19 pandemic has caused a massive disruption – from taking the lives of hundreds of thousands and putting at risk millions of frontline workers and vulnerable people, to severely impacting food security, economies and travel. The world does not need another pandemic, but as the world’s top biodiversity experts have warned, far worse and deadlier pandemics are to come if we do not change our system now.
We must do everything we can to prevent another emerging disease outbreak, and it is clear that our current food chain must undergo dramatic changes if we are to achieve this mission of a safer, healthier, kinder and crisis-resilient system.
Lead image courtesy of Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images.