how slaughterhouses became a health problem

From South Dakota, USA, via Brazil to France and Germany, many butchers were particularly affected by Covid-19. Will the pandemic force us to rethink the food industry?

In France, since its closure on May 12, several cases of Covid-19 contamination have been detected in slaughterhouses: 109 out of 1027 tested among employees in Kermené slaughterhouse, in Saint-Jacut-du-Mené, in Côtes-d’Armor, 56 of 397 screened, in the Tradival facility in Fleury-les-Aubrais, in the Loiret, were contaminated, according to a count of May 22, and 11 people tested positive in the poultry slaughterhouse, in Essarts-en-Bocage, in Vendée.

These sources of infection in slaughterhouses are not specific to France, but are found in many countries. High concentration, insecure employees, sacred prices, the food industry has become a sensitive sector, so some advocate a change in our consumption patterns.

A first home in the United States

It all started in South Dakota, USA. On March 25, when major US cities had just begun their containment to stop the spread of Covid-19, an employee of a pig slaughterhouse in the city of Sioux Falls tested positive. According to some of his colleagues, this was certainly not the first case.

Smithfield, the owner of the pigsty, quickly confirmed this positive case, but did not change his production method. Three weeks later, Sioux Falls slaughterhouse became the most important Covid-19 pollution center in the United States. Of 3,700 employees, 644 were infected. More than half of the cases in South Dakota have been linked to this facility.

But it did not end with this outbreak. From Mississippi to Washington, from Texas to Nebraska, cases have been multiplied in slaughterhouses of beef, pork or poultry. Most of these states had taken containment measures, unlike South Dakota, but that didn’t make much difference. The slaughterhouses, which were considered necessary, had to go to work anyway.

So according to Food & Environment Reporting NetworkAs of May 22, more than 17,000 workers in this industry had contracted the virus in 220 factories and 66 died.

Many of these employees have also taken the virus to their homes and communities and spread Covid-19. According to the unions and the same workers, they had no choice. With an average salary of $ 15 per hour (€ 13.80) most people live from one salary to another and cannot benefit from unemployment insurance if they leave their job.

Insufficient protection

Smithfield employees also reported being encouraged to continue working even if they had symptoms. A $ 500 bonus was promised to even those who made their vacation in April. However, the company said that all workers were eligible for the bonus, including those “who missed work due to exposure to Covid-19 or contamination”.

Many workers also stated that they had inadequate protective equipment, even though their union representatives had raised concerns as early as March, according to the BBC.

The risks faced by these employees highlight the deep inequalities created by the Covid-19 crisis in the United States, but also around the world. Almost everywhere, underpaid workers, often migrants, have been affected by both the virus’s impact and the economic consequences of containment.

A very concentrated sector

Slaughterhouses are the most dramatic reflection of this. In recent weeks, outbreaks similar to those observed in the United States have also been reported in Brazil, Canada, Australia, Ireland, Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom and France.

In a beef slaughterhouse in the Canadian province of Alberta, 949 workers were infected by about 2,000 and two died. As in the United States, most of these workers are immigrants and even mainly refugees.

In Germany and France, slaughterhouses and meat packaging facilities were among the first pollution centers after decontamination in early May. German industry is also highly dependent on migrant work. According to the unions, 80% of employees in this sector are temporary employees mainly from Romania, Poland, Bulgaria or other countries in Eastern Europe and southern Europe.

But why was this industry particularly affected by Covid-19? “There is only one answer: concentration,” says Raj Patel, professor vid Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert in the food industry. “Some companies around the world share the sector.”

As a report published in 2016 by the US Department of Agriculture shows, the four largest companies today concentrate “70% of the value of American farms intended for slaughterhouses, against 26% in 1980”.

In other countries this concentration is also very important. According to a 2011 study by European Food, Agriculture and Tourism Association, the five largest producers of beef and poultry share the market in France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

For Raj Patel, the Covid-19 crisis shows very clearly what happens when an industry is too concentrated: “To survive, everyone has to follow the practice set up by large groups”.

“Animal carcasses cross the production line very quickly,” the expert notes. The faster the meat circulates, the closer the workers are. This promiscuity increases the risk of contamination. According to some specialists, the cold, humid and cramped atmosphere is also an aggravating factor.

Raj Patel also notes that although sanitary measures and the speed of production lines vary from country to country, the rules set by the most important companies become the norm. Working conditions can also be bad, even in countries such as France or Germany.

“Poultry production lines in Germany are much faster than in the US,” notes RajPatel. On the other hand, the German industry relies heavily on subcontractors who employ foreign workers with uncertain contracts. In such an environment, “workers are considered interchangeable,” RajPatel concludes.

Reduce meat consumption

While the pandemic has highlighted these problems, some people offer a simple solution: eat less meat. But for RajPatel, this is only a partial answer. According to him, we must listen to the demands of workers in the sector.

A group of Hispanic workers in Iowa, one of the states in the United States where the virus has been most affected by slaughter workers, has requested a “meatless” month in May. They therefore want to protest the “unforgivable” working conditions in the sector’s factories.

Another trade union, Food Chain Workers Alliance, has established a list of five steps that citizens can take to support workers, such as putting pressure on large groups or choosing representatives who guarantee health insurance or the right to demonstrate.

The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention also provided recommendations: controlling workers for symptoms, increasing the work space between workers, improving cleaning and disinfection, and providing prevention materials and education in multiple languages.

Under popular pressure, the German government went even further by announcing reforms in this sector. In the event of a breach of the health rules, a fine of EUR 30,000 may be imposed as well as a ban on subcontractors from January 2021. In France Farmers Confederation also called for a return to a more local and smaller scale industry.

The European Commission has reiterated these proposals as part of its strategy “From farm to fork” was published last week. It therefore wants to promote “short distribution circuits” to “improve the resilience of the food network at local and regional level”. This strategy also explicitly aims to reduce the consumption of meat: “Going towards a reduction in consumption of red or processed meat and increased intake of fruits and vegetables will not only reduce health risks, but also the impact on the environment.”

This article was adapted from English by Stéphanie Trouillard. Click here to read the original.