When it comes to the problem of outbreaks at meatpacking facilities and whether to temporarily shut them down, the workers at the plants and the farmers selling their livestock to plants are often pitted against each other.
JD Scholten, who’s running for Rep. Steve King’s seat in Iowa’s Fourth District, rejects that premise.
“It’s kind of a double-whammy,” he said. “I 100 percent disagree that it’s farmers or workers; it’s both. They’re both getting screwed at this point.”
And it’s largely because only a few companies control the nation’s meatpacking operations, making workers more necessary and giving farmers few options. These operations are where the majority of coronavirus outbreaks in the Midwest are occurring.
In Iowa, that has led to local officials calling for Gov. Kim Reynolds or the companies themselves to temporarily shut down production so communities can do testing and cleaning to contain the outbreaks.
But the biggest counter-argument for closing these meatpacking plants is that closures and reduced production will affect the nation’s food supply, which Iowa plays an outsized role in.
It doesn’t have to be like that.
The solution is to enforce antitrust laws, Scholten said, so there are more meatpacking and slaughter operations. Then, hard-hit plants could close for cleaning and employee testing without the food supply feeling it.
“If a plant goes down, it affects everything,” Scholten said of the current arrangement, where plants like the Smithfield one in South Dakota process about five percent of the nation’s pork. “So, there’s not much resiliency or sustainability or adaptability.”
Expanding the market will also open up options for where farmers can sell their livestock, which has been a challenge for the past few weeks. Recent reports have talked to many farmers who faced the prospect of euthanizing their animals if they couldn’t sell them to plants.
“When we come out of this, we absolutely have to enforce our anti-trust laws, and the biggest thing that that will do is allow farmers to have competitive markets,” Scholten said. “So, [farmers] can continue to sell to Tyson and JBS and all these different entities, but now what I’m saying is there’s also a potential to sell to a local person and create alternative markets.”
It would put less pressure on workers, too, who have continued going to work despite the health risks.
“It’s insane that these workers have been going without PPE and without masks,” Scholten said. “No one should have to choose between earning a paycheck and their life.”
Yesterday, Donald Trump used the Defense Production Act to sign an executive order requiring meatpacking plants to remain open as part of the nation’s critical infrastructure.
According to Bloomberg News, part of the order the government will provide protective equipment and guidance, but Trump gave no details. However, there are signs that companies won’t be held liable for employee or customer infections and deaths.
In Sioux City, an outbreak at a Tyson Fresh Meats facility in Dakota City, Nebraska is widely suspected to be the main reason for the metro area’s explosion of cases.
Tyson’s refusal to confirm or deny the numbers led area mayors on Monday to issue a call for transparency on where the cases are coming from. In Woodbury County, the number of cases have increased by 674 in nine days.
“It affects all of us. These workers go to the same grocery store I go to. They’re my neighbors. And it’s one of those things where we’re all in this together,” Scholten said. “And if [companies] are going to be part of our community and ask so much from our community, this is the least they could do for us.”
Meat packing companies in Iowa like Tyson have repeatedly assured officials they’re following social distancing guidelines and providing PPE to the people working on the floor, but accounts from workers there contradict those promises.
Still, the area governors—Reynolds, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem—have refused to issue stay-at-home orders or order the plants to close.
Previously, Ricketts rejected the idea of closing any Nebraska plants, suggesting that a meat shortage would result in demonstrations like those seen in other states. Noem and Reynolds have left the final decision up to the plants
“It’s about having a food system that is more local and regional. These are all very doable things, it’s just what we’re seeing right now is putting a spotlight on this,” Scholten said. “I hope on the back end of this we really come out of this with the idea that our food system is extremely valuable to our nation and our nation’s security and we need to be more resilient and flexible.”
Written by Nikoel Hytrek