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Should We Even Be Buying Meat Right Now? 4 Food Experts on Safety and Ethics During the Pandemic.

updated Jul 23, 2020
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Should we be buying meat right now, given the alarming reports of COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing plants? It’s a question that’s been circulating a lot in our conversations over the past few months at Kitchn. Leah Douglas of the Food and Environment Reporting Network has something to say about this. She has been tracking the meat industry throughout COVID-19, and the most recent version of her map shows 367 meatpacking plants that have had confirmed cases. That number rises to almost 500 if you include food processing plants, and farms and ranches add another 65 locations. And the most alarming part? There are 43,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among meat industry workers.

So what’s the problem with meat plants, specifically? According to a May briefing from the CDC, the outbreaks come from the difficulty in keeping distance on production lines, the pace and movements making it difficult to keep masks in place, and a failure to hold to higher standards of cleaning and disinfection.

At the best of times, the decision of how to incorporate meat into or eliminate meat from one’s diet is very personal, and many omnivores are reducing meat consumption. But right now, the decision to buy and eat feels even more fraught in safety and ethics. We wanted to know what the experts think, and what they are doing personally. So, we asked Douglas and three other experts from various fields that study or interact with our food systems to help us understand what is happening in the meat industry and how we should respond as consumers.

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1. What’s actually happening at meatpacking plants? How alarmed should we be?

Leah Douglas, associate editor and staff writer at the Food and Environment Reporting Network: The spread of COVID-19 among meat industry workers is a true crisis. As of July 10, nearly 35,000 meatpacking workers had contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic began — about 6 percent of the national meatpacking workforce — and at least 144 had died. And those numbers continue to grow. While some plants are taking measures to protect workers, the risk of getting sick is still high in some places. Some workers live in fear of contracting the virus, or have opted to take leave without pay, or have quarantined themselves in a single room in their homes to avoid infecting their families. These essential jobs, in many cases, continue to expose workers to a potentially life-threatening illness.

Kristina Glinoga, sustainable butcher and creator of Butchery 101: It’s important that we recognize that all of the systemic issues brought to light by COVID-19 have been occurring in the meat industry for decades. So everything that’s in the national conversation now — white male supremacy, economic disparity, exploitation of workers and disproportionate government support for corrupt companies — that’s all standard issue in industrial meat. And it’s how you get cheap grocery store beef.  

The system that brought you basement bargain prices on meat shattered under COVID-19. The system that has endangered the lives of thousands of workers is why you can get $3.99/lb pork chops. The exploitation of workers and abuse of livestock is why you can have cheap meat, but it’s also why we had Mad Cow and Swine Flu.  

Dr. Mary Muth, director of food, nutrition and obesity policy research at the Research Triangle Institute: A lot of the stories refer mostly to what’s happening with large meat producers, but COVID-19 is creating problems for small producers as well. In some areas, many of the livestock and poultry producers for the local market are also having to contend with plant closures and loss of buyers for their products.

Dr. Lindsey Lunsford, sustainable food systems resource specialist at the Carver Integrative Sustainability Center at Tuskegee University: In my area, there are a lot of chicken processing plants, and there’s been three outbreaks. People are risking their lives to go to work, and it’s interesting to know the demographics of the “essential” workers who are putting themselves at risk to go to work, to feed all of us. It’s migrant workers that are working in these facilities, but there’s also a lot of Black women working in these facilities that are already at risk for high blood pressure and diabetes, because they live in food deserts. So, you have women who already live in a food desert going to work to assure the whole nation has access to food.

They’re already at risk for COVID-19 because of their socioeconomic status and where they live, then they go to work in hazardous conditions that were already unsafe before COVID-19 broke out, and now we’re seeing the exact level which it was unsafe. But these workers remain faceless, nameless, demographic-less, genderless. These are minority women who are in some of the most foul conditions working with for good of us.

2. Does eating meat put us at additional risk of getting sick?

Muth: From everything I have heard, there is no risk of getting COVID-19 from eating meat. Even if an infected plant worker handles the product, COVID-19 does not appear to survive on the product or packaging.

Douglas: No. There’s no evidence, to my knowledge, that worker illness at meatpacking facilities presents a COVID-19 risk to consumers.

Glinoga: The risk of COVID-19 in the meat industry isn’t to the consumer, but the worker. Infections spread like crazy in meat plants. Grocery workers are stuck indoors with hundreds of peoples’ vapor clouds. Many farm workers, especially undocumented immigrants, don’t have proper access to medical care.

And consumers just accept that these people are fine in these work environments but maybe don’t understand the connections between cheap prices, exploitation, and the spread of COVID-19.  

Credit: Joe Lingeman

3. Is it ethical to buy meat at the grocery store right now?

Glinoga: Often, this choice isn’t ethical but economic. Many people have no choice but to buy industrial meat from the grocery store because that’s what fits in their budget. Even the freedom to choose good local meat is a form of privilege.

I think people need to eat whatever nutrient-dense and immune system-boosting foods they can, especially right now, but pay very close attention to their government representatives and how they are legislating and subsidizing the food system.  

Douglas: Worker treatment is a valuable issue for meat eaters to educate themselves about, especially given that meatpacking workers experienced difficult and dangerous conditions well before the threat of COVID-19. There’s always been and continues to be a significant environmental cost to industrial meat production, and a health risk to the communities that live near large-scale animal facilities. As with all foods, I encourage folks who eat meat to read up on meatpacking worker issues and advocacy, as well as on the meat industry’s political influence.

Many people have no choice but to buy industrial meat from the grocery store because that’s what fits in their budget.

Lunsford: When it comes to Black communities, there’s a lot of shame in food, in what we do not eat and who gets to eat what. It’s so detrimental to shame people for what they eat. They say you are what you eat, so when you put that level of shame on people for their food choice, you also shame their existence and how they show up in the world. In America, food has always been a form of colonization, a form of power — it’s always been used to control people. So, when we ask questions like, “Is it ethical to eat meat?” we need to think, “Is it a privilege to be able to change your diet based upon your moral concerns?”

I think it gets really dodgy when we start saying if it is ethical to still eat meat because we get into the value ethic of food and plates, like, “I’m a better person than you because I don’t support this and I made this choice.” If you just say, “I don’t want to support meat, I’m not going to buy meat anymore.” That’s, to me, like saying “I’m not racist, I’m never going to use the N-word.” Well, you still can exhibit anti-Blackness and racism in your actions by who you do and don’t support and what you do.

It’s much deeper than just taking a unilateral stance against something. You might say, “I’m not going to eat meat,” but what about those Black women that depend on that meatpacking job? You’re saying okay, “I’m not going to support that,” but what is the replacement? If you’re going to abstain from this, what are you going to do? 

I think it’s the bigger ethics question: It’s less about the people consuming the meat and more about the ethics of the businesses that control the unsafe conditions that let people back to work. There are too many individual minds for us to use personal choice to get collective action.

If you want policy changes to dictate how to make change, that’s one thing, but there’s a lot of power politics. There’s a lot of white supremacy in the vegan and vegetarian food movements, and that’s becoming more and more pronounced as research and scholarship goes on. 

I caution people when it comes to being like, “I’m just not going to eat meat and that makes me a better citizen,” when there are others that do not have the privilege of choice in that matter. Are they not being good contributors to this globe because they don’t have those options? 

Demonizing food and telling certain groups what they can and cannot eat based on the values of everyone else, that’s just not fair. Four or five years ago, people were trifling down 4th of July ribs and burgers, like it was nobody’s business. And now just because of the headlines, to expect people to change and shift their entire nutritional makeup and that of their children without giving them any sort of education as to how to properly shift, you could put them at risk for greater disease by what’s in their immune system, by not giving them the education. Just telling someone not to eat meat is not going to help them know what they need to nourish their body.

4. Should we be concerned about all meat, or just certain types?

Douglas: My analysis has found that pork plants are the source of about one third of COVID-19 cases among meatpacking workers, with another 20 percent attributable to beef plants and 10 percent to chicken plants.

Glinoga: Every meat represents an opportunity to do better.  It’s more about the provenance of the meat, rather than the species itself. Even the widely demonized beef cow can actually help sequester carbon from the air if holistically managed.  

Muth: There’s really no difference in risk across different types of livestock or poultry.

Lunsford: The love of beef and the way that beef has become an all-American staple follows us from Europe, from Britain, from colonization. That was the food of the master class. And so poultry and swine were the food of the poor, the Southerners. That was the food of poor whites, the food of slaves. It was that way up until World War II when we had to ration beef. Then there was a national outcry to eat more pork, eat more chicken, and that was seen as being a patriot, more of an American person.

Not saying all meat is elitist, but it’s like, you know, it’s the difference between if I say, Hey, I want pork chop versus I want to cut of filet mignon. It’s a whole different level of class, privilege, and race that you’re bringing up based on who wants a rare steak versus who wants a fried pork chop.

That’s a whole different spectrum of class and people. So, when I say which types that we should focus on … it’s a crisis, but, like my mentor told me, it’s a chance for opportunity: This is a chance to bring back the butcher.

Credit: Lauren Volo

5. How are you making decisions about your own meat consumption?

Douglas: In my home, we get our food from a variety of outlets that reflect our values and budget. We have a CSA share, we shop at our local co-ops and organic markets, and we also bulk buy when we need to. Diversifying food sources and shopping at locally-owned stores (where available) can keep money circulating in the community and potentially support regional growers. At the same time, changes in personal consumption will do little to broadly reform the food system without additional regulatory and political intervention.

Muth: For myself, I am continuing to purchase meat from the same broad variety of outlets that I did before COVID-19. That includes locally produced products through my CSA and also products from the major meatpackers that are sold in grocery stores.

Glinoga: I can no longer ignore the racial and economic inequalities that dominate the meat and food industry. In addition to local, sustainable food, I think buying directly from BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ and women, and the companies that support equitable systems will be the most significantly positive thing people can do right now.  

I think this “glitch in the Matrix,” where we can briefly see the fragile and grimy machinery back there, is a great opportunity not only to switch to better meat, but also a better meat system. One where white privilege isn’t the best indicating factor in one’s success, and where the people who work on the super nice local food get to eat some of it.

I’ll continue to vote with my dollar for a better meat system, and I hope others will come along with me.  

Changes in personal consumption will do little to broadly reform the food system.

Lunsford: The more I become educated on what is going on in the plants, and actually having family members that work in these facilities that are afraid … like, wow. But they don’t want the chicken plant to disappear tomorrow, they still need their job. At the same time, they are afraid and they’re cautious about the risks. 

So, I think that I am making efforts, or I would say my awareness has been raised to the fact that like, I do need a local source of meat. I want to be more conscious about supporting producers and anywhere I know that I can get ahold of some local meat, that is now the top of my interest.

So even though maybe my purchasing has not changed, I’m definitely a willing customer for a CSA that finds me, and that might not have been the case before this. I think that that’s important to look at too, people might not have the knowledge and access — because I live in a food desert, too. It’s hard to find me, but I’m a new market for someone that is trying to sell this product, I am a potential customer, whereas before I might not have been.

Have your meat shopping and eating habits changed during the pandemic? Let us know in the comments.