This week about 50 workers at the Smithfield pork plant in Crete left their places on the lines and walked out in protest after it was announced that the plant, which had previously announced it would close to protect the health of its workers, would stay open after all, with no real concessions made to their safety. Eric Reeder, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 293, explained that “people kind of freaked out, thinking [Smithfield was putting] profits in front of people.”
And seriously, why wouldn’t they think that? After all, Nebraska meat packing plants have turned into national hotspots for the spread of CoVid-19 after the meat packing industry refused to make any meaningful concessions to worker safety, like closing plants, or reducing line speeds and worker density. The president has issued an executive order shielding meatpacking companies from legal liability over failing to protect workers in case those workers (the ones who survive) decide to get together and sue. It’s hard not to feel like the Nebraskans working on those lines are being sacrificed to our need for meat and the company’s need for profit.
But let’s keep this in perspective, right? Isn’t eating meat critical for human survival? If the slaughter and processing of animal bodies slowed down, causing shortages at stores, we might all have to cut back to only eating meat once a week or so, like our doctors are always telling us would be better for our health. You know, like our grandparents and their parents and their parents ate. Truth is, it’s only the most recent generations of Americans who have started eating meat at nearly every meal. Talk to older generations and they will recall the special occasions—Sunday dinners, or big holidays—when a cow or a pig or a chicken was killed and brought into the kitchen and served as part of a family feast.
In contrast to those animals raised on the family’s farm, most of the animals we now eat were raised packed tightly together, crammed into cages, in poor sanitary conditions. They are usually pumped full of antibiotics because the conditions are often so bad that they cause rampant disease, through stress, animals attacking each other over space, lack of clean air or light, the amount of feces on the ground or projected up into the air, or other effects of being packed so tightly together in such small spaces. If one gets an infectious disease, chances are they all get it. Due to these conditions, globally, more antibiotics are prescribed to livestock than to humans. Experts are seriously alarmed about the role that feeding antibiotics to livestock is playing in increasing antibiotic resistant bacterial strains, calling it “a ticking time bomb”, a threat “comparable to major coastal flooding or a catastrophic terrorist attack” because of the potential for the spread of such bacteria to human beings.
Speaking of which, most of the common infectious diseases human have faced in our history came from packing humans and animals more closely together. In fact, in human history there was a moment when humans were attacked by an onslaught of infectious diseases, and it coincided with the domestication of animals. Measles came from cows and sheep. Smallpox came from camels. Whooping cough came from pigs, and typhoid fever from chickens. Ducks gave us influenza. Leprosy came from water buffalo, and the common cold came from horses. When Europeans began landing on American shores in droves, they inadvertently caused a genocide of the indigenous inhabitants because Europeans had been living in close contact with domesticated animals for thousands of years and had developed immunity to many of the diseases they acquired from them. People who lived on the American continents had not been in close contact with these animals, and so had not developed those same immunities, and the result was a series of pandemics that some scholars estimate caused up to 80-90% death rates in the populations exposed to these new infectious diseases.
Although we’ve been hearing a lot about the influenza pandemic of 1918 these days, relatively speaking, things had been fairly calm on the infectious disease front—certainly in Europe and North America—for the last two centuries at that point. So calm, in fact, that some health experts were declaring the field to be in decline. As one Nobel laureate virologist wrote in a 1962 textbook, to write about infectious disease “is almost to write of something that has passed into history.” Then with the development of factory farming practices in the latter half of the twentieth century, we entered what some epidemiologists refer to as the next great age of infectious diseases. You might have noticed the increasing frequency with which we are hearing about things like “bird flus” (like H5N1) and “swine flus”. (Note: the virus that caused the 1918 pandemic was a bird flu.) There is significant anxiety about the next “bird flu” scientists anticipate will emerge from intensive chicken operations, because the number of new strains each year is growing, and eventually one of those strains will hit the viral sweet spot of being highly infectious and highly lethal at the same time. Talk about a ticking time bomb. (This lecture contains a good overview of the topic, if you want to learn more.)
To be clear, many of the worst recent epidemics came originally from wild animals, not domesticated ones. Humans are cutting ever deeper into the remaining wild spaces on the globe in search of profit and coming into closer contact with animals that they previously wouldn’t have touched. Ebola came from bats deep in West African forests. There is some evidence that our current coronavirus (CoVid-19) traveled to us courtesy of illegally trafficked pangolins, perhaps mediated through some species like a goat or cow. But some of that push to clear cut previously wild land is done to raise more domesticated animals like cattle, as for example in the Amazon, the continuing destruction of which has resulted in a number of new hemorrhagic fevers in humans. According to a 2018 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, humans and domestic animals now make up 96% of the mammalian biomass on the planet, with wild mammals at only 4%. The stats are similar on birds.
What all of this adds up to is an urgent need to rethink our relationship with the other animals on our planet (you know, the non-human ones). As we destroy their remaining habitats, they give back to us an intimate knowledge of the viruses and other microbes they harbor. As we carelessly use animal bodies for food without a care for their welfare, those same poor conditions cause new viral diseases to form and antibiotic resistance strains of old bacterial diseases to develop, so that we’ll soon be unable to fight them with drugs when they occur in humans. Our bodies are linked to their bodies, and if we persist in treating their bodies so terribly, our bodies too will eventually suffer the consequences.
Now that we’re in the midst of the pandemic, the meat industry is treating the vulnerable bodies of Nebraskans who are out there working the lines in the packing plants in Crete, Grand Island, or Dakota City, like they’re just so much more meat for the slaughter. It’s time to start caring about them, and the animals that come flying down those lines to be chopped up into the pieces we buy in the grocery store without much thought for how they came there. We can start by closing or at least massively slowing down those plants right now, and protecting the Nebraskans working there. And by protect, I mean both their health and their ability to survive financially, which could easily be done through providing hazard pay. (Last I checked Smithfield’s parent company, WH Fields, was making $1.378 billion in profits and $24.1 billion in revenues, so I’m guessing they can afford to pay their workers on the front lines an extra $10 or $20 bucks an hour for the next few months.)
We can then use this time of less meat in our diets to rediscover one of the good things about the way our grandparents lived, or to experiment with all the crazy new meat-y products out there which are actually made from plants. You might even go all out and become one of those vegetarians or vegans walking around out there—they are very much alive, despite not consuming meat, and many are quite beautiful (hello, Pamela Anderson), strong (hello Ahnold Schwarzenegger, or the world’s strongest man, Patrik Baboumian), and living normal lives here in Nebraska (hello neighbor down the street). Don’t worry about protein; Americans generally get way too much protein as it is, and there is plenty of protein in plant foods, especially in things like beans or nuts. Our hearts and our doctors will surely be happier with us after a #MeatlessMay.
While we are rethinking, let’s get purposeful. Wherever you are on the food consumption spectrum, everyone can make a difference. For #MeatlessMay, think about how you can change your food consumption. Start by learning about where the meat you consume comes from. It can be hard to track down where the animals are raised, but you might know people that work in packing—how is it to work there? The way these companies treat their employees is one indication of their care for all animals. Consider adding meat-free days to your week, or going “V before 6” and only eating meat and eggs at dinner. Or be a climate change and virus-busting warrior and commit to lowering the world’s meat consumption by going all in and going meatless, this May and beyond.