But preserving profits, “red state” votes, and keeping workers on the job despite risk were of paramount concern
SIOUX CITY, Iowa––Risk of a U.S. food shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic had nothing to do with the April 28, 2020 decision of U.S. President Donald Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act to keep slaughterhouses running.
Emailed longtime animal advocate Esther Mechler to ANIMALS 24-7, “Does meat food chain really = general food chain? Can’t we still get most of what vegetarians and vegans need to eat?”
Indeed we can, as Mechler of course knew before she asked.
More food without meat industry than with it
Though Trump mentioned fears of a meat shortage, every chicken, pig, and steer not raised and fattened for slaughter saves enough grain to feed the same number of people for days to weeks longer.
Fear of loss of profits, loss of customers, and most of all, fear of loss of jobs and votes for Republican incumbents in previously politically secure “red states” were and are, however, of paramount concern to Trump, the meat industry, and much of the “red state” meat industry work force.
Other workers remain more concerned about losing their health, and perhaps even their lives, to COVID-19 than about losing their jobs.
Despite Trump edict, another slaughterhouse closes
Trying to strike a balance between losing money and loss of workers, “Tyson Fresh Meats’ flagship beef plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, announced late on April 29, 2020 that it will close the 4,300-employee plant for four days to deep-clean the facility,” reported Dave Dreeszen of the Sioux City Journal.
“Two Tyson workers have died of COVID-19 and an undisclosed number of others have tested positive for the novel coronavirus,” Dreeszen explained.
Altogether, more than 1,400 residents of adjacent counties have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks. Many of them are believed to be Tyson employees.
“Tyson has repeatedly refused to disclose the number of cases,” Dreeszen said. “State and county health department officials also have refused to even discuss a link between the metro area’s recent spike in cases and the plant, which is the region’s largest employer.”
On April 30, 2020, however, Dreeszen updated that “669 workers had tested positive for COVID-19, according to a source who spoke to The Journal on the condition of anonymity.”
Tyson doubles bonuses to workers who keep working
The Dakota City slaughterhouse closure came hours after Dreeszen reported that Tyson Foods has promised to “double bonuses for frontline workers and truckers,” to keep them on the job.
Elaborated Dreeszen, “The Springdale, Arkansas-based meat giant said it is now offering $120 million in ‘thank you’ bonuses for 116,000 workers and truckers, up from the $60 million announced in early April.”
The bonus payments are to be paid in two $500 installments, Dreeszen said, the first in early May 2020 and the second in July.
Tyson is also “increasing short-term disability coverage,” Dreeszen reported. “In addition, the company, which has been checking worker temperatures daily, will screen workers for additional COVID-19 symptoms, such as coughing and shortness of breath; establish designated monitors at each facility to help enforce social distancing; and require the use of company-provided surgical-style face coverings.”
U.S. Senator likens meat to toilet paper
“Trump told reporters that ‘there’s plenty of supply,’ but that supply chains had hit what he called a ‘road block. It’s sort of a legal roadblock more than anything else,’ he said,” recounted Associated Press reporter Jill Colvin.
Republican U.S. Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota “had written to Trump asking him to use the Defense Production Act to declare the food supply industry an essential industry, warning that consumers would see a meat shortage in a matter of days akin to the panic over toilet paper the virus created in its early days,” Colvin added.
Elaborated Kaitlan Collins and Maegan Vazquez of CNN, “Trump signed the order after some companies, such as Tyson Foods, were considering only keeping 20% of their facilities open. The vast majority of processing plants could have shut down––which would have reduced processing [slaughtering] capacity in the country by as much as 80%, an official familiar with the order told CNN.
“Ruthlessly tamping down on costs”
“Meat, beef and pork production reached record highs in March, according to the US Agriculture Department,” Collins and Vazquez continued. “But the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said at least 13 processing plants [20 counting poultry slaughterhouses] have closed over the past two months, resulting in a 25% reduction in pork slaughter capacity and 10% reduction in beef slaughter capacity.
“The union also estimated that 20 meatpacking and food processing workers have died so far.”
The crux of the situation, summarized Collins and Vazquez, is that “For years, major meat processors have been ruthlessly tamping down on costs and increasing efficiencies. Efforts to speed up processing [butchering] has led to workers standing closer together––about three or four feet apart from each other while working. Officials say that people should stand about six feet apart in order to maintain social distancing practices that could help prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
“The workers are disposable”
Veteran science and business journalist Roger Witherspoon, an ANIMALS 24-7 board member, offered a somewhat different perspective on the Trump invocation of the Defense Production Act on his personal Facebook page.
“Actually, the purpose of the executive order,” Witherspoon wrote, “is to make it possible for the meat companies to keep their plants open and require the workers to show up without incurring liability if the workers get sick and die. The Trump administration deliberately did not mandate working conditions that would follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines and minimize the danger of COVID-19 to the workforce. Iowa’s Republican governor,” Kim Reynolds, “celebrated by adding that any worker who did not show up for fear of catching the coronavirus would be fired and the state would not consider him or her eligible for unemployment.
“Trump believes his pork rinds and chicken nuggets are essential. The workers are disposable,” Witherspoon concluded.
Animals are “disposable” too
As are the pigs and chickens whose remains go into those pork rinds and chicken nuggets.
Tyson Foods board chair John Tyson underscored that point in an April 26, 2020 full page advertisement published in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Asserting that “The food chain is breaking,” John Tyson alleged that “millions of pounds of meat” would “disappear,” and that “millions of animals” would be killed on-farm if they cannot be slaughtered on schedule.
Explained Tom Polansek and P.J. Huffstutter of Reuters, as if on cue, “The world’s biggest meat companies––including Smithfield Foods Inc., Cargill Inc., JBS USA, and Tyson Foods Inc.––have halted operations at about 20 slaughterhouses and processing plants, stoking global fears of a meat shortage.
Routine practice described as crisis response
“Iowa farmer Al Van Beek had nowhere to ship his full grown pigs to make room for the 7,500 piglets he expected from his breeding operation,” Polansek and Huffstutter offered by way of example.
Therefore, Polansek and Huffstutter said, Van Beek “ordered his employees to give injections to the pregnant sows, one by one, that would cause them to abort their baby pigs.
“In Iowa,” Polansek and Huffstutter continued, “farmer Dean Meyer said he is part of a group of about nine producers who are euthanizing the smallest 5% of their newly born pigs, or about 125 piglets a week. They will continue euthanizing animals until disruptions ease, and could increase the number of pigs killed each week, Meyer said. “The small bodies are composted and will become fertilizer.”
What Polansek and Huffstutter did not mention is that culling runts, usually by slamming their heads against concrete barn floors, has long been routine practice in the pig industry, even at the most profitable of times.
“Value has fallen to zero”
“Meyer’s group is also killing mother hogs, or sows, to reduce their numbers, he said,” wrote Polansek and Huffstutter.
But standard pig industry practice also includes killing “spent” sows because they may not be able to walk aboard trucks, stand for hours on those trucks during transport to slaughter, and then walk up the ramps taking them to be stunned, shackled, hoisted, and bled to death.
“Farmers in neighboring Canada are also killing animals they can’t sell or afford to feed,” wrote Polansek and Huffstutter. “The value of Canadian isoweans––baby pigs––has fallen to zero because of U.S. processing plant disruptions, said Rick Bergmann, a Manitoba hog farmer and chair of the Canadian Pork Council.
“In Quebec alone,” Polansek and Huffstutter continued, “a backlog of 92,000 pigs waits for slaughter, said Quebec hog producer Rene Roy, an executive with the pork council. A hog farm on Prince Edward Island in Canada euthanized 270-pound hogs that were ready for slaughter because there was no place to process them, Bergmann said. The animals were dumped in a landfill.”
“Trying to stop hogs’ weight from ballooning”
Offered Minnesota member of the House of Representatives Collin Peterson, a member of the Democratic Farmer Labor party, a day after Trump invoked the Defense Production Act on behalf of slaughterhouses, “I’m being told that we have 160,000 [animals] per day needing to be euthanized at this point, because the plants have shut down. Across the country, 160,000, if we don’t get these plants running.”
Wrote Sioux City Journal business reporter Mason Dockter, reinforcing the message, “Hogs, who have been bred to grow quickly, cannot be processed above a certain weight. So farmers are left frantically trying to stop the hogs’ weight from ballooning.”
“Act of God”
“We’re turning the temperatures up on the barns,” Lyon County, Iowa pig farmer Dwight Mogler told Dockter, “and we’re putting less energy and more fiber in the diets. They’re bred to grow, to eat and grow, that’s what a pig does. And so, we’re trying to do the exact opposite, to disincentivize them to grow.
“We’re putting more pigs into our barns, but you can only do that for about four weeks,” Mogler added. “That’s when you’re faced with a decision to euthanize pigs, because you have no other options.”
Trucking pigs to slaughterhouses farther away “is not an option,” Docter wrote, “because without a previously signed agreement, plants won’t accept the animals. When the JBS plant in Worthington closed, the plant invoked a force majeure [also known as an Act of God] clause in their contract with Mogler, relieving them of the obligation to accept his pigs.”
A parallel report came from Graham Rapier of Business Insider, describing how Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. killed two million chickens.
The company, “a cooperative that works with about 1,300 farmers, said it looked at all other options,” Rapier wrote, “including allowing another chicken company to transport and process the chickens and taking a partially processed product to rendering facilities to utilize for other animal feed,” but ultimately decided to kill the chickens where they were, because, according to a company statement, “If no action were taken, the birds would outgrow the capacity of the chicken house to hold them.”
Of course there were “alligator tears” from the meat industry, a phrase to which alligators might object, since as cold-blooded reptiles they kill and eat less than a seventh as much meat relative to their body weight as the same poundage of typical meat-eating Americans.
“Fragile and broken”
“During this pandemic,” said Smithfield Farms in a statement issued to Bloomberg News, “our entire industry is faced with an impossible choice: continue to operate to sustain our nation’s food supply or shutter in an attempt to entirely insulate our employees from risk.”
Offered Mercy for Animals, “COVID-19 has shown just how fragile and broken our industrial food system is. Mercy For Animals is urging the USDA not to use taxpayer dollars to fund an industry that threatens to kill and throw away millions of animals on farms.”
But, apart from slaughter for meat, animal massacres on farms are routine practice for a multitude of reasons.
Reported the Chicago-based farmed animal advocacy organization Free From Harm, in a statement amplified by United Poultry Concerns, “Starting on April 12, 2020, and ending the next day, widespread tornadoes affected the southeastern part of the United States. A tornado demolished several factory chicken farms in Murray County, Georgia, including farms operated by Pilgrim’s Pride and Koch Foods, two of the five largest chicken companies in the U.S.
“Thousands of chickens survived the destruction,” Free From Harm continued, but when “animal rescuers arrived at the scene, offering to bring these birds to veterinarians for emergency care, Pilgrim’s Pride informed the rescuers that they had already buried 10,000 chickens alive as part of their cleanup.”
Gemperle Farms, of Keyes, California, two weeks later acknowledged the deaths of 280,000 egg-laying hens in the biggest barn fire thus far in 2020.
“Throughout the year,” the Gemperle Farms web site boasts, “we are monitored and certified by a variety of organizations,” including “the Safe Quality Food Institute, Food & Drug Administration, Humane Farm Animal Care (Certified Humane), USDA, United Egg Producers, Quality Assurance International, the California Egg Quality Assurance Program,” and, mentioned separately, American Humane Certified.”
None of those organizations, unfortunately, include fire safety inspections among their requirements for certification. The torturous deaths of millions of poultry per year in barn fires is apparently just an accepted cost of doing business.
“Depopulation by any means possible”
Mentioned the Wall Street Journal in passing on April 28, 2020, “For about four months from mid-November 2019, pig farms in China reported no new cases of African swine fever, the deadly hemorrhagic disease that [earlier in 2019] resulted in the loss of around 120 million hogs,” equal to total annual U.S. pig slaughter.
African swine fever is reportedly now recurring in China. Lest Americans feel inclined to point fingers, killing whole herds and flocks to control outbreaks of diseases such as porcine epidemic diarrhea, Newcastle disease, and avian influenzas is also routine practice here.
“Foaming; ventilation shutdown; shredding; gassing; depopulation by any means possible to ensure no more money is ‘lost,’” observed longtime Blue Cross of India chief executive Chinny Krishna, is how industrial farms “’love their animals’ literally to death.”