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Last week, President Donald Trump effectively forced meatpacking plants around the country to remain open during the pandemic by signing an executive order designating them as “critical infrastructure.” Interestingly, the president has declined to use the same justification to speed the production of coronavirus tests and personal protective equipment.
The industry always keeps plenty of meat in frozen storage, and because of restaurant closures we are going through this supply less quickly. Thus, the choice to keep meatpacking plants open is not attributable to the “critical” nature of the meat industry. Rather, it is more likely due to a deep-seated association between eating meat and our national identity. After all, America consumes more meat per capita than any other country. Even before this pandemic, our habits had negative consequences for animals, the environment, our public health, and workers in processing plants — but the virus might be worsening the effects. So, in times like these, rethinking that association may be necessary for our collective well-being.
For months, coronavirus has been spreading around meat processing plants, leading a few of them to close. To date, thousands of meatpacking workers have tested positive, and over a dozen have died. Even before the virus, meatpacking was a difficult job. Workers toil in factories described as crowded and unsafe; conditions are so harsh that it often leads to permanent physical disability. These workers also disproportionately come from vulnerable immigrant communities that might already be more susceptible to the virus.
The animals in these plants are also a source of concern. It’s no secret that the American meat industry doesn’t value animal welfare. The scenes from factory farms are truly awful — cattle raised in contained animal feeding operations, chickens bred to have breasts so large that they can no longer stand. Animals larger than humans are forced to spend most of their lives in darkness, confined to a few feet of space. Under ordinary circumstances, the lives of factory farm animals are miserable and short.
And this situation is deteriorating further due to the virus. Because processing has slowed, there are now a lot of animals with nowhere to go. Thus, farmers are left with no choice but to kill the animals en masse. Aside from the obvious waste, what’s troubling is that animals might actually suffer more in these methods of extermination than they would otherwise. Chickens, for example, are essentially drowned by filling barns with watery foam. In the coming weeks, millions of animals will be slaughtered not for consumption, but to make room for others.
These meat carcasses, disturbingly enough, might just be dumped in landfills. As their bodies decay, they will release massive quantities of methane and carbon dioxide, directly contributing to climate change. Food waste worsens the meat industry’s already severe environmental impact, and in a scenario where slaughterhouses are operating at 50 percent capacity, that seems likely to increase.
Another frequently underestimated consequence of the meat industry is its propensity for creating and spreading disease. This isn’t strictly limited to meatpacking plants themselves, though sickness has been known to spread quickly in such conditions. Rampant antibiotic use and the crowded and unsanitary state of farms also means that disease can quickly evolve and spread among animals — and even make the leap to humans. Antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and zoonotic diseases flourish in our factory farms. The Food and Agriculture Organization, a branch of the United Nations, has warned about the health dangers of industrial agriculture before. As far as we know, coronavirus didn’t come from animal agriculture, but it’s worth highlighting that deadly pathogens often come from animals. The way we raise our food is unnecessarily contributing to an increased risk that another pandemic will emerge in the future.
There’s an obvious solution to these problems: Eat less meat, and choose the meat you do eat more carefully. Doing right by workers, animals, and the environment doesn’t necessitate vegetarianism, though it probably means scaling back consumption. When possible, we should purchase ethically-raised meat from smaller farms, and support retailers and farmers who participate in responsible agriculture. Moreover, we should make a deliberate effort to eat meat less often. If the rest of the world is any indication, we can survive perfectly well with a few more vegetables. The way we eat meat is unsustainable; the pandemic is just making that irresponsibility more obvious.
Rebecca E.J. Cadenhead ‘23 lives in Canaday Hall. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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