What We Can Learn From the Meat Packing Fiasco

Yes, this is a great time to consider vegetarianism. But this story isn’t just about meat. The implications are bigger. From Politico:

The Department of Justice is looking at the four largest U.S. meatpackers — Tyson Foods, JBS, National Beef and Cargill — which collectively control about 85 percent of the U.S. market for the slaughter and packaging of beef, according to a person with knowledge of the probe. The USDA is also investigating the beef price fluctuations, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has confirmed.

Meatpackers say beef prices have spiked during the pandemic because plants are running at lower capacity as workers fall ill, so less meat is making its way to shelves. The four companies didn’t respond to requests for comment about the probes.

But the coronavirus crisis is highlighting how the American system of getting meat to the table favors a handful of giant companies despite a century of government efforts to decentralize it. And it’s sparking new calls for changes in meatpacking.

Meatpacking workers are still getting sick. The Washington Post reported yesterday that “the number of Tyson employees with the coronavirus has exploded from less than 1,600 a month ago to more than 7,000 today, according to a Washington Post analysis of news reports and public records.”

Trump ordering meatpacking plants to open doesn’t mean they can be opened, or even that they can be operated at standard capacity. Trump ordering the economy to be opened doesn’t mean that’s going to happen, either, as long as the coronavirus is still out there and spreading.

Consider what is happening in Sweden. Sweden famously chose to not close its economy and trust herd immunity and its healthy population to deal with the coronavirus. So how did that turn out?

Sweden has more than 3,300 excess deaths—a figure calculated comparing the number of deaths during the same time frame last year—Denmark had 300, while Norway and Finland had fewer than 100 each, according to the New York Times. Iceland’s death toll after its lockdown has been an impressive 11 times lower than the current figures in Sweden. …

… But for the steep cost in human lives, did Sweden at least save its economy? Nope. Its Central Bank projects a GDP downturn of 10 percent, about the same rate as its European counterparts.

Apparently large numbers of Swedes are not suicidal and are staying at home and social distancing as much as they can. And the economy slowed. This is what a lot of economists said would happen. To save the economy, you first have to deal with the virus, they said.

And when your workforce keeps coming down with a deadly virus, it’s hard to operate at 100 percent capacity. But Republicans have a handy-dandy solution to the problem of keeping a business open and spreading a virus to employees and customers. Paul Waldman explains:

“Our human capital stock is ready to get back to work,” said White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett on Sunday. Republicans, particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have a plan. …

… It’s called “liability protection,” the new incarnation of the old conservative goal of “tort reform,” the euphemism for chaining the courthouse door to prevent people from suing when they get harmed. Not only is it morally indefensible, right now it’s also the worst possible way to help the American economy get back on its feet.

McConnell calls it a “red line” for the passage of any new rescue measure, essentially telling Democrats that if they want to do any of the things that would actually help the economy, the price will be sweeping immunity for businesses from any accountability during the pandemic.

McConnell’s effort is supported by business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers and by conservative think tanks and pundits. Republicans at the state level are trying to pass similar measures.

I like the part about “human capital stock.” It’s like the robber barons realize they have to have employees, but they let’s not think of them as people. Anyway, the stock must be forced back to work, and the customers will eventually have to come out of their houses to buy stuff. And if anybody gets stick, the company isn’t liable. So what’s the problem? Paul Waldman continues,

To get to a point where economic activity is what it was before the pandemic hit, we need two basic things. First, we need to have control of the spread of the virus. Second, we need people — not some people, not a dozen commando cosplayers protesting at state houses, not a few hundred idiots crowding a pool in Missouri on Memorial Day, but all of us — to have confidence that we can go to work and shop and eat without the risk of being infected.

Liability protection undermines both those goals. It will almost inevitably lead to more infections as some businesses ignore best practices and force their employees to work in unsafe conditions. And it will send a message to everyone else that businesses are being excused from safety requirements.

As Sweden learned, you can keep stores open, but you can’t force people to shop in them.

Another lesson to be learned from the price of beef is the whole problem with current American business. Too much of it is like a dinosaur — too big and unable to evolve fast enough to changing circumstances.

We’re hearing that millions of animals raised for food are being euthanized and buried because of processing plant bottlenecks. As I understand it, one reason hogs are being euthanized is that the meat packing process has become so efficiently specialized that the plants only handle animals that are within a specific weight range. If they aren’t sent off to slaughter just in time, they are likely to get too big for the plants. And the farmers have no use for surplus hogs, so the animals are euthanized and buried even as there isn’t enough meat to stock grocery stores and meet demand. Other livestock cost money to keep alive, so cash-strapped farmers are choosing euthanasia for them also.

The current farm-to-consumer food supply system evolved into its current form to produce the most food for the least cost, and any reforms will likely raise food prices. But this is screwy. Both the human and animal stock deserve better than this.