COVID-19, Factory Farms, and Risking Human Lives

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Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA via AP

Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA via AP

May 13, 2020. The number of COVID-19 cases linked to slaughterhouses is now over 10,000, and at least 45 workers are known to have died, according to a USA Today report. So far around 40 meatpacking plants have shut down despite President Trump’s executive order that as “essential businesses”, they must remain open. The closures prompted US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to release a statement warning “further action” against plants that don’t reopen.

In Arizona, the JBS slaughterhouse in Tolleson has remained open, despite reports of workers contracting COVID-19. Plant employees recently told ABC15 they “fear catching coronavirus and want the company to shut down the facility for up to two weeks to ensure it is properly cleaned.” However, the plant continues to operate. This is the same facility that recalled over 6.5 million pounds of beef in 2018. The slaughterhouse also has a history of cruel treatment of animals. In July of 2017,  the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a notice accusing the facility’s president of enabling “egregious” and “inhumane” practices with livestock. The USDA inspector noted two downed cows suffering in holding pens. The report described a cow “lying on her side and unable to rise, mentally incoherent, having difficulty breathing, and repetitively making a kicking motion with its legs while moaning as if in pain.” Suffering animals are not unique to the Tolleson slaughterhouse, but are a component of the abuse of America’s large-scale industrial agriculture. COVID-19 has made it strikingly clear that this country’s dependence on factory farming and mass slaughter for cheap meat has deadly consequences.

On May 11th, the Washington Post published the op-ed Meat is Not Essential. Why Are We Killing For It? by Jonathan Safran Foer that questions why President Trump used the Defense Production Act to keep slaughterhouses open at the risk of human illness and death. As he states, “The industry has continued such cruel practices with relative impunity, because workers are too dependent on their jobs to effectively resist unscrupulous managers, and the public has continued to underwrite the abuse. But manslaughter is a new level of depravity. The magical thinking that imagines calling meat “essential” in a time when schools, bypass surgeries and funerals are not, amounts to a sort of state-sponsored witchcraft “…. “Letting the monstrous factory farm system fail would allow safer, more just and sustainable models of agriculture to gain a foothold. Yes, meat supplies would be lower, but food supplies would not be. We would have more than enough protein.” Foer ends the piece on a hard-hitting note: “Your next meal is the moment to withdraw your support from the most cruel and destructive industry in America.”

Matthew Scully’s latest piece, The Human Cost of ‘Culling’ Livestock and ‘Depopulating’ Farms delves into the killing of millions of confined farm animals in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Factory farmers use euphemisms like ‘depopulation’ and ‘culling’ to mask their brutal, painful methods of killing pigs, cows, chickens, and other animals confined in large industrial

Photo: Animal Legal Defense Fund

agriculture operations across the US. He discusses that during a global pandemic, the Trump administration ordered slaughterhouses to remain open and deemed them “essential”. The administration and USDA are also fast-tracking a rule to loosen regulations and speed up pig slaughter operations. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the euphemistically-titled Modernization of Pork Slaughter allows slaughterhouses to kill pigs at extremely high line speeds, which was previously limited to killing 1,106 pigs per hour. The rule also cuts the training and numbers of inspectors overseeing slaughter operations, jeopardizing consumer and worker safety. ALDF and other organizations filed a lawsuit to block the rule. In support of the lawsuit, USDA inspector Jill Mauer’s statement was filed in federal court on April 10th. She confirmed that under the deregulated system, pigs are often still breathing when dropped into scalding tanks as evidenced by tank water found in their lungs.

According to Scully, while inhumanely killing millions of animals and deregulating slaughterhouses, the pork industry is asking for public sympathy and funding, referring to mass killings as “tragic choices,” “gut-wrenching decisions,” and “devastating last resorts.” He states, “Sometimes the failures in a system reveal the essence of the whole. Abnormal circumstances can clarify problems that pass for normal. Doubtless, in their “depopulation” measures, the livestock farmers themselves feel they have “nowhere to go,” forced by their own manias of consolidation and hyper-efficiency to make one harsh choice after another, all the conscientious alternatives long ago ruled out. Yet if somehow it troubles them, in their culling labors, to treat millions of living creatures as nothing — bulldozed away, like so much piled-up trash — then now’s a good moment, for all of us, to notice that the system is just as merciless when it is working to perfection.”

 

Read more in our previous blog post: Pandemics, Consumption of Animals, and Ag-Gag Laws