Case in point, how meat packing plants became a petri dish for Covid-19.
With no constraints on their behavior beyond their own desire for profit, they have become a menace to their employees and their communities:
“I wasn’t going to get tested, because on Saturday they were going to give out half a slab of rib-eye, and I really wanted it,” she says. “I thought, I’ll get tested on Monday.” Morales says her husband eventually talked her into getting screened that Friday. She tested positive for Covid-19 and didn’t get to collect the prized meat, though she did make a full recovery. Two months later, there were six Covid-19 deaths associated with the plant and more than 900 infections. (The company disputed those numbers but did not provide its own.) While this was going on, managers at multiple JBS plants were promising $600 to workers with no unexcused absences.
The federal agency that does have the power to regulate conditions in meat plants is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the Department of Labor. But with its staff cut by the Trump administration and its inspection activity sharply curtailed, the agency hasn’t issued a single enforceable order for what meat plants should do to prevent workers from contracting Covid-19. As usual, meatpacking companies are on their own, unencumbered by regulators they’ve assiduously kept at bay.
Together, JBS SA and three other big U.S. producers, Tyson Foods, Cargill, and National Beef, control more than 80% of the U.S. beef market. There have long been allegations of price fixing, driving up costs at the supermarket. For the past decade, meatpackers and processors have spent close to $5 million annually on lobbying, up from only $542,000 in 1999. The industry spent $1.3 million on the 2018 election, with two-thirds of that going to Republican candidates, according to an analysis of campaign finance data from the Center for Responsive Politics. After Tyson ran full-page newspaper ads and a statement on its website warning of food shortages if meat and poultry plants were forced to shutter, President Trump signed an executive order to keep them open.
In the interest of averting cases like Morales’s, the CDC warned JBS on April 20 to stop offering inducements for workers to come in, but JBS ultimately didn’t follow the agency’s advice. OSHA, for its part, ordered its staff in April to do in-person inspections only of hospitals and other front-line facilities during the pandemic—not meat plants—because health-care employees and first responders were deemed to be the only workers at sufficient risk of contracting the virus to warrant immediate investigation. All other OSHA probes were to proceed by phone and fax. Even in normal times, OSHA and its state partners have just 2,100 inspectors, who are responsible for the well-being of 130 million U.S. workers at more than 8 million work sites. That translates to one compliance officer for every 59,000 workers.
A safer, less deadly meat industry could be fashioned through widespread legislative and regulatory reform. Consumers, too, could force change with mass boycotts—or if they were willing to spend more money on less meat. But in the absence of pressure, the industry has no incentive to change.
Covid-19 has become just another workplace hazard in one of America’s deadliest industries.
Historically, politicians and regulators have rewarded the industry with autonomy and lax regulations. As its labor supply dwindled, National Beef appealed to Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Mike Beam to muscle the union on its behalf. “Our request is that they hear from the Governor’s office about the importance and special responsibility of food production workers and to ask the Union to encourage its folks to continue to report for work,” Simon McGee, National Beef’s chief financial officer, wrote to Beam in an email.
In Nebraska, Governor Pete Ricketts directed departments not to release Covid-19 case statistics at meat plants, citing concerns about privacy and the quality of the data. Cattle production is the leading industry in the state, where cows outnumber humans 4 to 1 and license plates proudly boast that it’s “the beef state.” Among the donors who’ve supported Ricketts’s career are Tyson Foods Inc., Smithfield Foods Inc., and the Nebraska Cattlemen.
This is why we need real regulation and real antitrust, and not just in the meat packing industry.