In recent weeks, as a result of cramped conditions and inadequate protections, several U.S. meat plants have closed due to coronavirus outbreaks among workers. In one particularly stunning instance, a Tyson pork processing plant in Perry, Iowa, shut down after 730 workers (58 percent of the plant's workforce) tested positive. New data from Johns Hopkins University shows that the virus spreads at more than twice the national rate in counties with major meatpacking plants. The United States now faces a meat shortage, a direct result of a broken food system – one that is built to reliably feed the bottom line of industrial agriculture at the expense of public health.
Despite the chaos, federal agencies’ responses seem to favor industry over worker and consumer health. In March, the Food and Drug Administration postponed in-person inspections at factories, canneries, and poultry farms, then in April gave a number of plants permission to increase the speed of their production lines. This means fewer inspectors overseeing the additional workers needed to keep up with the faster line. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also granted animal feeding operations a waiver on the number of animals allowed before being classified as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are regulated for pollution discharges. Meanwhile, the agricultural industry is using the pandemic to concentrate power in fewer, but larger, corporations. In March, the Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Department of Justice reversed a policy that strengthened oversight in some merger review processes.
If the specifics of the industry's latest maneuvers are new, the theme is achingly familiar to residents of the Delmarva Peninsula. They have long suffered from the harms of industrial agriculture. Over the past two decades, agriculture in the region has shifted from traditional, diversified family farming to an industrialized system of raising animals, especially poultry. A small number of powerful companies dictate how animals are raised, slaughtered, processed, and sold, and they bear no responsibility for the noxious gases, dust, or animal waste that threaten the health of communities and the streams and rivers of Chesapeake Bay watershed. Employees at two Eastern Shore poultry processing plants have also voiced their concerns about working conditions as their colleagues continue to test positive for the virus.
On May 26, CPR and our advocacy partners are hosting a virtual town hall event to discuss the latest research and insights on air and water pollution from industrial livestock operations and their impact on public health and the environment in the Delmarva region.
Monica Brooks, Wicomico County resident and co-founder of Concerned Citizens Against Industrial CAFOs (CCAIC), says, "Big Ag and its monopolizing system continues to place profit before the safety of its employees and the health of rural communities. Poor working conditions in factories and the shameless polluting of the air and water is unacceptable. It's time for this to stop! Sustainable agriculture is the only way forward." Join the webinar to hear Monica and other community members share their experiences living near these facilities and advocating for reforms. Policy experts will also discuss possible solutions to create a sustainable and resilient food system during COVID-19 and beyond.
We expect the event to be both interactive and informative, and we invite you to join us on May 26 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Eastern. You can register here.
Reporters interested in an online media briefing following the town hall should contact CPR Communications Director Brian Gumm. Both events are presented free of charge thanks to the generous support of the Town Creek Foundation.