Last month, news emerged that 75 workers at the Banham poultry processing plant in Norfolk had tested positive for Covid-19. Tragically, this was just one in a series of outbreaks in meat processing plants in the UK and beyond. In Canada, a staggering 391 workers at Winnipeg’s Cargill meat processing plant contracted the virus before operations were suspended, while in the US meat processing plants were linked to 17,000 cases in April and May alone, according to the Centre for Disease Control.
The reasons for these outbreaks are complex, with cold factory temperatures and close worker proximity possible contributing factors. However, these conditions alone don’t explain the number and severity of recent outbreaks associated with meat processing. As journalist India Bourke recently outlined, there exists a “general disregard for regulation and welfare” in the industry worldwide, not only for basic labour and safety regulations, but also with respect to the extensively documented physical and mental health consequences associated with meat-packing.
There is a clear chain linking these outbreaks with the wider disregard for welfare that has long plagued the industry: a steep imbalance of power between corporations and workers enabling conditions of exploitation. For instance, in a recent Unite survey of an overwhelmingly migrant-staffed plant suffering a Covid-19 outbreak, 2/3rds of staff said that they had come to work while feeling unwell, and closer to 70% reported that they could not afford to take time off and lose pay as a result. These findings reflect broadly on an industry in which 62% of workers in meat processing plants are EU27 nationals, and say they are treated by their corporate employers as “disposable assets.”
The outbreaks in Norfolk and beyond serve as a harrowing reminder that socialists should care about industrial meat production. However, the relationship between intensive livestock farming and Covid-19 outbreaks is just one item in a lengthy and longstanding list of problems associated with the industry.
From an environmental perspective, livestock production is a catastrophic problem, contributing 14.5% of global anthropogenic emissions while consuming 40% of habitable land and driving unfathomable levels of deforestation, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. 60% of mammalian life on the planet is now comprised of livestock, with just 4% made up by wild species. And although Chinese ‘wet markets’ have been the target of frequent criticism following the Covid-19 outbreak, the reality is that new zoonotic illnesses, alongside growing antibiotic resistance, are far more related to industrial animal agriculture and associated deforestation.
The psychological toll of work in industrial slaughterhouses has been extensively documented, and the industry has a long record of poor worker welfare, particularly for migrant and undocumented workers, who often have no recourse in the case of mistreatment or violations of their rights. In the US, poultry producers have used prisoners and unpaid participants in addiction treatment programmes for labour. The industry’s global supply chains are also linked to violence and threats against indigenous peoples.
And the its power is growing: over the past several decades, livestock production and processing has become increasingly concentrated – with one US hedge fund manager recently blaming the meat processing ‘oligopoly’ for poor supply chain resilience to the shocks of Covid-19 – and corporate giants like Tyson Foods have come to wield immense influence and lobbying power.
Despite this, the Left, with notable recent exceptions, has often failed to engage with the question of industrial livestock production. In my own experience, this has stemmed from an understandable wariness of slipping into debates about lifestyle choices, particularly with respect to the climate crisis. There is also concern that the changes needed risk compromising jobs or impacting the cost of living when the working class has been pummeled by a decade of austerity and multiple economic crises.
As a result, the issue has largely fallen to surface-level debates over the merits of vegan alternatives and ‘ethical’ consumption. And while there is nothing wrong with opting for Quorn nuggets, allowing individual moralism to remain the frame through which tackling the livestock industry is debated will never create the change needed, and neglects the various cultural and economic nuances behind our consumption of meat.
Rather, tackling the meat industry should be understood as every bit as structural and systemic as the challenges relating to fossil fuels. The question of the decline of any industry that provides significant employment, or where transition risks placing a burden on the working class, is a complex one. Meat processing provides 97,000 jobs in the UK alone, and intensively produced meat – in large part owing to millions in annual subsidies – is often a cheap dietary staple.
By comparison, Oil & Gas UK estimates that some 34,000 people are directly employed in oil and gas production, with several hundred thousand jobs associated with the industry more broadly. As with meat production, these jobs are often highly geographically concentrated, with entire communities structured around the infrastructure.
Much like fossil fuel use, this issue is also one of inequality: there are clear correlations between rising incomes and rising meat consumption, and wealthy countries consume significantly more meat on average than poorer countries. Yet it is poorer countries who are on the frontlines not only of emission-fueled climate breakdown, but also of the environmental degradation associated with industrial livestock production.
Much like ‘Big Oil,’ the global livestock industry is dominated by vast and powerful firms, whose power must be challenged. In the same way that the Left has come to champion a just transition for the fossil fuel industry, we must question industrial meat production and the commodification of the natural world. But we must also demand justice for the people who are exploited in the process of doing so; workers who have been particularly let down during this crisis.
Over one hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle made the socialist case against the intensive livestock industry; today, as we grapple with a global pandemic in the midst of an accelerating climate emergency, that case is more urgent than ever.