In a recent CNN segment, a hog farmer in Minnesota is seen in apparent distress at the prospect of having to euthanize his thousands of pigs due to reduced slaughterhouse capacities. Indeed, meat-packing plants across the nation have closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks, leading to staggering numbers of pigs, cows and chickens being “depopulated” — a euphemistic term for “killed and discarded.”
“Because animals in agriculture production are legally just pieces of ‘property,’ and because in most states the animal cruelty laws do not even apply to agricultural practices, the fate of these animals will surely be a horrible one,” says animal protection attorney Bruce Wagman.
The New York Times reports that a Tyson plant in Perry, Iowa, had 730 cases of COVID-19 — nearly 60% of its employees. At another Tyson plant, in Waterloo, Iowa, there were 1,031 reported cases among about 2,800 workers. Yet as the nation braced for a potential meat shortage, President Trump has ordered slaughterhouses to reopen, despite the concerns and protests of its often disadvantaged, vulnerable workers.
The factory farm system is broken. In addition to hurting the animals, America’s appetite for cheap meat is not only harming the environment, but also the “expendable” workers whose plight is kept hidden from public scrutiny.
The Minnesota hog farmer “never imagined having to do this.” Yet his business of raising large numbers of pigs in crowded stalls is only a few steps removed from what happens to these animals after they are crammed into trucks, and then delivered to the slaughterhouse. As consumers, we rarely spare a thought about where our bacon comes from.
Hopefully, that’s about to change. There has never been a better time to eat less meat, and to explore the many alternatives available in stores. To meet the surging demand, plant-based Impossible Foods has been hiring additional workers, increasing pay and adding more shifts — while Beyond Meat reported record sales in the first quarter of this year.
In the face of large-scale, disruptive events like a global pandemic, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless. However, each of us has the opportunity to live our values in the choices we make every single day. By refusing to support a system that exploits animals, people and the planet, we may even be able to prevent the next pandemic. After all, “it is the conditions in which we put animals in captivity and slaughter them that leads to disease,” writes John Cumbers for Forbes.
In our rush back to “normal,” let’s take this moment to reflect on what kind of normal we’d like to return to: a more resilient and sustainable food system, instead of one that causes so much suffering to people and animals.