Is Meat-Eating Murder? The Deadly Impact of the Meat Processing Industry on Latinos

BELatina Meat Packing Latinx
Listen Live The Ideas Network Program Schedule Program Notes NPR News & Classical Network Program Schedule Music Playlists All Classical Network Program Schedule Music Playlists WPR CORONAVIRUS IN WISCONSIN Meat processing plant In this April 2020, photo provided by Tyson Foods, workers wear protective masks and stand between plastic dividers at the company's Camilla, Georgia poultry processing plant. Tyson has added the plastic dividers to create separation between workers because of the coronavirus outbreak. Tyson Foods via AP

The Smiths´ second album title Meat is Murder seems to define the current climate of our nation as we endanger low-wage workers and their communities by blindly continuing to purchase meat products. I understand, we live in America, land of carnita tacos and BBQ, but isn´t it time we thought more about how our meat-eating habit is killing Latinos, African Americans, and immigrants?  It’s no longer just animals these meat processing plants are killing off, it’s our essential workers.

In this strange science fiction film we currently live in, it’s come down to a choice between hamburgers vs. humans. Even if you aren´t already vegetarian or normally horror-stricken at the sight of food industrial complexes (Think: “Parasite” director Joon-ho Bong´s social commentary film about the pork industry “Okja”) the whole scenario has been sickening to watch unfold.  In April, as workers began to fall ill and die from Covid-19 and teams of scared workers still dragged themselves to work despite the dangers and against their family’s wishes, many of us began to look at that drumstick in our hands differently.  

A good portion of these essential and frightened workers are Latinx and ineligible for unemployment benefits, sick leave, or decent health care. Many must financially support relatives or are undocumented workers with no health care whatsoever who also face the daily specter of deportation.  The climate at these plants is one of paranoia where insufficient PPE is being used and social distancing protocols are not being followed to speed up production.

The New York Times reported that when an Iowa sheriff visited a Tyson Foods pork plant in Waterloo in April what he saw disturbed him: “Workers, many of them immigrants, were crowded elbow to elbow as they broke down hog carcasses zipping by on a conveyor belt. The few who had face coverings wore a motley assortment of bandannas, painters’ masks or even sleep masks stretched around their mouths. Some had masks hanging around their necks.”

While some Latino workers are staging walkouts in protest, the majority remain on the job, eerily coaxed by their employer to go into work because they have to feed America. “You are vital,” said Pence to these workers in a recent speech. “You are giving a great service to the people of the United States of America and we need you to continue, as a part of what we call critical infrastructure, to show up and do your job.” 

These workers, too afraid and too desperate to stop working even if they are ill or at risk of being infected, are the ones ensuring that Americans can put food on the table while they themselves may have difficulty feeding their families. The situation is a call for advocating more health safety measures for food workers as we make a conscious evolution toward eating less meat, more legumes, vegetables and plant-based alternatives, until our government and big meat companies enforce these changes. 

Activists speak up and plant-based products see a rise in sales

While medical supplies are usually essential in pandemic times, for the President Donald Trump administration, the meat processing industry is deemed so essential for survival that he needed to invoke the Defense Production Act in an attempt to ward off potential food supply shortages. Wouldn´t it have been easier and all the more humane to enforce PPE at these factories? But instead of protecting them by coming down hard on these big meat companies to protect their workers, the Trump administration urged food-supply workers to step up to meet growing demand.

Kim Cordova, a union leader representing 3,400 workers at a JBS beef plant in Colorado where five workers have died told the Washington Post that she fears working conditions that contributed to the spread of the coronavirus among workers will worsen. “If these meat plants can’t be held liable, there is no reason for them to take measures to ensure workers are safe. If these workers are essential, protect them. They are treating workers like fungible widgets instead of human beings.”

Latino activists like the artist Favianna Rodriguez recently told BeLatina that she became an advocate for a lot of issues around food security and worker safety when she recognized that not only were we getting sick from what we ate, but that we (Latinos) were part of the gears of the machine. “Because remember that it is the beef industry that is destroying the lungs of the planet — who works in this industry? It’s overwhelmingly Latinx people, overwhelming immigrants,” says Rodriguez.” For killing animals, humans, and destroying the environment, the meat industry is public enemy number one right now for the socially conscious. While the animal agriculture supply chain is endangered, plant-based meats have not been notably affected. According to Bruce Friedrich, founder of the Good Food Institute, plant-based meats in the eight weeks ending April 18 were up 265 percent over the previous eight weeks. Friedrich went on to tell the Washington Post that since facilities are significantly more automated it’s easier to socially distance “because there’s no chopping up carcasses to create the cuts of meat.” 

Although plant based products are doing well, industry experts say that the demand for animal meat has increased since we´ve been staying at home. With meat processing plants closing and reopening due to infections, meat production will likely continue on this current dangerous roller coaster.  If we can change our eating habits and advocate change so that workers who are essential in supplying us with food are not treated as disposable, then we have made progress as a nation. It’s simply hypocritical to deem Latino workers as “essential” when they are not being protected, compensated or treated any better than the animals being slaughtered.