With meat production, it's time to learn that bigger is not always better

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Image: nicepix25216/Flickr

Ok -- I can admit that I eat meat … and yes, that includes beef. I eat less than I did at one time, and have always been conscious of health considerations when selecting beef, pork or chicken. I also eat my cereals and grains -- and I am big on vegetables and fruit as well. Truth be told, though, I am adding vegan recipes to my kitchen roster as well.

Those of you who read this column know that I try to buy and eat responsibly.

This pandemic is putting an entirely new light on where our food comes from and how we eat.

I have always favoured purchasing from smaller meat producers, or at least sources that I can track easily. I am fond of saying that I like to know my cow, pig or chicken personally. That is just a way of saying that I pick my producers and food markets with care. I take pride in buying at the farmgate ... or as close to it as I can get.

The bright side of this pandemic is that many local food producers are seeing a surge in customers -- a surge that was completely unanticipated -- until COVID-19 hit.

Now many are ramping up food production and that includes smaller chicken, pork and beef production given the recent COVID-19 outbreaks in large-scale meat-processing plants.

The time has arrived to take a hard look at how we produce and process meat across Canada.

With COVID-19 outbreaks in meat-packing plants, we have learned that not only is our meat-processing industry highly concentrated, but it is also extremely fragile. Plant workers are more at risk during this pandemic than ever before. Some Alberta plants have had to close for a few weeks to try to deal with very serious outbreaks of COVID-19.

The Alberta meat-packing plants, Cargill in High River, and JBS S.A. in Brooks, supply this country with most of its beef production. Closures during the pandemic have left both ranchers and consumers wondering how to cope should there be more shutdowns. Even Canadian Food Inspection Workers assigned to these plants have come down with COVID-19, placing important food inspections at risk (not only for COVID-19 but also for listeria, E.coli, etc.)

The Cargill plant in High River is responsible for the single largest outbreak of COVID-19 in North America. In mid-May almost 50 per cent of that plant's 2,000 employees were infected. With more than 900 COVID-19 cases, the workers at Cargill's High River operation were connected to more than 1,500 other cases outside the plant as infected workers were in contact with family, friends and others. A smaller Cargill plant in Chambly, Quebec also had a serious outbreak, with 13 per cent of its workforce infected.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents Cargill employees in High River, is taking the company to court for lax safety standards. The union had recommended action to protect the health and safety of workers well before the outbreak became unimaginably serious.

At the JBS S.A. plant in Brooks, more than 500 of the 2,600 employees have contracted COVID-19.

Now in both plants safety screens, barriers, physical-distancing in lunch rooms, restrictions on car pooling and other measures have been put in place to try to prevent another COVID-19 outbreak.

So while this pandemic brings to light just how contagious the environment of a fast-paced factory-like meat-packing plant can be, it also shows the vulnerability of Canada’s concentrated beef industry. The closure of those two plants, even for a short period, triggered widespread fear of barren meat shelves.

The pandemic and its impact urges us to look at corporate concentration in the meat industry and how we have accepted this mode of production. Canada is among the top five meat-consuming countries in the G20, outranked only by Argentina, the United States, Brazil and Australia. And, the Cargill plants in High River, Alberta, and Guelph, Ontario, along with the JBS S.A. plant in Brooks, Alberta, process 85 per cent of the beef in Canada.

A lot of that meat is also exported, adding to the profitable coffers of these conglomerates.

These processing plants are huge.

When I lived in western Canada, I often travelled the Trans-Canada Highway into Calgary. I always knew when I was close to Brooks -- not because I could see the town or the welcome signs, but because there was no escaping the smell -- that piercing, burning, scent of methane or cattle dung, if you like, running through your nasal passages. Most of the time there were no cattle as I drove by, but you definitely knew there had been -- and not long before. But once, I did see cattle … thousands upon thousands of cattle, headed to slaughter. The numbers astounded me, a visual I have not forgotten even 30 years later.

The Cargill plant in High River has the capacity to handle upwards of 4,500 cattle in a day. The pace on the line is fast and workers labour almost elbow to elbow. There is what is called the "kill side" and then the "cut side." The lines are regimented and precise, designed to handle measured sizes of animals in huge volumes, and fast. The goal is to maximize production and, of course, profit.

Beyond the vulnerability of these workers to a virus like COVID-19, the actual size of these plants, the working conditions even before the pandemic, and the economic reach of conglomerates like Cargill and JBS S.A., should have been enough to startle governments into action long ago. How did we ever let it get this far?

Cargill is a 150-year-old multi-sector transnational corporation. Add to that mouthful the countries and continents where it operates -- Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North and South America -- and holdings that range from cocoa, to grain, to meat-packing plants, financial services and more. Globally it has 155,000 employees in 70 countries and regions. In 2018 it had revenue of more than US$114 billion and more than US$3 billion in profit. The history and reach of Cargill is a study all on its own. It has been accused of labour and human rights abuses, including trafficking, land grabbing, food contamination, and now, not protecting workers at its High River plant.

JBS USA Holdings Ltd. in Brooks is yet another transnational, owned by JBS S.A., a company founded in 1953 in Brazil. JBS is the second largest beef and poultry processor in the United States (as of 2017), with processing plants in Brazil, Argentina and Australia. The company employs more than 900,000 people globally, has revenues of US$50 billion and has customers in 150 countries. The U.S. plants have seen several serious outbreaks throughout this pandemic. In pre-pandemic years, this corporate giant has been accused and charged in Brazil with corruption for insider trading, bribing health and food inspectors and prominent politicians, and much more. Through its subsidiary, JBS Foods International, also part of JBS S.A., this transnational is involved in food products, hygiene and cleaning products, biofuels and more. Again, much like Cargill, it is a case study on its own.

A recent letter published on the National Farmers Union of Canada website succinctly explains why concentration of meat processing is not a good thing during a pandemic, or ever. Authors of the letter call for the return fo smaller abattoirs linked to local production as the way forward for workers, farmers and consumers.

Time to learn that bigger is not always better.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Image: nicepix25216/Flickr​

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