America’s Obsession With Meat Is Accelerating the Pandemic

A man walks past a mural on the Farmer John slaughterhouse in Vernon, CA after 153 workers tested positive for Covid-19
A man walks past a mural on the Farmer John slaughterhouse in Vernon, CA after 153 workers tested positive for Covid-19
A man walks past a mural on the Farmer John slaughterhouse in Vernon, CA after 153 workers tested positive for Covid-19 on May 26, 2020. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

In June, 438 employees at a South Dakota meatpacking plant tested positive for Covid-19. That’s right: 438. While that number may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to how many people are infected across the United States, it represented a massive share of the state’s infection rate: 44%. A few dozen of the 438 died. It was by far the largest Covid-19 outbreak in South Dakota, and it all took place at one meatpacking plant. Alarmingly, it’s not the only plant with a story like this.

Meatpacking employees are getting sick

According to the Investigate Midwest tracking survey, more than 26,000 Covid-19 cases have been directly tied to meatpacking plants, resulting in 95 deaths as of July. This is undoubtedly related to the fact that on April 28, President Trump signed an executive order designating meatpacking plants “critical infrastructure.” In the order, he invoked the Defense Production Act of 1950 that allows sitting presidents to pay companies to create certain products during crises. Notably, Trump has been reluctant to invoke this act to produce ventilators and masks, but he acted quickly to keep meat on the shelves. Unsurprisingly, the number of Covid-19 cases directly linked to meatpacking plants has quintupled since the executive order. And deaths followed right behind.

During the pandemic, reports have surfaced of meat inspectors noting limited social distancing and very few workers wearing masks in environments that appear to prioritize efficiency over worker safety.

Meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses are breeding grounds for viruses. Multiple zoonotic diseases, like H1N1 and H1N5, emerged from North American factory farms and slaughterhouses. Given that employees work in cramped quarters where social distancing is nearly impossible, shouting over the sounds of slaughterhouse machinery and releasing spittle into the closed-in air, the spread of Covid-19 seems inevitable. During the pandemic, reports have surfaced of meat inspectors noting limited social distancing and very few workers wearing masks in environments that appear to prioritize efficiency over worker safety.

A breakdown of the infection rates across the country. Source: Investigate Midwest

A hotbed of human rights abuses

This is far from the first time slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants have produced bacon at the expense of human welfare. Upton Sinclair famously described the horrors of working conditions in meatpacking plants in his 1906 bestseller, The Jungle. Unfortunately, over the subsequent century, there has been little industry improvement. Plant machinery is dangerous. Every week, two meatpacking plant employees on average accidentally amputate a limb. Employees are often told to work without stopping, sacrificing break times to increase output at the expense of workers’ rights. The killing floor is insatiable.

Meatpacking plants are infamous for both unsafe working conditions and low pay, prompting high turnover, which can often top 100% annually. The Food Empowerment Project, which researches ethical breaches within the food industry, has reported, “Many employers knowingly hire undocumented workers… In some cases, they even help new workers to create fake social security cards. Undocumented workers are constantly faced with the threat of deportation — either by their employer or by federal raids.”

Meatpacking employees often have no better option. They can’t quit, as many of them are dependent on their salary for food and housing, and their legal status may force them into accepting dangerous working conditions in exchange for a paycheck. In today’s climate, those dangerous conditions include the threat of contracting Covid-19.

Meat is not essential, no matter America’s obsession

The United States, more than any other modern country, appears to be emotionally dependent on our meat supply. Meat, you might say, is as American as apple pie. Jane Ziegelman, a food historian and author of A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, argues that meat is inherently American in a way no other food is. “The perceived essentialness of cheeseburgers (and other meat products) is also a function of certain distinctly American food habits and beliefs,” she writes for the New York Times. “American vitality was tied to a meat-heavy diet.”

The average American eats 220 pounds of meat every single year, more than any other country on earth. When citizens of other countries imagine American food, meat-based products like hamburgers and hot dogs are typically the first ones that come to mind. Meat is culturally tied to traditional American ideals like masculinity, strength, and fortitude. Meat in America is not just a diet—it’s a lifestyle.

It doesn’t have to be this way

Let’s not mince words here, meat is not “essential.” Food is essential. There is no person on earth who needs meat to survive — plants have every required nutrient for every human in every stage of life, including pregnancy.

A true essential approach to managing food production in the wake of Covid-19 might have focused on opening plant-based agriculture first, in a slow and safe way. That would have led to fewer Covid-19 outbreaks while still giving Americans food on the table. Why? Because the animal agriculture industry is far more prone to viral outbreaks. The meat industry also has a far larger number of moving parts: It depends on plant-based feed for the animals, farms to raise animals, slaughterhouses to kill them, meatpacking plants to package the meat, and various forms of transportation to get the food on the shelves.

Since plant-based agriculture typically has fewer steps in production, it is less likely to lead to viral outbreaks among workers. So, the next time you’re in a grocery store, looking at the plethora of available options, consider the human lives behind the slick packaging. Products in the meat aisle have a hidden cost. Food is essential — but meat is not.

A queer, herbivorous, leftist Viking. I write about society, justice, and popular media. UChicago grad. Based in Iceland.

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