By Jon Coppelman
Perhaps the first thought for those of you who still eat meat is that the price has consistently been reasonable. In America we have a highly efficient system for raising animals, slaughtering them in assembly lines and then packaging the remains in convenient containers for the consumer. The moderate consumer costs are the product of a very narrow food chain: the processing itself is performed by a handful of companies, where high-speed assembly lines cut up and package animal product at a frenetic pace.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed some serious flaws within this tightly managed system. By June 12 there were over 24,000 confirmed cases of the virus among slaughterhouse employees, with upwards of 90 deaths. Three hundred USDA food inspectors have sickened and at least three have died. In response, the meat packing industry has invested in new safety procedures and equipment, but this is compromised by inherent working conditions, where low-paid employees spend long hours, side by side, performing repetitive tasks using saws and blades, all at a driven pace. You cannot slow the line down, because it is all timed to move thousands of animals through the system every day. Speed and efficiency ensure the reasonable prices.
In an effort to keep grocery shelves full of meats, President Trump signed an executive order on April 28 exempting food supply-chain resources from local control – and from liability for their failures to ensure a safe workplace. While the order gives lip service to compliance with voluntary CDC and OSHA guidance, its emphasis is on maintaining the frenetic rate of production. Protection for workers, never a serious concern in this industry, has been further weakened through this erosion of accountability for employers.
When you fire up the grill over the summer, say a little prayer for the animals who suffered during their brief, miserable lives and died for your hamburgers, pork ribs and chicken wings. Add another prayer for the environment, which is stressed and abused in service of meat production. And then a prayer for your own health which is being damaged by eating meat. Finally, say a prayer for the nearly half million workers, many of them immigrants, manning their stations like soldiers, working at an inhumane pace, all the while fearing for their lives and the lives of their families.
The cost of meat may be moderate, but it comes at a staggering price for animals, workers, consumers and the planet. If you fire up the grill, use it for veggie burgers and vegetable kabobs. That will be so much better for everyone on this fragile earth – and you’ll live longer, too.
For 30 years Jon Coppelman has been a consultant in workers compensation, training employers in the creation and maintenance of safe work environments. He provides guidance to employers in returning injured workers to productive employment. Jon lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife Nancy, where they are currently working from home, exercising and meditating daily, and expanding their skills in plant-based cuisine.