The Sickness in Our Food Supply
“Only when the tide goes out,” Warren Buffett observed, “do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” For our society, the Covid-19 pandemic represents an ebb tide of historic proportions, one that is laying bare vulnerabilities and inequities that in normal times have gone undiscovered. Nowhere is this more evident than in the American food system. A series of shocks has exposed weak links in our food chain that threaten to leave grocery shelves as patchy and unpredictable as those in the former Soviet bloc. The very system that made possible the bounty of the American supermarket—its vaunted efficiency and ability to “pile it high and sell it cheap”—suddenly seems questionable, if not misguided. But the problems the novel coronavirus has revealed are not limited to the way we produce and distribute food. They also show up on our plates, since the diet on offer at the end of the industrial food chain is linked to precisely the types of chronic disease that render us more vulnerable to Covid-19.
The juxtaposition of images in the news of farmers destroying crops and dumping milk with empty supermarket shelves or hungry Americans lining up for hours at food banks tells a story of economic efficiency gone mad. Today the US actually has two separate food chains, each supplying roughly half of the market. The retail food chain links one set of farmers to grocery stores, and a second chain links a different set of farmers to institutional purchasers of food, such as restaurants, schools, and corporate offices. With the shutting down of much of the economy, as Americans stay home, this second food chain has essentially collapsed. But because of the way the industry has developed over the past several decades, it’s virtually impossible to reroute food normally sold in bulk to institutions to the retail outlets now clamoring for it. There’s still plenty of food coming from American farms, but no easy way to get it where it’s needed.
How did we end up here? The story begins early in the Reagan administration, when the Justice Department rewrote the rules of antitrust enforcement: if a proposed merger promised to lead to greater marketplace “efficiency”—the watchword—and wouldn’t harm the consumer, i.e., didn’t raise prices, it would be approved. (It’s worth noting that the word “consumer” appears nowhere in the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, passed in 1890. The law sought to protect producers—including farmers—and our politics from undue concentrations of corporate power.)1 The new policy, which subsequent administrations have left in place, propelled a wave of mergers and acquisitions in the food industry. As the industry has grown steadily more concentrated since the 1980s, it has also grown much more specialized, with a tiny number of large corporations dominating each link in the supply chain. One chicken farmer interviewed recently in Washington Monthly, who sells millions of eggs into the liquified egg market, destined for omelets in school cafeterias, lacks the grading equipment and packaging (not to mention the contacts or contracts) to sell his eggs in the retail marketplace.2 That chicken farmer had no choice but to euthanize thousands of hens at a time when eggs are in short supply in many supermarkets.
On April 26, John Tyson, the chairman of Tyson Foods, the second-largest meatpacker in America, took out ads in The New York Times and other newspapers to declare that the food chain was “breaking,” raising the specter of imminent meat shortages as outbreaks of Covid-19 hit the industry.3 Slaughterhouses have become hot zones for contagion, with thousands of workers now out sick and dozens of them dying.4 This should come as no surprise: social distancing is virtually impossible in a modern meat plant, making it an ideal environment for a virus to spread. In recent years, meatpackers have successfully lobbied regulators to increase line speeds, with the result that workers must stand shoulder to shoulder cutting and deboning animals so quickly that they can’t pause long enough to cover a cough, much less go to the bathroom, without carcasses passing them by. Some chicken plant workers, given no regular bathroom breaks, now wear diapers.5 A worker can ask for a break, but the plants are so loud he or she can’t be heard without speaking directly into the ear of a supervisor. Until recently slaughterhouse workers had little or no access to personal protective equipment; many of them were also encouraged to keep working even after exposure to the virus. Add to this the fact that many meat-plant workers are immigrants who live in crowded conditions with little or no access to health care, and you have a population at dangerously high risk of infection.
When the number of Covid-19 cases in America’s slaughterhouses exploded in late April—12,608 confirmed, with forty-nine deaths as of May 11—public health officials and governors began ordering plants to close. It was this threat to the industry’s profitability that led to Tyson’s declaration, which President Trump would have been right to see as a shakedown: the president’s political difficulties could only be compounded by a shortage of meat. In order to reopen their production lines, Tyson and his fellow packers wanted the federal government to step in and preempt local public health authorities; they also needed liability protection, in case workers or their unions sued them for failing to observe health and safety regulations.
Within days of Tyson’s ad, President Trump obliged the meatpackers by invoking the Defense Production Act. After having declined to use it to boost the production of badly needed coronavirus test kits, he now declared meat a “scarce and critical material essential to the national defense.” The executive order took the decision to reopen or close meat plants out of local hands, forced employees back to work without any mandatory safety precautions, and offered their employers some protection from liability for their negligence. On May 8, Tyson reopened a meatpacking plant in Waterloo, Iowa, where more than a thousand workers had tested positive.
The president and America’s meat eaters, not to mention its meat-plant workers, would never have found themselves in this predicament if not for the concentration of the meat industry, which has given us a supply chain so brittle that the closure of a single plant can cause havoc at every step, from farm to supermarket. Four companies now process more than 80 percent of beef cattle in America; another four companies process 57 percent of the hogs. A single Smithfield processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, processes 5 percent of the pork Americans eat. When an outbreak of Covid-19 forced the state’s governor to shut that plant down in April, the farmers who raise pigs committed to it were stranded.
Once pigs reach slaughter weight, there’s not much else you can do with them. You can’t afford to keep feeding them; even if you could, the production lines are designed to accommodate pigs up to a certain size and weight, and no larger. Meanwhile, you’ve got baby pigs entering the process, steadily getting fatter. Much the same is true for the hybrid industrial chickens, which, if allowed to live beyond their allotted six or seven weeks, are susceptible to broken bones and heart problems and quickly become too large to hang on the disassembly line. This is why the meat-plant closures forced American farmers to euthanize millions of animals, at a time when food banks were overwhelmed by demand.6
Under normal circumstances, the modern hog or chicken is a marvel of brutal efficiency, bred to produce protein at warp speed when given the right food and pharmaceuticals. So are the factories in which they are killed and cut into parts. These innovations have made meat, which for most of human history has been a luxury, a cheap commodity available to just about all Americans; we now eat, on average, more than nine ounces of meat per person per day, many of us at every meal.7 Covid-19 has brutally exposed the risks that accompany such a system. There will always be a tradeoff between efficiency and resilience (not to mention ethics); the food industry opted for the former, and we are now paying the price.
Imagine how different the story would be if there were still tens of thousands of chicken and pig farmers bringing their animals to hundreds of regional slaughterhouses. An outbreak at any one of them would barely disturb the system; it certainly wouldn’t be front-page news. Meat would probably be more expensive, but the redundancy would render the system more resilient, making breakdowns in the national supply chain unlikely. Successive administrations allowed the industry to consolidate because the efficiencies promised to make meat cheaper for the consumer, which it did. It also gave us an industry so powerful it can enlist the president of the United States in its efforts to bring local health authorities to heel and force reluctant and frightened workers back onto the line […]