Factory Farms May Pose Greater Public Health Threats Than Wet Markets

Impossible to Achieve ‘Social Distancing’ at Animal Factories and Slaughterhouses

(This essay is the latest in our continuing series about the relationship between animal-use industries, pathogens and their effect on animal and human health.)

In its own dispassionate way, the Johns Hopkins’ coronavirus dashboard plots the global hopscotching of COVID-19. More than 550,000 afflicted and 23,000 dead in the United States, with global infections eclipsing 2 million. Politicians and epidemiologists direct our attention to graphs to remind us of the urgency of “flattening the curve” and eventually pushing the slope downward through social distancing.

Here are three other numbers: 293, 790, and 40.1 percent.

That’s 293 Smithfield Foods’ workers infected with COVID-19 at its Sioux Falls slaughter plant, one of the nation’s largest of its kind. With the total number of South Dakotans infected at 790, this one processing plant accounts 40 percent of state cases.

Apparently, you can’t flatten the curve by killing fattened hogs at an industrial abattoir.

Smithfield Foods, which was purchased some years ago by the government of China to protect its access to pork, has indefinitely shuttered the plant. And with that, Smithfield issued a different kind of warning: expect meat shortages in the marketplace.

It should have warned us about something much more ominous related to the meat industry.

Let’s take two more numbers: 1600 and 34,160.

In recent days, authorities have reported 1600 turkeys at a South Carolina factory farm infected with a highly pathogenic variety of avian influenza. At the USDA’s urging, the farm “depopulated” — gassed and killed — 34,160 turkeys to stop the spread of the disease.  It’s a strategy akin to bombing the village to make sure nobody infected gets out alive.

All of this is a bracing reminder that, while we rightly worry about absence of a vaccine to slow the coronavirus, there are other viruses incubating at factory farms, wet markets, cockfighting pits, and other settings where we mistreat animals.

The last global pandemic came in 2009 — a swine flu virus that reassorted after moving between pigs and chickens to humans, killing more than 12,000 in the U.S. Some experts believe a factory farm-produced avian or swine influenza (or a combination of the two) may emerge that is more infectious and lethal than the coronavirus launched from a live market.

That’s why we must pull the alarm on animal factories and demand they change. Industrial farmers jam animals together beak-to-beak and shoulder-to-shoulder, packed in like boxes in a shipping container. Then to combat the effects of stress and overcrowding, they lace feed and water with antibiotics to prevent disease (the other purpose is to spur growth).

“Social distancing” — a reassorting of words that’s become part of our daily lexicon — simply cannot happen for animals on factory farms. It’s in the design of the enterprise and what makes them so risky. They are hothouses where viruses can reassort and become more infectious and deadly. Compounding matters, the routine use of antibiotics on factory farms spawn antibiotic-resistant bacteria, posing another catastrophic public health threat.

The slaughterhouse is by design the terminus for animals on factory farms. As a business enterprise, it’s neither for the weak of stomach or sinew. It’s grueling, dangerous work in the best of circumstances. And when it comes to human health risks during an infectious disease outbreak, industrial slaughterhouses are no place to be.

Working in close quarters on the disassembly line, social distancing is impossible. In the cattle slaughter plant where he worked, author Timothy Pachirat identified more than 100 specialized tasks on the “kill floor,” including “sticker,” “tail ripper,” and “side puller,” each with a specialized responsibility.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration considers slaughterhouse line worker one of the country’s most dangerous jobs. Most workers are undocumented or first-generation Americans, making for a polyglot workplace with four or five languages spoken on the kill floor. Killing and dismembering animals is a job of default and desperation.

In recent days, news outlets have reported 50 Corvid-19 infections and two deaths among workers at a JBS USA beef plant near Denver. Since the end of March, some 800 to 1,000 workers have been staying home, worried for their own safety. There are more than 160 COVID-19 cases at a Cargill meat-packaging plant in Pennsylvania, according to union officials there. In Alabama, “at a Wayne Farms chicken processing plant, employees reportedly had to pay the company 10 cents a day to buy masks,” according to the Stansberry Digest.

In 2019, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service allowed some plants to jack up the pace of processing, revoking the maximum line speed of 1,106 hogs per hour. and making this dangerous work even more intolerable “We’ve already gone from the line of exhaustion to the line of pain,” Ignacio Davalos, a worker at a pork-processing plant in Crete, Neb., told Human Rights Watch. “When we’re dead and buried, our bones will keep hurting.”

While COVID-19 has circled the globe, let’s remember it started in one place, likely radiating out from a single open-air wet market in Wuhan. The next pathogenic avian or swine flu may likewise start at one factory farm and move from there. The World Organization for Animal Health also “has active reports of highly pathogenic avian influenza in other countries, including Hungary, Poland, India, Taiwan, Bulgaria, Germany and France,” according to one industry outlet

These two enterprises — factory farms growing biomass at an extraordinarily rapid rate and slaughterhouses disassembling animals into shrink-wrapped packages — go hand and glove. It’s within these settings — conveniently detached from our point-of-purchase decisions about the food we eat — where risks to animals and people abound.

Once we’re done mopping up the wet markets, we’d be well advised to put the best brains in the world of public health and agriculture to the task of reimagining our food system, mindful that the mistreatment of animals and workers for cheap meat has societal costs that are astronomical when there’s a full accounting.

You can help by signing our petition calling for a global ban on live animal markets here.

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