COVID- 19 Outbreaks in NC: Symptoms of a Sick System
By Sally Lee
Tyson Foods recently disclosed that 570 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at their Wilkesboro chicken processing plant. In this unprecedented time, we must take care to not be divided by the meat industry’s all-too familiar blame shifting tactics. The Trump administration’s official response to this crisis in meat plants has been to simultaneously declare workers as essential in order to keep plants open, while also finding ways to shift blame onto workers for supply chain failures. Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services, has said that worker infections were linked to “home and social” employee behavior, and even suggested sending law enforcement to their homes to ensure social distancing.
I am not here to say that there aren’t many contributing factors to why plant workers are getting sick in such shockingly high numbers, but I am unwilling to entertain the narrative that they brought this on themselves.
I am a native North Carolinian. For several years, I worked with contract chicken farmers who fought back against unfair contracts with big companies like Tyson. I am certainly no stranger to exploitive meat industry tactics and failed bureaucratic promises, but my current work with plant workers has awakened me to what lengths the meat industry and our government agencies will go to shirk responsibility for decades of reckless profiteering.
The business model of the meat and poultry industry is made possible by treating farmers and workers as costs to be contained – mere externalities. Tyson reported profits of almost $10.9 billion just in the first quarter of 2020. While their shareholders and executives reap rewards, contract farmers in the US face some of the the highest levels of debt of any sector in agriculture, earning an average of just five cents per bird. At the same time, workers in the plants face degrading and dangerous conditions as the industry lobbies to increase line speeds even during this pandemic.
Tyson is starting to take steps to triage the outbreaks, including daily symptom screenings and introducing barriers between workers. But these steps may well amount to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Why are so many plant workers getting sick? Could it be the conditions in the plants themselves?
Not only does the need for speed and efficiency have workers packed shoulder to shoulder, but it is also common practice to use heavy chemicals in plants. The Food Integrity Campaign has talked to hundreds of plant workers and inspectors, and invariably concerns about plant chemicals come up. In 2013, The Washington Post covered the death of poultry inspector Jose Navarro in New York, who was exposed to chemicals while working in a chicken plant and died when his lungs bled out. In 2018, The Intercept told the harrowing stories of whistleblowers Jessica Robertson and Tina McClellan, who bravely came forward on behalf of themselves and other plant workers who suffered severe respiratory issues including coughing, burning in their throat, nosebleeds, and difficulty breathing.
Research has already shown that people suffering from chronic respiratory problems or asthma, like what whistleblowers have described, are more likely to contract COVID-19. Damage in the cellular barrier protecting their lungs makes it easier for the virus to invade the body. Workers with pre-existing lung damage would also be at a higher risk of complications from COVID-19, making them more susceptible to severe illness and death.
Persistent abuses in our food system must be addressed going forward. There are thousands of good people who do backbreaking work to bring safe and wholesome food to our tables every day. We must acknowledge their worth and demand their dignity.