Meat and Drink

Meat? Essential. Worker Health and Safety? Less So.

We have the meats! So says Arby’s in its advertising. Likewise, the U.S. government is stepping up to make sure we can all say this. Last night, President Trump signed an executive order for meat packing plants to stay open during the pandemic. Some have been closing because of rising deaths among workers due to COVID-19. Meat is essential says the president, so the order requires these plants continue their essential work.

In contrast, CDC and OSHA guidance for worker health and safety to prevent COVID-19 from spreading is strictly voluntary. These agencies issued new guidance on Tuesday. It lays out procedures for cleaning equipment, keeping workers safely separate, and providing protective gear. In addition, it suggests not penalizing employees for missing work when they’re sick. But it’s all optional. Gentle suggestions.

Workers Angry and Scared

Not surprisingly, workers are both upset and frightened by this situation. Jason Walsh, who leads an alliance of environmental and labor groups, summed it up:

Workers in the American food industry are vital to us all, but the terrible working conditions that already existed in that industry have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 virus. Donald Trump is finally using the Defense Production Act, but not to ensure that American manufacturers produce the protective equipment that essential workers so desperately need to be safe. Instead, Trump is using the DPA to try to force workers back on the job in unsafe conditions. It doesn’t get more wrong than that.

An expert on meat processing plants and former OSHA executive, Debbie Berkowitz, says this problem was preventable:

These outbreaks that have sickened thousands and killed dozens were not inevitable in the meat industry. If OSHA had started enforcement, employers like the meatpacking industry who don’t prioritize safety voluntarily would have implemented the CDC guidance and prevented these outbreaks of death and disease in meatpacking.

Industry Responsibility

The Chairman of Tyson Foods tells us that the industry feels responsible. In an ad on Sunday, he said:

We have a responsibility to feed our country. It is as essential as health care. This is a challenge that should not be ignored. Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America.

The ad describes a “delicate balance” between keeping employees healthy and feeding the nation.

It’s worth noting that many experts in nutrition are quite committed to the idea that we should be eating less meat. This is a subject that engenders a great deal of controversy, to say the least. Setting that controversy aside, we hope that everyone can agree that workers’ lives should not be at risk to ensure that people don’t have to face the possibility of getting by with less meat.

Click here and here to read more about this stewing controversy.

Meat and Drink, 19th century illustration from the Boston Public Library / flickr

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April 29, 2020

One Response to “Meat? Essential. Worker Health and Safety? Less So.”

  1. April 29, 2020 at 7:00 am, Mary-Jo said:

    Many Europeans I’ve spoken to are baffled that a US President would use the DPA in this way! The optics of this leaves people abroad with a real sense of bewilderment that Americans can’t ration their meat intake, which many here feel is over consumed to begin with, even at the expense of their fellowmen and women’s lives. I’m embarrassed.