LEWISBURG, Pa. — Meatpacking plants across the country, including the Cargill Meat Solutions facility in nearby Hazleton, were closed in April when thousands of workers tested positive for COVID-19 and dozens died. President Trump signed an executive order under the Defense Production Act to compel them to reopen amid the threat of major meat shortages across America.
But while some additional safety measures were put in place as a result of that order, Bucknell University Professor Adrian Mulligan, geography, says the simple truth is that there is no way to ensure worker safety under such close working conditions and the nation chose its meat consumption over the health of those who provide it — mostly immigrants working under poor conditions for low wages.
“Throughout the pandemic, our heroes have been the health care workers on the front lines treating COVID-19 patients — and they are — but they’re not perceived to be the immigrants working under these horrible conditions on the meatpacking line so we can continue to have a steady supply of meat,” says Mulligan, who teaches about the meatpacking industry in class.
It now appears those workers aren’t just feeding America’s obsession with meat. The New York Times reported this week that meatpacking companies also want to keep them open to protect their long-term investments in meat exports to China.
That makes the decision to keep the plants open even more curious for all the wrong reasons.
“We evoked the Defense Production Act, not over the nation’s health concerns, but for meat,” Mulligan says,
He points out that there are actually two meatpacking supply chain systems — major meatpacking plants that feed the supply to restaurants and industry, such as fast food; and the more local supply chain that serves consumers more directly through grocery stores and butcher shops. Mulligan sees meat supply shortages continuing across the major supply chain due to the disruption from sick workers on the line until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed. Even after there’s a vaccine, he says the meat shortage may continue because meatpacking workers may be some of the last to receive it.
The health concerns that have affected major meatpacking plants have not had the same impact on local suppliers. Mulligan hopes consumers begin to think more about where their meat comes from and that they now consider all of the options moving forward.
“I hope that people realize there are still local farmers and producers that you can connect to and bypass the [major meatpacking] system, like Fisher’s Meat Market in Lewisburg, Keyfarm Premium Beef in Mifflinburg, and Landis Poultry Farm in Watsontown,” he says. “It’s better economically and environmentally for your community. Of course, the downside to that is that it would be cutting out the work of those immigrants in the major meatpacking plants who need these jobs, even as bad as they are.”