(Beth Clifton collage)
“Wet markets” in China & U.S. slaughterhouses both kill people as well as animals
SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota––Underscoring that people who buy meat from glass cases have little room to throw stones at the “wet markets” of China and the developing world, which sell live animals, the Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods pig slaughterhouse in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on April 11, 2010 closed indefinitely due to the global COVID-19 outbreak.
The Sioux Falls slaughterhouse kills about six million pigs per year, 4% to 5% of the U.S. total. Among the workforce of about 3,700 people, 240 are known to have contracted COVID-19, more than half of the total identified cases in South Dakota, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem told media in announcing the closure.
Noem and Sioux Falls mayor Paul TenHaken recommended that Smithfield keep the slaughterhouse closed for at least two weeks.
Contradictory Smithfield policies
The closure capped a labor dispute originating when Smithfield more-or-less simultaneously “posted signs telling workers with symptoms to stay home and saying that they would not be penalized for missing work,” reported Stephen Groves of Associated Press, and “offered a $500 bonus to hourly employees who did not miss work in April.”
Sioux Falls AFL-CIO president Kooper Caraway told Groves that the bonus offer encouraged employees to work when ill.
Founded in 1936 in Virginia as the Smithfield Packaging Company, Smithfield altogether kills more than 15 million pigs per year in the U.S. alone, for at least 17 supermarket labels.
Sold for $4.7 billion in cash in 2013 to the WH Group of China, formerly known as the Shuanghui Group, Smithfield also operates slaughterhouses and pig barns in multiple European and Asian nations.
COVID-19 kills Cargill union steward
COVID-19 outbreaks have closed many other slaughterhouses and meat processing plants around the U.S. in recent weeks.
Reported Bob Fernandez of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Cargill Meat Solutions, a 900-worker plant in Hazleton that packages meat in plastic for supermarket shelves in Pennsylvania and surrounding states, shut down temporarily on April 7, 2020, as 130 hourly workers have tested positive for COVID-19 and a rash of employees called out sick, a union leader said.”
Another 34 workers developed COVID-19 during the next 48 hours, Fernandez mentioned in a follow-up.
Meanwhile, Fernandez wrote, “The Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed to the family of a 70-year-old union steward at the JBS Beef slaughterhouse in Souderton, now shut down for a second week for sanitizing, that he died on April 3, 2020 from respiratory failure brought on by the pandemic virus. The man, Enock Benjamin of Oxford Circle, had checked with a doctor but was not tested for COVID-19. He thought he had a bad case of asthma.”
Safe distancing “almost impossible” in a slaughterhouse
Continued Fernandez, “A federal food inspector in New York died from COVID-19 last month. And at least four meat plants in Pennsylvania have recently closed due to concerns related to the pandemic,” including besides Cargill in Hazleton and JBS in Souderton, the CTI Foods hamburger-grinding plant in King of Prussia and Empire Kosher Poultry Inc. in Mifflintown.
Wendell Young IV, president of the 35,000-member United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1776, told Fernandez that within the plants, it is “almost impossible for workers to adhere to safe-distancing protocols.”
Tyson Foods, as of April 8, 2020, had closed a slaughterhouse in Columbus Junction, Iowa, after more than two dozen workers tested positive for COVID-19, rerouting truckloads of pigs to slaughterhouses in Storm Lake, Iowa, and elsewhere in the region. Within six days the number of Columbus Junction slaughterhouse workers with COVID-19 was up to 86.
Tyson also offered $60 million in bonuses to frontline workers and truck drivers to keep them on the job, reported Dave Dreezen of the Sioux City Journal, and began taking employees’ temperatures at check-in to keep infected personnel out.
“We’re risking our lives for chicken”
Other labor disputes triggered by COVID-19 erupted at the Perdue Farms poultry slaughterhouse in Kathleen, Georgia, and the JBS cattle slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colorado.
“We’re not getting nothing — no type of compensation, no nothing, not even no cleanliness, no extra pay––no nothing. We’re up here risking our life for chicken,” Purdue worker Kendaliyn Granville told Sarah Hammond of WAMZ radio after a brief, unsuccessful March 23, 2020 wildcat walkout.
Wrote Hammond, “Granville said people still working on the production line said they have been exposed to coronavirus. Granville said her supervisors are telling them they are sanitizing the building every night, but when she comes in every morning, there is food on the floor from the night before and the bathrooms are still dirty.”
COVID-19 no April Fool to JBS workers
JBS in Greeley on April 1, 2020 disclosed that ten slaughterhouse workers had tested positive for COVID-19.
This was no joke to nearly 1,000 meatpacking workers, members of UFCW Local 7, about a quarter of the staff, who walked off the job.
“We’ve been demanding from the beginning that the workers should be entitled to sick pay,” UFCW Local 7 president Kim Cardova told the Greeley Tribune.
“Right now,” Cardova said, “they don’t qualify for paid sick time. What the company did agree to, though we’re not done, is if somebody tests positive, JBS would pay them while they are quarantined.
“If somebody advised the company they had symptoms, (the company) was asking them to go to the doctor. We’re demanding they pay them for that time off,” Cardova added.
The union also asked that workers be issued personal protective safety equipment.
“People work pretty much elbow to elbow. There’s no 6-foot distancing there,” Cardova said.
Wuhan celebrates end of shutdown
While labor and management skirmished over COVID-19 safety precautions at slaughterhouses around the U.S., residents of Wuhan, China, on April 7, 2020 celebrated the end of a 76-day lockdown begun after COVID-19 spread out of the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, one of the largest “wet markets” in China.
The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market itself was closed on January 1, 2020, two weeks after medical confirmation of what was then believed to be the first case linked to the market, of four cases known.
Nineteen more COVID-19 cases linked to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market emerged during the next two weeks, while retrospective investigation eventually pushed the first known case back to November 17, 2020.
How did COVID-19 reach the “wet market”?
Thirty of the first 59 identified COVID-19 cases were linked to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market by the time the closure order was issued, but while the market was clearly associated with the COVID-19 spread, how and when COVID-19 reached the market remains unclear.
Did COVID-19 come directly from the horseshoe bats among whom the disease originated, or were pangolins an intermediary, or some other animal, or did workers or customers bring it in after becoming infected elsewhere?
While genomic sequencing clearly indicates COVID-19 was of natural origin, no evidence so far points toward a specific “spillover” event that led to what are now more than 1.8 million confirmed cases worldwide, including more than 114,000 deaths.
The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market opened in 2005, two years after the SARS coronavirus outbreak of 2003 killed nearly 800 people worldwide.
“Wet markets” not all about exotic species
The SARS outbreak briefly focused global attention on the animal suffering and disease associated not only with Chinese “wet markets,” but with “wet markets” operating in almost every nation, including hundreds in the U.S., from New York to San Francisco and Florida to Hawaii.
Though the Chinese “wet markets” are notorious for selling a much wider range of animals than are consumed in most of the rest of the world, including illegally wild-caught bats, pangolins, and civets, most of these species are also farmed in China, and are caught from the wild and sold for food in other nations as well.
Selling those animals, meanwhile, in China and elsewhere, is only a small part of what the “wet markets” do and why they exist.
All meat markets were “wet markets” not long ago
Rather, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market exists, like many thousands of others, because until relatively recently this is how meat markets operated everywhere, including the Jerusalem temple reputedly built by King Solomon, focal to Judaic history, and the Second Temple where the events leading to the origin of Christianity unfolded more than 800 years later.
Before the advent of refrigeration barely more than a century ago, and especially before home refrigerators became a common household appliance in the developed world after World War II, prevailing belief was that meat from animals bought alive and then killed to order was safer than meat from animals whose condition the buyers had no opportunity to inspect.
That belief persists today, from the 80-odd live markets serving mostly ethnic communities in New York City, to Wuhan, where home refrigeration and western-style supermarkets selling frozen meat have been accessible to most residents for barely more than one generation.
Industrialized slaughter increases meat consumption
Elsewhere in Hubei province, China, and in rural and developing regions globally, where even access to electricity enough to power light bulbs and recharge cell phones remains unreliable, “wet markets” selling live animals could be replaced in the immediate future only if most people in those places could be persuaded to go vegetarian or vegan overnight.
Of note, meanwhile, is that the residents of nations where western-style slaughterhouses and meat-selling supermarkets make meat-eating relatively clean and convenient tend to eat markedly more meat than the residents of nations where “wet markets” persist.
U.S. residents, for instance, eat just over twice as much meat per capita as residents of China, where meat consumption is currently about 10% higher than the global average, and about half again higher than the average for the developing world, where refrigeration, western-style slaughterhouses, and the sale of frozen meat remain rare.
Nations with fewer “wet markets” have more COVID-19 deaths
The spread of COVID-19 from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market cost Wuhan at least 47,112 hospitalizations and 2,577 human deaths, more than 75% of the current COVID-19 death toll for the whole of China. But at this writing, there have been no new cases of COVID-19 detected in Wuhan in eight days, and only one since the beginning of April 2020.
The U.S., Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Iran, and Belgium all have had more COVID-19 deaths than China. Among them, “wet markets” are a significant part of the meat supply only in Iran. Among the other nations with more than 1,000 human deaths from COVID-19, Brazil and Turkey still rely heavily on “wet markets” for meat supply, but the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Sweden do not.
What that signifies is that while the sale of wild-caught animals at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market almost certainly did have something to do with the COVID-19 spillover to humans, the existence and use of “wet markets” per se is no more to blame for the ensuing pandemic than the practice of meat consumption itself.
Pig & poultry pandemics
Further, the prominence of the COVID-19 pandemic––because it is afflicting people in more than 200 nations and island territories, killing tens of thousands––tends to obscure the reality that other diseases raging through factory farms worldwide are even now killing multi-millions of animals, mostly in nations with at least partially industrialized slaughter and marketing systems, the U.S. prominently among them.
More than 50 million factory-farmed chickens and turkeys in 15 states, for instance, were killed between December 2014 and June 2015 in response to outbreaks of the H7N3 avian influenza. The most recent H7N3 outbreak was reported on April 9, 2020 among a factory-farmed turkey flock in Chesterfield, South Carolina.
Porcine epidemic diarrhea Type II, which is like COVID-19 a coronavirus, killed more than a million pigs in the U.S. in 2013-2014, and is still occurring.
More than 1.2 million poultry were killed in California alone during 2019 to control an outbreak of Newcastle disease.
Foot-&-mouth, H5N1, and African swine fever
The world was horrified by the slaughter of upward of 3.8 million pigs in Taiwan in 1997, six million pigs and cattle in the United Kingdom in 2001, and more than three million pigs and cattle in South Korea and Japan in 2010-2011 to “stamp out” eruptions of foot-and-mouth disease, but those tolls were small compared to those of at least two other disease outbreaks among factory-farmed animals occurring during the first two decades of the present century.
Upward of 200 million poultry have been killed worldwide since 2003 to control the H5N1 avian influenza, which has been spread chiefly by cockfighters and has killed about 375 people, mostly women who kept small backyard flocks in the developing world. Most of the poultry victims, however, have been in large factory-farmed flocks, from Southeast Asia to northern Europe and north Africa.
African swine fever, and efforts to control it, have killed approximately 300 million pigs since 2014, including about 5.7 million in Vietnam and more than 220 million in China, half of the Chinese pig population and a quarter of all the pigs in the world.