The Essentials: How We’re Killing the People Who Feed Us

The industry practice of making hundreds of workers stand close together at a production line—with sharp knives and a fast line speed—endangers not only their safety, but also food safety and public health.

a photo of a man holding a box of hamburgers
Tommaso Boddi/Getty

Under the headline “A Delicate Balance: Feeding the Nation and Keeping Our Employees Healthy,” a letter from John H. Tyson appeared as a full-page ad in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sunday, April 26. Tyson is chairman of the board at Tyson Foods, the largest American-owned meatpacking company, and the grandson of its founder. “In small communities around the country, where we employ over 100,000 hard-working men and women, we’re being forced to shutter our doors,” he wrote. “This means one thing—the food supply chain is vulnerable.” He raised the prospect that millions of animals would have to be “depopulated” and that only a “limited supply of our products” would be available if Tyson had to close its slaughterhouses.

What John Tyson failed to mention is that meatpacking plants, along with prisons, had become the nation’s leading hot spots for the spread of COVID-19 infections. Thousands of meatpacking workers had fallen ill, many had died, and local health departments were considering whether to shut down plants operated by the industry giants: Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield Foods, and JBS USA. Two days after the publication of Tyson’s letter, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that declared meatpacking plants to be “critical infrastructure” under the Defense Production Act of 1950—and prohibited their closure by state health authorities. The order provided meatpacking companies with a legal defense from liability claims by their employees. But it failed to impose any federal rules on how those companies must protect workers from outbreaks of COVID-19 at meatpacking plants.

By issuing that order, Trump helped an industry that has long been a strong supporter of the Republican Party. He reduced the likelihood that meat prices would greatly increase in the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election. And he confirmed what critics of the large meatpackers have said for years: Some of these companies care more about profits than the lives of their workers, the well-being of the communities where they operate, and the health of the American people. Adding insult to injury, Kim Reynolds, the governor of Iowa—where major outbreaks of COVID-19 have been linked to meatpacking plants—announced that slaughterhouse employees who refuse to show up for work will be ineligible for unemployment benefits. While running for governor, Reynolds accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funding from donors close to the meat industry.

One line in John Tyson’s letter stood out to me: “Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority.” A few weeks earlier, Andre Nogueira, the president of JBS, commenting on an outbreak of COVID-19 at a JBS slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colorado, said that his company’s first priority, “is our team members’ safety.” Not long afterward, Keira Lombardo, executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance at Smithfield, said, “The health and safety of our employees is our top priority at all times.” Following the release of Trump’s executive order, Julie Anna Potts, president of the North American Meat Institute, joined the chorus: “The safety of the heroic men and women working in the meat and poultry industry is the first priority.”

Anyone who’s spent time in an American meatpacking community would find those assertions laughable, if the truth weren’t so tragic and heartbreaking.

Left: Employees butcher pork at a Smithfield Foods pork-processing facility in Milan, Missouri. Right: A Tyson Foods employee puts on a second protective mask outside of the company's meat-processing plant, which has been hit by a COVID-19 outbreak, in Waterloo, Iowa. (Daniel Acker / Bloomberg / Getty; Jeffrey Becker / USA Today / Reuters

In recent weeks, workers at Tyson, JBS, and Smithfield haven’t felt like their safety was a top priority. Before the widespread publicity about outbreaks at meatpacking plants, they’d routinely been denied face masks, social distancing, paid sick leave—and information about the number of COVID-19 infections in their workplace.

“Until someone dies, all these mediocre measures are being taken,” Billy Williams, a union steward at a Tyson pork plant in Logansport, Indiana, told the Pharos Tribune. “I’d rather have somebody go without their bacon and have my coworkers alive.”

Crystal Rodriguez, a single mother with four children who works at the JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, expressed frustration in an interview with CPR News. “I’m kind of angry because I don’t understand why everybody’s lives are being put at risk just to make the product,” she said about policies at the slaughterhouse, where six workers have died and more than 200 have been sickened with COVID-19. “There’s never any soap in the bathroom so we can wash our hands.” She later tested positive for the virus—and Sergio Rodriguez, her 58-year-old father, also an employee at the JBS plant, has spent nearly a month in the intensive-care unit at a local hospital, fighting COVID-19.

When asked about Rodriguez’s accusations, Nikki Richardson, a spokesperson for JBS, responded that the absence of soap, if true, would have been a violation of company policy, which requires that “all sanitizing and cleaning supplies are readily available at all times.” Richardson added that employees must now wear surgical masks on company property at all times, that JBS does not want sick employees coming to work, that it will not punish absences for health reasons, and that workers afraid for their health can call the company and receive unpaid sick leave. “Throughout this pandemic, the health and safety of our team members has been and remains our highest priority,” Richardson wrote to me in an email.

Under the pseudonym “Jane Doe,” a worker at a Smithfield pork plant in Milan, Missouri, joined a lawsuit against the company on April 23. She wasn’t seeking any money—she wanted a court order that would force Smithfield to obey coronavirus guidance from public-health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I am afraid for my health and safety,” she said in the lawsuit, “as well as the health and safety of people I am in contact with, and the larger community because of the way in which Smithfield is managing the plant in response to COVID-19.” On May 5, U.S. District Judge Greg Kays dismissed the lawsuit. Appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, Kays wrote that Smithfield had taken significant steps to protect workers and that two federal agencies, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, were responsible for ensuring compliance with guidelines. Kays also absolved the company: “No one can guarantee health for essential workers—or even the general public—in the middle of this global pandemic.”

Smithfield said after the ruling: “From the start, we stated that this lawsuit was frivolous, full of specious allegations that were without factual or legal merit, and that the assertions were based on speculation, hearsay, anonymous declarations, and outdated information. This was nothing more than an attempt by a number of interconnected groups to promote their agenda through outrageous accusations.”

When I inquired about Smithfield’s overall response to the coronavirus, a publicist replied by sending links to the company’s website.

Cargill did not respond to a request for comment.

Gary Mickelson, the director of media relations at Tyson, told me in an email that workers who test positive for COVID-19 now remain on sick leave until they are no longer contagious and will receive 90 percent of their normal pay until June 30.  Moreover, Tyson has “put in place enhanced safety precautions and installed protective social distancing measures throughout all facilities.” He also disputed the notion that Tyson plants have become hot spots for COVID-19, suggesting that the high rate of testing at its facilities offers a misleading basis of comparison. Rates of infection may be comparable or higher elsewhere, though undetected. “The health and safety of our team members, their families, and communities is our top priority,” Mickelson wrote.

Mickelson’s suggestion that higher rates of testing at Tyson plants have created a misperception about them—not higher rates of COVID-19—does not correspond to the facts. At the Tyson pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, more than one-third of the workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Based on recent antibody testing, that rate is about 50 percent higher than the proportion of people in New York City, the epicenter of the national outbreak, who have been sickened by the disease.

In conservative circles, a different argument has emerged: Meatpacking workers are responsible for their own illnesses. “Living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family,” a Smithfield spokesperson told BuzzFeed News—a comment that the company later disavowed. Wisconsin Chief Justice Patience Roggensack dismissed the spread of COVID-19 in Brown County, Wisconsin, home to a JBS plant, saying the workers who’d fallen ill weren’t “regular folks.” According to Politico, Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, told a group of lawmakers that workers were unlikely to be infected at meatpacking plants and that their “home and social” habits were spreading the virus. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem may have been the first Republican to express that view publicly. “We believe that 99 percent of what’s going on today wasn’t happening inside the facility,” Noem told Fox News on April 13, while discussing an outbreak at a Smithfield pork plant where hundreds of workers had tested positive. “It was more at home, where these employees were going home and spreading some of the virus, because a lot of these folks that work at this plant live in the same community, the same building, sometimes the same apartments.”

However compelling that argument may seem to the industry, it does not explain why three USDA food-safety inspectors who oversee meatpacking plants have died from COVID-19, and almost 200 have been sickened. Of course, it’s possible that their home and social habits were not “regular.” A more likely explanation is that, in the early days of the pandemic, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service not only failed to give protective equipment to its inspectors, but also prohibited them from wearing masks inside meatpacking plants—concerned that the wrong message might be sent about the risk of COVID-19. On April 9, the agency said that inspectors could wear masks on the job, if the meatpacking company that owned the plant gave them permission to do so. Inspectors were encouraged to find their own masks and promised a $50 reimbursement for “the purchase of face coverings or materials to make face coverings.” One month later, after meatpacking plants had been widely criticized as hot spots for spreading COVID-19, the USDA finally began to provide masks to its inspectors. “The safety and well-being of our employees is our top priority,” a USDA spokesman said.

Packages of beef are displayed for sale in a California grocery store (Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg / Getty)

More than 20 years ago, a former meatpacking worker in Amarillo, Texas, told me the priority more important than anything else at an American slaughterhouse, the priority that still comes first today: “The chain will not stop.” When a plant is up and running, fully staffed, the more meat it can process that day, the more profitable it will be. The speed of production and the amount of revenue are inextricably linked. Whenever possible, worker injuries aren’t allowed to slow the throughput. “I’ve seen bleeders, and they’re gushing because they got hit [by a knife] right in the vein, and I mean, they’re almost passing out,” she said, “and here comes the supply guy again, with the bleach, to clean the blood off the floor, but the chain never stops. It never stops.”

The industry practice of making hundreds of workers stand close together at a production line—with sharp knives and a fast line speed—endangers not only their safety, but also food safety and public health. If mistakes are made, workers can get hurt, and meat can get contaminated. The huge processing facilities run by America’s meatpacking companies are excellent vectors for spreading lethal strains of E. coli, antibiotic-resistant Salmonella, antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, and now COVID-19.

Nevertheless, much to the industry’s delight, the Trump administration has let the number of inspectors at OSHA fall to the lowest level in almost half a century. According to the National Employment Law Project, more than 40 percent of the top leadership positions at OSHA are currently unfilled. Last September, the USDA reduced food-safety inspections at some pork plants and gave them permission to increase maximum line speeds. The National Pork Producers Council hailed the changes and claimed that their impact would be “enhancing safety, quality, and consistency.” While the coronavirus spread through American slaughterhouses last month, the USDA introduced a similar program that will enable Tyson and other poultry companies to speed up the production line at their slaughterhouses as well.

Meatpacking companies don’t want their workers to be injured or sickened on the job. But they also don’t want to spend the money necessary to reduce the extraordinary rate of those injuries and illnesses. And they especially don’t want to pay the health-care costs of injured workers. A 2015 investigation by ProPublica found that for the past few decades, Tyson has led a nationwide effort to make it harder for workers hurt on the job to receive benefits from workers’-compensation plans:

Tyson self-insures, meaning it pays nearly all of its claims from its own pocket. When workers are injured, they’re usually sent to a Tyson nurse at the plant. Their claims are processed by Tyson adjusters. And in many states, the company even has its own managed-care unit, handpicking the doctors that workers can see and advising those doctors on light-duty jobs injured employees might be able to do.

In Texas, where private employers are not required to carry workers’-compensation insurance, Tyson has opted out of the state system completely.

When a worker gets injured at the Tyson beef slaughterhouse in Amarillo, Texas, in order to get medical care from the company, that person must first sign a document saying:

I hereby voluntarily release, waive, and forever give up all my rights, claims, and causes of action, whether now existing or arising in the future, that I may have against the company, Tyson Foods, Inc., and their parent, subsidiary and affiliated companies and all of their officers, directors, owners, employees, and agents that arise out of or are in any way related to injuries (including a subsequent or resulting death) sustained in the course of my employment with the company.

If the injured worker doesn’t sign the waiver, that person can be fired—and has to file a lawsuit against Tyson to get any payments for medical bills. It’s a fight that an immigrant worker is unlikely to win against a multinational corporation with annual revenues of about $40 billion. The Texas legislature passed a law in 2005 giving injured workers 10 days to decide whether to sign such a waiver and hand over total control of their health care to their employer. Before that law was passed, meatpacking workers were sometimes asked to sign a waiver immediately after an injury. The pressure to sign was enormous. When a worker named Duane Mullin had both of his hands crushed in a hammer mill at the Amarillo slaughterhouse now owned by Tyson, a manager employed by its previous owner persuaded him to sign the waiver with a pen held in his teeth.

“Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority” belongs in the same category of plausibility as Trump’s remark that “we did all the right moves” in handling the coronavirus pandemic—and Jared Kushner’s description of the federal government’s response to COVID-19 as a “great success story.” A few facts offer a useful perspective. South Korea detected its first case of COVID-19 on January 20, and the United States detected its first case the following day. According to the latest figures, 695 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Seoul, which has a population of 9.8 million. And 890 workers have tested positive at the Tyson pork plant in Logansport—more than one-third of the 2,200 workers at the plant.

Some grocery stores are now limiting how much meat customers can purchase, and Wendy’s has been running out of ground beef. These shortages hardly qualify as a national emergency. During the Second World War, government rationing limited weekly meat purchases to about two pounds a person. Today the typical American consumes about twice that amount every week. If the Greatest Generation could defeat Nazi Germany and the empire of Japan on a smaller ration of meat, we can certainly eat less of it for the time being to spare the lives of meatpacking workers and their communities.

Cattle ranchers, hog farmers, and poultry growers deserve compensation for the livestock being euthanized because of the slowdowns at slaughterhouses. But the coronavirus isn’t responsible for the problem. Hogs can live six to eight years in the wild, and twice as long when they’re domesticated. The fact that hundreds of thousands may have to be culled and discarded is one more sign that our centralized, industrialized food system isn’t sustainable, lacks resilience, defies logic, and must be transformed.

Gettysburg was the deadliest battle of the Civil War. Over the course of three days in July 1863, almost 8,000 Confederate and Union soldiers were killed. The number of American deaths attributed to COVID-19 was about 8,500 over the course of two days this April. President Abraham Lincoln wrote an incomparably beautiful and powerful speech to honor the fallen at Gettysburg, urging that “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” A similar commitment should be made on behalf of the roughly 80,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19 since late January. Those Americans have been disproportionately elderly, poor, and people of color, too often working at low-paying jobs deemed necessary for the rest of us: meatpacking worker, restaurant worker, farmworker, delivery person, grocery clerk.

Here are the essential things that we must achieve, the very least we must do to give those deaths meaning and take care of the people who feed us:

A minimum wage that’s a living wage for all workers, at least $15 an hour—and elimination of the subminimum wage for restaurant workers, which can be as low as $2.13 an hour. Health insurance for every single American. A safe workplace and fair compensation for every worker injured, sickened, or sexually harassed on the job.

An accident is when you walk down the street, step on a banana peel, slip, and hurt your back. When thousands of meatpacking workers are suffering the same kind of amputations, lacerations, and cumulative-trauma injuries every year, those aren’t industrial accidents. They’re a business decision. Large fines should be imposed for workplace injuries, and criminal charges should be filed against the executives who consistently ignore them.

Protection of the right to organize labor unions in every state and in every workplace, including at the franchised restaurants controlled by McDonald’s and the other fast-food chains.

Food free from contamination and adulteration, guaranteed by a food-safety system that hasn’t been privatized. The federal government should severely punish companies that knowingly spread dangerous, antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

Strict antitrust enforcement that will rid the food system of monopoly and monopsony power, ensure competition, and encourage the innovation that free-market forces produce. And amnesty for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States, the backbone of our food system, who must be given a pathway toward legal status.

Those are the essentials, and many more necessary reforms can be added to them.

Family members of Saul Sanchez, Ja BS USA meatpacking-plant employee, guide his casket at his funeral after he died of COVID-19, in Greeley, Colorado. (Jim Urquhart / Reuters)

“We are living in a failed state,” George Packer eloquently argued in The Atlantic recently, outlining the many ways our political culture and governmental institutions have been corrupted. But in at least one respect, the exercise of power is now remarkably efficient and effective. As the efforts of the meatpacking industry demonstrate, to paraphrase Lincoln, today we have a government of big corporations, by big corporations, for big corporations. And if we don’t take action, and protest, and organize, and make sure to vote this November, that’s what it will remain.