Editor’s note: Each Spring, attorneys Bill Marler and Denis Stearns teach a Food Safety Litigation course in the LL.M. Program in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. This specialized program for attorneys brings together those who are interested in our food system, from farm to table. As a final assignment, students are asked to write an op-ed or essay on food safety, with the best to be selected for publication in Food Safety Website. The following is one of the essays for 2020.

By Savannah Clay 

“Chicago will be ours!” This is the last line of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which captured the horrific working conditions immigrants working in meat factories experienced. The descriptions of how adulterated and unsafe our food was so disgusting that the book was a catalyst for President Theodore Roosevelt’s call to investigate meat processing plants. These investigations led to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Sinclair later lamented that the public latched onto the unsafe handling of food and overlooked the labor exploitation. But the safe handling of food and labor exploitation are inextricably linked.

The nation has been dealing with a new, unprecedented crisis in COVID-19. It can seem impossible to return to normal. People are scared, confused, concerned, angry, and so many other things. People are worried about the economy, their safety, and has people desiring to “go back to normal.” But in the food industry, is “going back to normal” what we want? This crisis shed a light on the dark, dangerous work environments our food workers are still subjected to. This crisis presents a new moment, much like Sinclair’s The Jungle presented in 1906, to call for and demand change from the meat and farming industry and the food industry more broadly. There are countless stories in the news about how farmers are unable to sell their fruit and vegetable crops; dairy farmers are pouring out milk; piglets and chicks are being exterminated for fear that meat processing facilities will shut down. The news can be scary and overwhelming, especially in this time of uncertainty. But does that mean we will think it is okay to sacrifice the safety of our essential workers in the food supply chain? I certainly hope not. 

John H. Tyson, the chairman of Tyson’s executive board, wrote a full-page editorial earlier this (year) and said, “the food supply chain is breaking.” He said this because several pork, beef, and chicken processing plants have become hotbeds for the spread of COVID-19 and have had to shut down. As of now there are approximately 20 slaughterhouses and processing plants that have had to shut down. This spread accelerated in large part because of the poor working conditions the people in these facilities face. These workers are put in crowded rooms to work on the lines. They do not have 6 feet between each worker on the line, and often these workers are not equipped with PPE. Mr. Tyson argues the work done in these factories is essential, because it is getting meat to the grocery stores for us to consume. It is essential to feed America. I agree. Feeding America is essential. But we should prioritize and protect those essential workers who are putting themselves, and potentially their loved ones, at risk to go to work to get the beef, pork, and chicken products to grocery stores all over the country.

It is difficult to look at Mr. Tyson’s plea with anything less than a skeptical eye. Is this about feeding America or is this about Tyson’s continued ability to turn a profit? If it was truly about feeding America, wouldn’t Tyson and Smithfield’s and JBS work with regulators to provide their essential workers with the appropriate PPE and restructure the working environment to allow 6 ft between each worker. Wouldn’t these big companies look at how their facilities are turning into hotbeds and take this not as an indication that there is a threat to their bottom line, but that there is a threat to their employees? It is not just the employees who are at increased risk in these facilities. Meat inspectors, who are required by law to be in facilities if these facilities want to run, are experiencing higher rates of infection. What do we do if there are not enough inspectors to adequately inspect the products these plants are producing?

 If it is truly about being essential and providing food to Americans, these companies should jump on the opportunity to make their work environments safer. Will the processing speeds be as fast? No, they most likely won’t be. But isn’t that a good thing? Increasing line speeds put workers at greater risk for potential amputation injuries as well as overuse injuries, like arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome. This is just the focus on the meat processing plants. 

On Tuesday, April 28, 2020, President Trump signed an executive order to keep these processing plants open. He used the Defense Production Act to mandate that these plants continue production. The New York Times reported “the order is designed in part to give companies legal cover with more liability protection in case employees catch the virus as a result of having to go to work.” This notion solidifies the idea that this executive order, and the pleas from Mr. Tyson, are focused more on production and profit than worker health and safety. If the workers are too sick or scared to come to work, the food supply chain will continue to break. This is a half-measured solution to the growing problem. 

“While we share the concern over the food supply, today’s executive order to force meatpacking plants to stay open must put the safety of our country’s meatpacking workers first,” the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said in a statement.

What about the working conditions of the farmers and farm hands who are harvesting the fruits and vegetables we consume? Working conditions for farm laborers are terrible. Often, workers live on or near the farms they are harvesting because they tend to be migrant workers. The stereotype that all farm laborers are illegal immigrants also reverberates in the minds of many. Regardless of the status of these workers, they are entitled to protection from the coronavirus. These workers also deserve PPE, and safe and sanitary working and living conditions. What happens if too many of these laborers fall ill? Who will harvest the crops for us to consume? If we are truly concerned about the potential collapse of the food supply chain, we need to make the conscious decision to provide these workers with as many protections as possible.  This includes updating their living quarters and adapting their work to the crisis COVID-19 presents. This will not be easy. I understand that. There is not an example in the past to look to and form a new work model. This will take time, cooperation, and money. The action these major farming operations and meat processing operations take may eat into their profits. But they will be doing right by their workers. They will be showing their workers, and the country, that protecting the supply chain is important, but protecting their workers are more important. 

Consumers tend to have long memories when companies make the headlines in negative ways. If our food supply chain is truly breaking, we need to look at all the factors causing it to break, and we need to address them all. Merely keeping the processing plants open will not make the workers feel more comfortable going to work. If the plants are open but there are no workers on the lines and no inspectors ready, then the plant is open for naught. If the plants are open and workers continue to get sick, this will call into question the cleanliness of the facilities. If the facilities are not clean enough to keep their workers safe and protected from COVID-19, is our food safe? How could the outbreak of COVID-19 in these plants bleed into consumer concerns about the relative safety of the food these plants are processing. Will consumers be less likely to purchase Tyson or Smithfield’s or JBS products because of their inability to keep their workers safe? 

Activists can use the actions these companies take now to create and perpetuate the narrative that these big farms and big companies do not care about their workers. They care about their bottom line. And if all they care about is their bottom line, how is the safety of our food being negatively impacted. Worker conditions and food quality are inextricably linked. It’s time to demand better working conditions and more protections for the essential workers risking their health and safety to ensure we have the products we demand available at supermarkets and grocery stores. This time of crisis is unparalleled to anything I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. It has highlighted inequities we don’t want to acknowledge, and it’s forcing us to reevaluate our priorities. These major companies should not be able to carry on as normal. Normal was not good enough before the outbreak. Normal is not good enough during the outbreak. Normal will not be good enough after the outbreak. It is past time to demand more of our food supply chain. Our workers deserve safe working conditions, regardless of pandemic status. They deserve a living wage. And they deserve to be protected. Implementing these changes will lead to better handling of food practices and will hopefully raise our standards of food safety. We must protect our food supply chain, but that includes protecting the workers involved. If we don’t do that we aren’t protecting the supply chain at all. We are just protecting the major companies’ abilities to generate a profit. 

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