Is it time to press the reset button on factory farming?
There are no more excuses to be made
People I know are falling ill to COVID-19. They work at a name-brand pork packing plant. This brand is purposely American-sounding, but is actually owned by a multi-national company based in China. The whole process is utterly dystopian.
The three big meats eaten in America are beef, pork and chicken. Although much of the dairy process takes place in a contained factory setting, nearly all beef is raised in a relatively outdoorsy environment. This is a naturally inefficient method that has factors that impact quantity and quality, such as weather, droughts, floods – in other words, nature.
On the other hand, nearly all chickens and pigs are raised in controlled environments – indoors, eating scientific recipes of feed, with genetic interference resulting in lower mobility and higher meat yield.
I could have found a much worse picture. You're quite welcome.
American consumers have accepted the fact that a good cut of meat will cost 10 bucks a pound. But they still expect a similar cut of pork to cost much less, and for chicken to cost even less than that.
To achieve these prices, considering the margins needed by the front-end supermarkets and any wholesaler layers, as well as the producers themselves, the processing operation must operate at the lowest possible cost and the highest possible speed. Since we haven't built any robots yet that can satisfactorily perform the job of killing, butchering, wrapping and packing, in order to keep up with the speed of the lines, many laborers must work closely – and at high speeds as well.
These are among the most grueling jobs in America, but naturally they are not well paid jobs. They are typically done by those occupying the most vulnerable rungs of the job ladder, including many undocumented laborers. Thus they have almost no leverage in dictating safety in the workplace.
What is happening now is that these packing plants are turning up as COVID-19 hotspots in otherwise rural areas. Close conditions, the inability to take time to clean properly, as well as fear of losing the job if a worker stays home when ill, are all ideal ingredients in a toxic environment of disease spread. These workers have little choice but to keep reporting to work, getting sick, bringing the virus to their families and introducing it to the communities in which they live.
I live in a town that was strategically placed in 'the middle of nowhere' 150 years ago as a refueling station for steam trains. It still is a 20-minute drive to the next towns of size in all directions, but we're now the town with the highest number of infected patients in the county, due to the meat-packing plant.
But never mind the fear of contagion for now. The fact is, a few of these people may die, simply because a greedy American meat packing company sold their operations to a Chinese company who has no qualms about safety in an American plant. American consumers want cheap meat; and thus a plant is designed that (inadvertently) permits the maximum spread of disease as a result.
Here are a few moral conclusions I have come to, in no particular order: people should not have to die over meat; billionaires should not need to make more billions in this way; and people should not need to eat every day as if it were a feast day or holiday. Oh, and hey: animals should live outside, not in a factory where they never see the sun, walk on grass, or breathe fresh air. Also, animals should never be euthanized simply because there are not enough butchers to process them.
The moral barometer – as well as the existing food delivery system of America – is broken and must be reset. Now, I've spent my whole life railing about out-of-control capitalism, and I've just about given up on that. Nor do I think I am ever going to be successful asking for animals' rights as long as I think it is my right to eat ribeye three nights a week. But I do hold out hope that this pandemic leads to one fundamental change in America.
That change being that the meat delivery system never recovers; that factory farming and high-speed meat packing is abolished; that meat remains expensive; and Americans adjust their expectations and adopt, out of necessity, a diet more dependent on plants.
Outside of perhaps Argentina, where there are more cattle than people, we eat more meat than anyone, and it isn't necessary. The plant growth devoted to feeding cattle can be adjusted into direct human food. I'm not saying that a plant based diet is necessarily healthier; after all, corn syrup is perhaps the deadliest food known to man. But at least actual human beings, as well as animals, won't die in vain, just because a variable in the equation changed.