Meatpacking and Moral Responsibility

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*UPDATED 5/13/2020 with more MN data—More than a century ago, Upton Sinclair’s described dangerous and dirty meatpacking plants in The Jungle. Congress responded to public outrage by enacting the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Neither law protected workers. Public outrage focused not on brutal working conditions but on food safety.  “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach,” Sinclair later said. Today, as thousands of meatpacking workers are infected with COVID-19 and dozens have already died, public policy still prioritizes our stomachs (and profits) over protection of workers.

The presidential order to reopen meatpacking plants ignores worker safety entirely. While “guidelines” about safety during the COVID-19 pandemic have been suggested to meatpacking plants, none has the force of law. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has no specific standards for COVID-19 safety. Even existing health and safety regulations are undermined as the number of OSHA inspectors has been cut and cut and cut again.

Meatpacking was dangerous even before the pandemic. The Minnesota Reformer reported:

“Workers stand shoulder to shoulder on production lines, spending just seconds on a carcass or cut of meat. At some plants, upwards of 1,000 hogs are processed every hour.

“Workers are clad in protective gear like metal aprons, wielding sharp knives or operating industrial saws as they quickly break down livestock for market. ‘It’s fast. It’s loud. It’s dangerous,’ said UFCW Local 663 President Matt Utecht, who represents 1,850 workers at the JBS plant [in Worthington, Minnesota]. ‘It’s a brutal way to make a living.’”

COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred in meatpacking plants across the country, in Minnesota including JBS in Worthington, Pilgrim’s Pride in Cold Spring, and Jennie-O in Willmar and Montrose. The Minnesota Reformer:

“In interviews, JBS employees said that the implementation of safety measures at many of their jobs came too late. The installation of plexiglass dividers and increased sanitation efforts would have done little to stem contagion anyway, some said. Line speeds continued at their usual breakneck speeds, making it impossible for workers to keep any distance from each other.”

One JBS employee story from Worthington, reported in Sahan Journal:

“One woman, speaking Spanish through an interpreter, regretted that the company did not encourage her to take time off after she told human resources personnel that she had come into contact with a coworker who tested positive for the virus. She said the HR official downplayed the seriousness of her complaint when she cited stomach pain as her only potential COVID-19 symptom.

“’They just said go back to work,’ the woman said. ‘And if I left [work], I was going to get points deducted. And so I just continued working.’

“By ‘points,’ she was referring to a system at JBS where every time an employee comes in late or takes a sick day without a doctor’s note, they are given a point. When they rack up eight points, the workers explained, they can face consequences, including being fired. The woman said she worked through Saturday, April 18—the same day she found out that she tested positive for COVID-19.”

Immigrants and refugees make up a large proportion of the half-million meatpacking workers across the country. They get dismissed and disrespected by Republican politicians and by their employers.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar blamed the workers for getting sick. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem said that, “99 percent of what’s going on today wasn’t happening inside the facility. It was more at home, where these employees were going home and spreading some of the virus.”  A Smithfield spokesperson told Buzzfeed News, “Living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family.” In Wisconsin, Supreme Court Justice Patience Roggensack said an outbreak in Brown County was. “due to meatpacking,” and “wasn’t just the regular folks in Brown County.

Public policy maintains the same perverted priorities today as in 1906. Protecting the meat supply is more important than protecting the people who work on the line in meatpacking plants. Profits come before people. This sickening immorality is killing people as surely as the COVID-19 virus.

In Colorado, a health official resigned after politicians ordered reopening businesses and companies pressured for a positive spin on public statements. In Nebraska, the governor said state health officials were not allowed to release information about the number of infections at meatpacking plants.

Testifying to Congress today (May 12), Dr. Anthony Fauci responded to a question about the presidential edict ordering meatpacking plants to reopen: “I would think when you are calling upon people to perform essential services, you really have almost the moral responsibility to make sure they’re well taken care of and well protected … that’s just me speaking as a physician and as a human being.”

*UPDATE 5/13/2020 from MPR News daily newsletter:

“Three counties outside the Twin Cities metro area now account for 25 percent of all the state’s COVID-19 cases.  And outbreaks in each of the three counties focus around meatpacking plants. Let’s dive into the numbers…

“The largest per-capita outbreak continues to be in southwestern Minnesota. About 1 in 17 people — about 6 percent of the population — in Nobles County have tested positive for COVID-19. The county had 1,291 confirmed cases as of Tuesday. The Nobles outbreak centers around the JBS pork plant in Worthington.

“There’s an outbreak in Stearns County, too. Stearns County had fewer than 60 confirmed COVID-19 cases just two weeks ago. As of yesterday, it had 1,512 cases. And in the meantime, workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry processing plant in Cold Spring called for a federal investigation as cases appeared at the facility and workers said the company wasn’t protecting them. Nearly 1 percent of Stearns residents have tested positive for COVID-19.

“And in Kandiyohi County. Workers at a Jennie-O turkey plant there had tested positive for COVID-19. Kandiyohi had three cases just three weeks ago and there were 376 on Tuesday. Nearly one percent of people in Kandiyohi have tested positive for the coronavirus.

“These three counties have much higher infection rates than the Twin Cities. While Hennepin County’s 4,033 cases are by far the most in any county, it also has by far the most residents. Its infection rate is about 0.3 percent. And Ramsey County’s infection rate is even lower, about 0.2 percent.”

About Mary Turck

News Day, written by Mary Turck, analyzes, summarizes, links to, and comments on reports from news media around the world, with particular attention to immigration, education, and journalism. Fragments, also written by Mary Turck, has fiction, poetry and some creative non-fiction. Mary Turck edited TC Daily Planet, www.tcdailyplanet.net, from 2007-2014, and edited the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, in its pre-2008 version. She is also a recovering attorney and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues.
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