Watch: Low-Tech Meatpacking Hit by Epidemic, Shutdowns

workplace food industry - factory butchery for the production of sausages - butcher cuts meat
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Tyson Foods is shutting down its giant meatpacking plant in Waterloo, Iowa, spotlighting another economic loss to the Chinese coronavirus epidemic.

“The closure has significant ramifications beyond our company, since the plant is part of a larger supply chain that includes hundreds of independent farmers, truckers, distributors and customers, including grocers,” said Steve Stouffer, group president of Tyson Fresh Meats, which is part of Tyson Foods. “It means the loss of a vital market outlet for farmers and further contributes to the disruption of the nation’s pork supply.”

The shutdown of the 2,800-person plant follows the prior closure of China-owned Smithfield Foods’ 3,700-person plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and of JBS’s 3,000-person plant in Greeley, Colorado. These disease-caused shutdowns will prevent many farm companies from delivering their hogs to the meatpackers, causing much economic pain to the farm companies who need the meatpacking checks to fund the next generations of pigs.

The meatpacking business is a tough, competitive, and low-profit sector. For example, Tyson’s annual profit is roughly $2 billion on $40 billion in sales. This financial pressure pushes top managers to rely on cheap, disposable labor — often legal refugees and illegal migrants — instead of investing in labor-saving technology that would be built and operated by a smaller number of well-paid Americans.

The situation is very different in Europe, where fewer migrants and high payroll costs pressure the companies to invest in robots and other automation. The result is that fewer people are needed to run meatpacking plants, which reduces the shutdown risk created by China’s disease.

For example, Danish Crown, a European meatpacker, uses many robots at the beginning and end of its pig-processing line, and it also gives more space to the skilled meat-cutters who carefully slice up pieces of meat to maximize revenues.

In contrast, this video of a Smithfield Foods line includes fewer machines and more workers — mostly migrants — throughout the process. Both firms use a non-violent method to anesthetize the pigs at the start:

BuzzFeed provided a glimpse of the Smithfield process in South Dakota:

On April 10, Michael Bul Gayo Gatluak, a 22-year-old immigrant from South Sudan, clocked in at the hog kill department on the sixth floor. His job requires him to stand for hours on a platform “really, really close” to other workers along the production line where pig carcasses are chopped. “The job is so heavy,” he said. “You have to breathe so hard.” When he got home that night, he started feeling ill. He said he tested positive for COVID-19 three days later.

Over the week following the first confirmed case at the plant, workers continued to dine in the cafeteria as normal. To keep production flowing seamlessly on all floors, crews synchronized their breaks based on their position on the processing line: On each floor, a team of workers would take lunch once they finished a batch and passed it down to the next team. They filed through hallways and staircases, joining teams from other floors in the sixth-floor cafeteria, which is mostly staffed by immigrants from Latin American countries. Gatluak found the meals delicious, he said: “Every day we get something new.” Three employees estimated that at least 200 people from various floors would be in the cafeteria at any given time.

One of around 50 workers at the plant that day, [a different worker] deboned ham in the basement freezer and filled in on several other jobs to make up for the reduced staff. Though most of the plant had shut down, his department was near the end of the processing line, just before the meat was packed and loaded. Operations would continue until all the meat in stock had made its way through the system and into the trucks.

This cheap-labor strategy seems to allow Smithfield to divert a greater share of the workplace revenues to its shareholders than it does Danish Crown — not counting epidemics.

In Australia, the meatpacking companies spend more money on high-tech automation to remain competitive with low-wage meatpackers in nearby Asian countries:

Smithfield’s U.S.-region executives say they need to push through the disease — and are not touting automation as a fix.

The chief executive of Smithfield Foods said the U.S. could not allow coronavirus cases to derail meat industry operations, as plant shutdowns across the country cut into food production, the Wall Street Journal reported, adding:

Elected officials and the public must recognize meatpacking plants as infrastructure critical to national security, said Kenneth Sullivan, who heads the biggest U.S. pork producer. They must work with meat companies to strengthen safety practices and ensure plants continue to produce bacon, ground beef and chicken breasts, he said.

“We’re going to have positive Covid cases,” said Mr. Sullivan, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus, Covid-19. “The question is what do you do in the face of that—do you stop the harvest, or continue, because it’s essential to life? There’s only one option there.”

There have been fewer dramatic shutdowns in the nation’s non-meat food processing centers that use more automation to process bulk food into standard boxes. “A high degree of automation has made packaged-food production less susceptible to virus-related interruptions,” the Wall Street Journal noted.

However, progressive groups — including the New York Times — are downplaying the role of technology and are just calling for better treatment of the migrant workforces, according to the Wall Street Journal:

Oxfam, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and other groups that have advocated for protecting workers on Thursday sent a letter to meat processors calling for paid sick leave for plant employees, new gloves after every break, job protection for employees dealing with illness and other measures. When Covid-19 cases are identified, parts of the plant or the entire facility need to be shut down, the groups said.

In some cases, boosting employee safeguards could mean slowing down processing operations, said Minor Sinclair, director of U.S. programs for Oxfam, an international anti-poverty group.

“Production will be compromised by that,” said Mr. Sinclair. Meat could become scarcer and more expensive as a result, he said. “We have to accept that as a society.”

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