US Meat Supply Faces Its Worst Crisis in 100 Years –
And How You Can Protect Your Family.
A Green Response to Covid-19 Meat Packing Plant Closures.
The Covid-19 pandemic laid bare many flaws in America’s systems. Our economic system could not even keep store shelves stocked with basic items like toilet paper. Other nations, including developing nations, were able to keep stores stocked just fine, which I wrote about previously. i Now our meat supply is breaking down. Meanwhile, American farmers are plowing crops under, allowing them to rot in the fields, smashing eggs, and dumping thousands of gallons of milk a day. ii,iii,iv,v All this happens while average Americans, unable to work from the pandemic, struggle to find enough food to eat. Millions of us wonder if there was any way to have prevented this?
The new crisis of the virus tearing through meat packing plants threatens the meat supply for millions of citizens. Most of us heard of a meat packing plant that had over 700 positive cases. Do you know which of the plants you read about? There were actually 2 plants, one in Wisconsin and the other in Iowa, that each had over 700 workers infected with the virus that were reported a day apart. vi,vii Chillingly, as Jonathon Sadowski’s Wisconsin article tells us, those are just the cases that we know about.
Packing plant closures are so numerous that Sosland Publishing, an influential publisher of several agricultural magazines, posted a map of plant closures viii on one of their websites. On that page, they quote an ad from John Tyson, chairman of Tyson foods, saying that “[t]he food supply chain is breaking.” The ad ran in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The meat shortage has become such a big issue that there is even a Wikipedia page about it. ix But it did not have to be this way.
This is where the 10 Key Values of Green Party’s show a path forward that our political leaders are too myopic to see. Greens support individual rights and autonomy, but we also understand those rights are abridged under any system that allows an elite few to amass power and horde wealth. In order to realize freedom and have the economic liberty and bargaining power that economists and jurists pretend we have, we must have a society that decentralizes power and gives it back to individual people. In order to that, we must have a more decentralized economy. Independence is impossible when power and wealth are only in the hands of a few. Here is the Green’s statement on decentralization from their 10 Key Values for context:
Centralization of wealth and power contributes to social and economic injustice, environmental destruction, and militarization. We seek a restructuring of social, political, and economic institutions away from a system controlled by and mostly benefiting the powerful few, to a democratic, less bureaucratic system. Decision-making should, as much as possible, remain at the individual and local level, while assuring that civil rights are protected for all.”
Don’t be misled, though, Greens are pro-business, support entrepreneurism, and call for an economic system “based on a combination of private businesses, decentralized democratic cooperatives, publicly owned enterprises, and alternative economic structures.” x This statement could be the basis of a book by itself, so let’s limit discussion to 2 basic points here. Number one, Greens put private enterprise first. We know that the best business ideas come from people that are passionate about building better things, whether a better mousetrap, a better social media app, or a better way to teach. It is only by supporting systems that decentralize power and give individuals autonomy — aka private, individual entrepreneurial people — that we can realize the best that American ingenuity has to offer. Number two, co-ops, public enterprises, and alternative economic structures are all things that exist in our system currently. Co-ops have a long history in the United States. xi Most utilities in America are either co-ops or public enterprises, so these are not new either. “Other alternative economic structures” refers to business organizations like Benefit Corporations, Low-Profit LLC’s (L3C’s), and Social Purpose Corporations, which all currently exist in the United States. xii,xiii,xiv We do not aim to stage a socialist overthrow but rather to unleash the power of American ingenuity to benefit everyone instead of just wealthy elites.
A quick disclaimer before we proceed. I do not speak for the US Green Party. I write this not because I support the Green Party, but because the Green Party supports a better life for all Americans. My views are my own and a few Green Party members would prefer a more vegetarian society. This article does not deal with vegetarianism. I hope, though, that any person reading this will see what I’m advocating for is not merely a better, more humane system for the people working in it but for the animals too.
Personally, as an old farm boy, I’m familiar with the independent nature of American farmers and entrepreneurs. We typically sold a bit less than half of our beef to private buyers. It would be slaughtered on the farm, then taken to a USDA inspected processing facility. It does require some extra freezer space to purchase this much meat at once, but that little problem could be ameliorated through a co-op, which is network of people joining together to assist each other with market problems. With modern apps and computing power, digital co-ops could easily become a reality to make this even easier.
If you’re unfamiliar with co-operative businesses, I’ve curated a list of short YouTube videos to help explain how it works. A short description accompanies each. Just click the link to view.
A quick little history of the first co-op.
This video explains the 7 cooperative principles that were first articulated by the Rochdale Pioneers.
Introduction to c0-ops and how common they are.
This video shows differences that you would experience as a consumer/member of a co-op.
Video distinguishes co-ops from other types of companies interms of business structure.
This video shows the differences of co-ops from an employee/small business owner’s point of view.
Farmers like us are notoriously independent, so our arrangement to sell beef straight from the farm is great. It cuts out the middle man and gives a better deal to both the consumer and producer. Further, our butcher doesn’t have to work so fast that his health is put at risk, unlike modern slaughterhouses in America where an average of 2 amputations per week occur. xv And that was before Covid turned them into even more literal death traps. xvi Our butcher is an independent businessman providing a valuable service. As two independent parties with equal bargaining power, we can actually negotiate prices fairly, so that neither is taken advantage of by the other. This is the type of economic agency that American jurisprudence, aka the law, blindly assumes we have, but which cannot exist in large factories where, absent very strong union advocacy, the bargaining power of any individual is almost exclusively held by management alone.
only one of them actually has the option…..
Photo Credit: Martin Vorel
Our cattle aren't held in a CAFO 1 either. They have room to run and play, and, yes, they do play. They also really like fresh lambs quarter and apples from a nearby heritage tree. They have hay to eat, not only grain that causes digestive problems in cattle. xvii, xviii
For those slaughtered on the farm, they don't take the scary trailer ride to the market and then to the slaughterhouse. (They are not harmed in the trailer, it is just strange for them and that is scary for an animal.) The steer is led out of the pen, away from the herd, and the butcher puts him down with a single shot to the head. The animal usually drops before we even hear the gunshot — it's that quick. Death is unpleasant, but the steer never knows it. It's a kind way to go.
I’ve been working overseas the last few years, but when I was last in the states, normal hamburger, not the premium extra lean, was selling for about $2 a pound. At the time, we sold our beef for slightly less than that, about $1.75 or so. After processing and packing, it was still under $2.50 per pound for premium quality beef. That included all the premium steak cuts too. Consumers are not saving money in this industrialized agriculture system.
Those arent ethe only benefits for the consumer when they purchase outside of the industiral agriculture setting. Our animals aren’t force fed antibiotics either, which contributes to dangerous antibiotic resistant bacteria. xix So it's not that the current system is actually that efficient, it's just that we've allowed certain corporations to monopolize the system to their benefit and at everyone else’s expense. This centralized system has now put the nation's food supply at risk while becoming a literal threat to the lives of their workers, their families, and anyone else they come into contact with. But it did not have to be this way.
In large plants, it is cheaper to hire a company lawyer to litigate workman’s compensation claims than to just slow the lines down to a safe speed. In a smaller plant, the workers are less likely to be mere numbers and more likely to actually know the company owners. Owners who know their employees are more likely to encourage safer working conditions because of the human connection. If the plant is a co-op, then it is likely to be even safer because the owners are the employees. Higher safety standards also benefits the people who buy and eat the meat.
decentralized meat supply system would also
mean supporting local business people instead
of CEO’s in the top 1% of income earners.
The meat packagers
would work in smaller plants, like
the local USDA inspected processing plant where we send our beef.
they followed the co-operative model, the employees themselves could
pool the money needed to create these smaller, safer decentralized
meat processing plants. Since the co-op model allows workers to pool
their resources for smaller companies, large bank loans often aren’t
needed to get started. This would allow America to decentralize and
protect our food supply. On top of that, it would give access to the American dream of owning one's own business to more people.
Neither would a decentralized system need cynically named “right to work” laws that prohibit employee’s free association. These laws exist only to keep employees from forming unions, which breaks every employee's bargaining strength with the employer. By limiting employee rights in this authoritarian manner, the system allows factory owners to speed up the lines, ignore safety, continue hiring undocumented immigrants, and mistreat them all because the employees must fear for their families’ economic livelihood if they speak up. For people that dislike unions, they should remember that the best organizer for a union is a bad boss. 2 Smaller factories, where management and owners must see each other more frequently, would help labor relations without the need for draconian anti-worker and anti-liberty laws.
Under a decentralized meat supply system, a plant with a disease outbreak like Covid-19 could be closed without threatening the meat supply nationally or even locally because other small plants without outbreaks could pick up some or all of the slack until the plant could be properly cleaned and reopened. Outbreaks of salmonella or e. coli would be limited to regions of a state instead of extending through the entire nation.
In contrast to the Green-advocated system that gives people more control over their lives, the system we have places not just employees but the entire nation at risk. In response to the massive COVID-19 outbreaks, Mr. Trump signed an executive order xx forcing workers back into meatpacking plants that we already know are unsafe and function as super-spreaders of COVID-19. On top of that, the Trump administration is set to implement a new regulation that will allow meatpacking plants to speed up their poultry lines by 25%. xxi It wasn’t possible to practice proper social distancing in these plants before, and this move will ensure that workers are forced into each other’s personal spaces even more as they scramble to keep up with ever more unsafe work conditions. Don’t worry though, as Trump claims his executive order will shield the company owners from liability 3 in the event that they do not provide proper protective equipment or safety practices, a move that is controversial and probably unconstitutional. xxii,xxiii
Mother Jones and ProPublica reports that not only did the meat industry not bother to take care of their employee’s safety, but they actively lobbied the Trump administration for the executive order that forced employees back into those unsafe conditions. xxiv The industry lobbyists weren’t discussing how to keep the employees safe from the virus in those emails. They were not discussing how to keep the community at large safe from the rapidly spreading virus either. They did, however, make sure to stress the importance of keeping the plants running. They made sure to protect the company’s bottom line while putting the rest of the nation at risk. That would not happen in a co-operative where the people making the business decisions are also the same people doing the work and who live in the community.
The meat processing industry says it employs about 420,000 processing workers. xxv As of September 11, over 42,000 meatpackers have contracted COVID-19 and over 200 have died, according to investigative reporting by Leah Douglas at TheFern.org. xxvi That means our nation's meat packers have suffered over 14 September 11th attacks from the virus, but the corporate chiefs are still more concerned with profit than human lives. Contrast the meat processors 10% infection rate with that of the nation as a whole. Even with our horrific numbers, the 6.6 million cases in the US is still only about 2% of the whole population. Our nation’s meat processors are 5 times more likely to contract the virus than anyone else.
It is worth taking a moment to ask if this actually reflects American values? They are paid poorly because of the anti-freedom, employer domination we allow in the workplace. Given the dearth of available jobs (especially now during the pandemic), they face complete financial ruin if they should stand up for their health and safety. These workers never signed up for forced labor just so someone else could eat a hamburger. Making matters worse, none of their suffering and death was necessary. It is the result of choices made by our nation’s leaders.
For those that actually believe in capitalism and freedom, a decentralized system that allows employees to openly discuss problems and advocate for safer working conditions would allow the public to pick the winners and losers. This is in stark contrast to our current system where billions have been given to the stock market directly, billions more to failing businesses, and nearly nothing to average people. xxvii By allowing workers the freedom to bring safety problems to light, we empower them and the public – which is the market – to actually make informed choices. People would be free to refuse to do business with plants that mistreat workers and create conditions where misery and disease thrive. This would not merely give us more just and safer workplaces, but a safer supply of food too.
Without decentralizing our meat supply, America’s food system remains at risk, and the major parties are not even considering the idea. This should be particularly damning when you consider that the very idea of our American Constitution was created to decentralize power in order to provide more accountability and liberty to the people. Consider how many stores and localities are affected with any disease outbreak in the meat supply system. Every outbreak places multiple cities across multiple states at risk – that’s millions of people. Why is it a good idea to decentralize government power, but we can put all the eggs of our food supply in a single basket? With decentralization, we ensure safer food and more prosperity for more Americans.
We should look to more than just the color of our political team’s logo when we vote. That has led to multiple elections where the proffered policies are pathetic and turnout almost never rises above 55% because so many people see that those policies will not improve their lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the flaws in our nation’s policies that allow the constant consolidation of wealth and power at everyone else’s expense. Not only has this centralization harmed people’s economic opportunities and liberty, they now threaten our national defense and food supply.
In contrast, Green policies have real world consequences that improve everyone’s right to health, safety, and allow the pursuit of happiness. No other party is calling for decentralization as part of their platform. The Democratic party platform does not even have the word decentralization in it. xxviii The Republicans declined to even offer a platform, and instead decided to become a full-blown cult of personality by not even drafting a new platform for 2020. xxix The Green Party is the only viable political party in America that cites decentralization in its Key Values. If values and policy matter to you too, then we invite you to check out the Green Party USA’s 10 Key Values and their policy platform, which all derive from their 4 Pillars of Peace, Ecology, Justice, and Democracy. If these values and policies resonate with you, then we invite you to also check out our 2020 presidential and VP nominees and vote for Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker this November. xxx
If you’ve never checked out the Green Party before, I’d suggest you start with the Green Party’s 4 Pillars. The 4 Pillars takes about 30 seconds to read. The 4 Pillars are supported by the Green Party’s 10 Key Values, which takes about 5 – 10 minutes to read through. The Green Party Platform takes the 4 Pillars and 10 Key Values and puts them into specific policies that we advocate, but it’s nearly 70 pages, so it will take a bit longer to read.
As always, thank you for taking the time to read. Feel free to leave comments below and share on your favoriite social media platform. (There are social media buttons the top of the page.) I also write satire because I'd rather laugh at our nations inept leaders than cry. One of my newest and a couple of my most popular pieces are linked below.
1CAFO = Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation; These are the feedlots where animals are packed with little room to move or play. They are considered maltreatment by many people. https://www.google.co.th/search?q=CAFO&authuser=0&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiOhImf3d7rAhXSfn0KHfd3A6AQ_AUoAXoECBgQAw&biw=1536&bih=750
2My labor law professor, who handled cases on for both management and labor, said that repeatedly.
3In this article from LittleVillageMag.com, the author interviews Christopher Leonard, himself the author of The Meat Racket, who states bluntly that this threat is due to consolditation in the meat industry. The need for decentralization could not be clearer.
I am not delving too far into Mr. Cariello and Mr. Matthews’
analysis as it’s too far outside the scope of this
xxvThe PDF says 500,000 workers, but I am using the numbers they provide as those are the people we are actually discussing. https://www.meatinstitute.org/index.php?ht=a/GetDocumentAction/i/82885