Tag Archives: meat consumption

US counties with meat processing plants tend to be coronavirus hotspots

US counties with (or very close to) meat processing plants have twice the rate of COVID-19 infections compared to the national average. In total, almost half of the current COVID-19 hotspots are linked to meat processing plants.

Ground beef. Image credits: USDA.

It was on March 19th that the US government published federal guidelines on social distancing and personal protective equipment. But the US meat giants, which include Tyson Foods, JBS USA and Smithfield Foods, continued pretty much business as usual. A thorough investigation including worker interviews, dozens of official documents, and complaints show that many meat processing plants continued without implementing distancing measures.

This turned out to be a severe mistake.

The first concerning data involving COVID-19 and meat processing plants emerged in mid-April, but by May, it was clear that many such plants are a hotspot. Over 1% of all meat workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19, with the real number being much higher. According to data from the CDC published in early May, over 115 meat plants across the entire country have infection cases.

Trump’s order to keep meat plants open did not do much to change the situation. Many workers were afraid to turn up to work, and the industry was divided in half — some continued (in large part because they couldn’t afford to stop working) while others did not. But almost everyone had the same feeling: they felt abandoned and betrayed by the companies that provide most of America’s meat.

Now, a new analysis sheds even more light on the connection between the outbreak and meat plants: it’s not only workers themselves that are at risk, but their communities as well.

Image credits: EWG.

According to a new geographical analysis, counties with processing plants where poultry, pigs, and cattle are slaughtered and packaged have seen a spike in the number of coronavirus cases.

The interactive map (which you can see here) reveals that meat plant outbreaks are among the largest drivers of the recent eight-fold growth in COVID-19 cases in rural America.

The problem is, in part, driven by the US meat industry itself. Per capita, Americans eat the most amount of meat in the world, but the production is directed by a very small number of large companies. This consolidation of the meat and poultry industry, dominated by a few larger players, revealed a surprisingly fragile supply chain system and very thin profit margins. For many plants, enforcing distancing measures could mean they suddenly become unprofitable.

Also, there are relatively few meat processing plants overall in the US — which means these tend to be large plants. This means that most plants are found in clusters, often at strategic locations close to the boundary of several states, where different companies are vying for the same market.

Image credits: EWG.

In the new analysis, published by the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, it is shown that the area around meat plants often falls into two different counties or two different states. This puts communities in nearby areas at particular risk of exposure from multiple sources.

For example, Tama, Black Hawk and Marshall counties in central Iowa have three meatpacking plants – National Beef Packing in the town of Tama, Tyson Foods in Waterloo and JBS in Marshalltown. The three counties together average 1,483 cases per 100,000 residents, or approximately 1.5% — way above the national average. Another notable example shows the Tyson Foods plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, where 669 infections were reported. The two neighboring counties also show a much higher rate of infection than the national average, as shown below.

Image credits: EWG.

The analysis only established a correlation, but the evidence is very suggestive, especially when considering how generalized the problem seems to be. Meat processing plants did not ensure sufficient protection for their workers and as a result, many plants have become infection hotspots.

In a recent article, sociologist Michael Haedicke explained why this is not surprising:

“First, working conditions experienced in meatpacking plants, which are shaped by the pressures of efficient production, contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Second, this industry has evolved since the mid-20th century in ways that make it hard for workers to advocate for safe conditions even in good times, let alone during a pandemic.

Together, these factors help to explain why U.S. meatpacking plants are so dangerous now – and why this problem will be difficult to solve.”

The fact that many plants are in rural areas, where people don’t have a history of unionizing (and often have strong anti-union sentiments) means that most such plants don’t even have a union in place — and this leaves individual workers powerless when it comes to asking for better conditions.

In time, meat plants grew larger, and a handful of firms such as Cargill and Tyson came to dominate processing of beefpoultry, and other meats. Consolidation gave these firms an even greater ability to control working conditions and left workers even more vulnerable.

Unfortunately, this means that infections in meat plants are likely a problem that is here to stay.

“Despite President Trump’s reassurances that closed plants will reopen safely, I expect that the pressures of efficiency and limits on workers’ ability to advocate for themselves will cause infections to persist,” Haedicke concludes.

“In meatpacking as in other industries, the pandemic has revealed how people who do “essential” work for Americans can be treated as if they are expendable.”

Want to fight climate change? Eat less beef and lamb, new report concludes

A new report calls for a 20-50% reduction in the number of sheep and cattle. In addition to being a healthy decision, cutting down on red meat will also help combat climate change, the researchers argue.

More and more, meat is brought into discussions about climate change — and for good reasons. Animal agriculture is responsible for between 14% and 18% of human greenhouse gas emissions, and with global meat consumption increasing, so too will emissions. Meat products have larger carbon footprints per calorie than grain or vegetable products because of the inefficient transformation of plant energy to animal energy. The land use and water consumption is also much greater per pound of meat compared to equally nutritious alternatives. In a new report, the British Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an independent public body advising the government and Parliament, suggests substantially reducing red meat consumption.

The report, carried out by a diverse team of researchers, analyzed how Britain needs to change its land usage to address climate change — but the general principles are applicable to many parts of the world.

For instance, the report recommends increasing the country’s forest cover from 13 to 19%, while also restoring peatlands (which are excellent carbon sinks) and emphasizing catchment-sensitive farming and agricultural diversification.

The report says that following these guidelines will also require a dramatic reduction in the amount of red meat eaten by the population: an 89% reduction for beef and a 63% reduction for lamb, as well as a 20% decline in dairy products.

This particular takeaway is important for people living everywhere in the world: reducing red meat consumption will greatly ease the burden humanity is producing in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and land use, but the change needs to be substantial. Just last month, a study found that if current meat consumption trends continue, the environmental pressures from the food system could almost double by 2050.

“This is a wake-up call for a complacent government that we must completely transform the way we use land, to avoid climate breakdown and make space for nature,” Friends of the Earth campaigner Guy Shrubsole said in a statement. “As the Committee on Climate Change says, we need to free up land from agriculture by eating much less meat and dairy, and stop landowners burning and degrading peat bogs — our single biggest carbon store.”

It’s gonna take a lot of effort to combat or even limit the effects of climate change. We need to transition our economy to renewable energy, reduce our use of fossil fuels, stop deforestation — and meat consumption is also a part of that. As the report also highlights, early action maximizes benefits. The sooner we act, the better our odds for a sustainable future.

Avoiding eating meat and dairy is the single best thing you can do for the environment

Ever felt like you wanted to do something for the environment, but wasn’t really sure what? Well, researchers have the solution: eat less meat and dairy.

Beef is one of the worst foods you can consume, both for your own health and for the environment. Image via Wiki Commons.

It might not seem like the most straightforward thing, but a new study has found that livestock provides only 18% of all the calories we consume, but takes up 83% of all farmland.

Without meat or dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75%, freeing up an area larger than all of the US, China, European Union and Australia combined. It would free up countless ecosystems, drastically reduce environmental pressure, and reduce much of our greenhouse gas emissions.

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” said Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK, in a press release. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The study assessed the full impact of these foods, from farm to fork, on land use, climate change emissions, freshwater use, water pollution (eutrophication) and air pollution (acidification).

“Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems,” Poore continues. “Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.”

Of course, that’s not realistic — we can’t expect all meat and dairy consumption to disappear overnight, but even so, we could reduce it. Every pound of meat we reduce from our diet has an important effect on the environment. For instance, every pound of beef requires about 8000 liters of water, whereas an equivalent quantity of potatoes consumes over a thousand times less water. Even eggs only need about of fifth of what beef needs. The figures for land use are similar.

Everything here is plant-based.

Okay, you might say, but potatoes don’t provide the same nutrients as beef, do they? Well, the new study found that the plant-based replacements of meat, which offer similar nutrients, also have a dramatically lower environmental impact.

“Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy,” Poore added.

It’s not even about reducing all the meat. The study found that if only the most harmful half of meat and dairy production was replaced by plant-based foods, that would reduce more than 66% of the impact of the entire industry.

The study also highlighted a few unpleasant surprises. For instance, freshwater fish farming, long thought to be an environmentally-friendly practice, was responsible for a surprising amount of emissions. This is largely due to the methane produced by the unconsumed fish feed and excreted material, which deposit at the bottom of the lake. Grass-fed beef, thought to be a more sustainable practice, was found to be anything but.

“Converting grass into [meat] is like converting coal to energy. It comes with an immense cost in emissions,” Poore said.

This shouldn’t be taken as a call to turn vegetarian or vegan overnight — not at all. But it is a call to understand the impact our consumption is having on the planet, especially as this isn’t the first study to come to this conclusion. In fact, there’s a mountain of research documenting the negative impact of meat and dairy, and showing that reducing our consumption of animal foods can be impactful on many levels.

Moderating our meat and dairy consumption is not just eco-friendly, it’s also healthy. No amount of processed red meat is good for you, and even low amounts can be dangerous for your health.

The bottom line is simple: want to live a longer, healthier life, and do something amazing for the environment? Eat less meat!

Journal Reference: J. Poore, T. Nemecek. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq0216