A Pork Panic Won't Save Our Bacon

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Tuesday night, President Trump signed an executive order that could shield meat producers from lawsuits waged by workers who’ve contracted Covid-19. The order also pressures meat-processing plants to remain open “to ensure a continued supply of protein to Americans” and to reverse “unnecessary closures.” This is a reckless and uninformed move. Even as threats to the global food supply increase, along with the costs of plant closures, the lives of thousands of workers could be imperiled if these facilities rush to reopen. The plan could also backfire — causing large-scale, long-term, global food supply disruptions that make the current plant closures look trivial.

Sixteen major poultry, pork and beef processing centers in the U.S. closed in recent weeks after they became Covid-19 hotbeds, including the Smithfield Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the Tyson Foods chicken-processing center in Waterloo, Iowa and the Cargill meat plant in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. As of Tuesday, there were more than 4,135 reported Covid-19 cases tied to 75 meat-processing plants in 25 states, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Among the infected workers, 18 have died across nine states.

Pork production has been hit the hardest. Nearly half of all hog processing in the U.S. is currently offline, whereas poultry and beef production have barely dipped. The story of the Smithfield facility in Sioux Falls, which processes 5% of the pork produced in the United Sates, is a cautionary tale about the risks of operating a processing plant with sickened employees — and it bears out key criteria for safe reopening.

A Pork Panic Won't Save Our Bacon

Under normal conditions at the Sioux Falls plant, 20,000 hogs a day — 1,300 per hour — are slaughtered and rendered into chops, strips, loins and ground meat. The workers here do fast-paced, shoulder-to-shoulder work, often in warm, wet conditions the kind of environment that increases the risk of communicable diseases. Until the facility was shuttered on April 11, it was the number one Covid-19 hotspot in the United States. Even now, as the plant lays dormant, it remains in the country’s top hotspots. Nearly a quarter of the plant’s workers — about 900 of 3,700 — have contracted the virus, as have hundreds of the employees’ family members.

Labor leaders who represent the workers at the Sioux Falls plant are balking at President Trump’s executive order and condemning a statement made Monday by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem on Fox News that she wants to reopen the Smithfield plant “in a matter of days.”

Mustafa Kolombo, a longtime line-worker for Smithfield, who represents the plant’s employees at the local labor union, United Food and Commercial Workers, says the governor is showing little regard for the lives of workers. “We would like to come to work, but, how will we, if it's not safe for us?” he told me in an interview. Kolombo wants Governor Noem and President Trump “to put the lives of workers and our families into consideration before they rush out to force the company to reopen.”

Trump’s executive order may also encourage plant operators to cut corners on the CDC’s safety recommendations. Last week, the CDC conducted an inspection of the Sioux Falls plant and produced a 15-page report with recommendations for Smithfield management and the South Dakota Department of Health. The report underscores the importance of testing workers before they return to facility, of providing proper PPE for every employee and of reforming plant operations to allow for social distancing.

Yet, Kolombo said, “We have gotten no guarantee that any of these recommendations will be met.”

Kolombo applauds Smithfield for inviting the CDC to conduct its inspection and for agreeing to give its employees two weeks of full wages and benefits through May 1. But he estimates that it will take “at least 4 to 5 weeks” to implement the CDC recommendations before the plant is reopened, during which time the workers and their families should remain in quarantine and continue to receive company support.

There’s good reason to believe that it will take weeks, not days, before the plant operators can fully meet safety recommendations — if they can be met at all.

The CDC recommendations are, to begin with, voluntary. Kooper Caraway, the president of the Sioux Falls AFL-CIO, told me that the report “goes out of its way to say that its recommendations are not enforceable” by law. And on Sunday, April 26, the CDC quietly announced on its website that “critical infrastructure workers” — who include meat and poultry processors — “may be permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19, provided they remain asymptomatic.”

The statement is confounding given that the CDC has acknowledged that Covid-19 can be transmitted by carriers who show no symptoms. Comprehensive testing is the only way to ensure that workers with Covid-19 don’t spread the disease. But it’s highly unlikely that thousands of tests can be obtained, let alone administered, in a matter of days if Smithfield rushes to reopen the plant.

It’s also unlikely that the plant will get adequate PPE. The Food Safety and Inspection Service has already tried to place large orders for PPE and hand sanitizer for federal food inspectors, yet the delivery date keeps getting pushed back.

Internally, plant workers had been asking for increased PPE and social distancing measures since early March, to no avail. Smithfield mishandled the early stages of the outbreak, says Kolombo, and, as a result, “there is now so much fear and hurt among our workers and so little trust.”

The Sioux Falls plant is known to be one of the most diverse in the nation. The employees speak 40 different languages — mostly Spanish, Nepalese, Swahili and Amharic — and a hundred different dialects. They had been getting early-warning calls from their families in Asia, Europe and across the African continent as the pandemic spread overseas. Union leaders pushed management to do temperature checks, increase sanitizer stations, implement social distancing and schedule breaks.

“Management drug its feet. They didn't think it was necessary,” says Caraway, adding that Smithfield offered a $500 “responsibility bonus” to any worker who didn’t call in sick during the month of April. “It was a very tone-deaf way of addressing a pandemic,” he says. Now, Trump’s executive order further disempowers the 900 Smithfield employees and their family members who have contracted Covid-19, by limiting their ability to recoup the costs of their illness via lawsuits.

Smithfield, as well as South Dakota Governor Noem, blamed the spread of the disease not on what was happening inside the plant, but rather on employees’ close-knit lifestyles — a notion Kolombo found disrespectful and discriminatory. “Blaming employees who are essential to your organization is ungrateful. We invest our lives, our time, our energy, our everything [in our jobs]. The governor of our state and the company we work for have insulted our dignity,” he says.

There’s no question that Governor Noem, who has not implemented a stay-at-home order, nor a temporary ban on evictions and foreclosures in her state, is motivated by fears of economic freefall. The Smithfield plant is one of the largest engines of GDP in the region, producing 18 million servings of pork a day, and it hemorrhages revenue every hour it’s offline.

And Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken says disruption is rippling up and down the supply chain, especially among the 550 hog farmers who sell their animals to the Smithfield plant. “I bet I got two dozen calls to my office yesterday from hog farmers. One said, ‘Mayor, I had to shoot and kill three thousand hogs today because there’s no market for them right now.’” TenHaken added that the Sioux Falls city landfill is now “having to alter our operations to accept euthanized pork.”

Pork farmers face the terrible specter of having to euthanize their animals by the tens of thousands in the coming weeks. This is a food crisis in its own right, and there must be a coordinated effort at the local, state and national level to help these producers redirect their animals to local meat lockers, food banks and the many processing facilities nationwide that are still safely operating.

But we need to be wary of claims by meat industry executives that a global food security crisis is nigh. “The food supply chain is breaking,” wrote Tyson Foods chairman, John Tyson, in a full-page ad on Sunday. He cautioned that “millions of pounds of meat” will vanish from groceries and “millions of animals — chickens, pigs and cattle — will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities.”

Let’s be clear: U.S. consumers will not be forced to go vegan anytime soon. The threats to protein production are real, but meat companies have large reserves of product in cold storage that can temporarily fulfill consumer demand while the plants remain offline. Forcing coronavirus-affected meat plants to stay open is hardly the solution to an emerging crisis — instead, it will only deepen it.

Smithfield did not grant my requests for an interview, but in a public statement, the company’s CEO, Ken Sullivan, stressed his “obligation to help feed the country, now more than ever. We have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19.” This is shortsighted. Sullivan’s primary responsibility is not to his consumers, but rather to the health and wellbeing of his employees, without whom none of his food can be produced.

Trump’s executive order empowers his Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, and meat companies to carry out his directives. In the coming weeks, the decisions made by Perdue, Ken Sullivan, John Tyson and other industry leaders will define the future of their industry. They must proceed with great care and caution. They must ask bacon-loving consumers like me to adapt to the near-term reality of lower volumes and higher costs of meat. Chances are good that most of us, especially those in higher income brackets, can survive with fewer hot dogs and sausages patties for a few months (we might even be better for it).

If, instead, the President and meat industry leaders panic — if they force plant workers to operate in unsafe conditions so that huge volumes of low-cost meat can continue to flow to global consumers — we’ll be looking at future waves of plant shutdowns far more economically devastating than the cost of getting it right, right now.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Amanda Little is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of a Bloomberg Opinion series on the fate of food after Covid-19 as well as the book "The Fate of Food: What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World."

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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