Writer: Milena Sagawa Krasny
Slaughterhouses have emerged as perfect breeding grounds for Coronavirus, clearly exposing the brutality of the meat industry, both for the workers and animals. At the same time, evidence suggests that those with underlying health conditions associated with excess meat consumption are more at risk of suffering severe cases of Coronavirus and related deaths. We must not close our eyes any longer; this should be a wake-up call.
The plight of slaughterhouse workers and the health toll of eating an excess of meat are hardly news, but Coronavirus has dangerously exacerbated these issues. When the conversation turns to meat, it is sometimes said that we should prioritise human issues over animal ones. However, in view of the brutal working conditions that have come to light amid the Coronavirus pandemic, this distinction does not make sense. Animal welfare and human welfare are interlinked: our meat consumption inflicts harm upon humans as well as animals.
The pandemic has particularly drawn attention to two consequences of our excessive meat consumption: scandalous working conditions of slaughterhouse workers, and negative health effects on consumers. The wave of Coronavirus outbreaks sweeping through European and US slaughterhouses has exposed the terrible working environments that are not simply localised but rather a major worldwide problem. Simultaneously, Coronavirus is taking a heavier toll on those with underlying health conditions that have been linked to an excessive intake of meat. When this pandemic is over, and the media moves on, this could easily fall off the radar again, leaving all these long-standing problems unresolved.
The grim reality for slaughterhouse workers
“We import cheap labour from Central and Eastern Europe and then export cheap meat to the rest of the world”, said German unionist Bernd Maiweg, summarising a business model that is far from exclusive to Germany (Maiweg, 2017).
High levels of meat consumption can be seen across the West. In the US, annual meat consumption per person tops 100kg, while most Western European countries average between 80 and 90kg (Ritchie, 2019). From the Americas to Europe and Australia, abattoirs have become concentrated sites of infection with forced plant closures worldwide due to infection breakouts. In the US, around 5,000 slaughterhouse workers have contracted the illness (Landwehr, 2020); while Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Ireland, France and the UK have also faced issues in their respective slaughterhouses (Terazono and Schipani 2020). A closer look at the UK and Germany reveals similarities between the operations of meat industries in different countries.
In 2016, the UK’s annual meat consumption was estimated at 79kg per person, one of the highest in the West (Fullfact, 2018). The UK meat processing industry employs a total of around 97,000 workers, of whom approximately 62% are EU nationals, with some producers reporting workforces of up to 85% EU nationals (British Meat Industry, n.d.). Across the UK, Coronavirus outbreaks occurred in the meat industry: in Ireland, at least 1,114 Covid-19 cases were reported across at least 20 meat plants. In West Yorkshire, more than 60 staff at a factory supplying meat to Asda were infected, and in Wales, two food-processing plants suffered separate outbreaks including a chicken factory in Anglesey where at least 150 employees tested positive (Dalton, 2020). Under normal circumstances, slaughterhouse employees are already subject to some of the most dangerous working conditions in the UK, with an average of more than two workers nationally suffering serious injuries per week (including eye damage and crush injuries to the head) and amputations occurring at least once a month (i News, 2018). A study also reported the operations of criminal groups in trafficking foreign nationals to work in UK slaughterhouses, especially before Christmas. It is rare to find anyone who actually sought out this work; often those working in abattoirs are living in desperate circumstances on minimum wages (Newkey-Burden, 2018). Some factories have on-site or nearby accommodation where several people live in each dormitory, are transported on a bus to work, and spend all day working together indoors, all factors which have facilitated the spread of Coronavirus (Head, 2020). While the Unite union represents many workers in the meat processing sector, it says that plants often employ migrant workers who may not be entitled to full sick pay, who could lose money if they self-isolate after contracting the illness. The workers often do not speak English as a first language so may be reluctant to raise concerns, particularly if they are worried about losing their jobs (Reuben, 2020).
Similarly, Germany is one of the world’s biggest meat producers with an average annual meat consumption of 60kg per person (Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und nukleare Sicherheit, 2019) and grappled with several Coronavirus outbreaks at its slaughterhouses. In June, more than 1,500 people tested positive for Coronavirus at the country’s biggest slaughterhouse facility Tönnies, forcing authorities to reimpose lockdown over the whole district and another neighbouring one (Ziady, Halasz, & Kottasová, 2020).
The German meat industry has traditionally relied upon cheap migrant labour supplied by subcontractors: thousands of migrant labourers from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine work in slaughterhouses there. According to experts, their working conditions are frequently atrocious, with double shifts of up to 15 hours, up to 60 hour working weeks, and extortionate fees for protective clothing and use of the break room (Balser, 2017). This raw and brutal reality takes place far away from the eyes of most of society. But not Peter Kossen. The Catholic pastor still remembers Holy Week of 2013 vividly. It was a cold and snowy day when the pastor suddenly found himself facing some Hungarian slaughterhouse workers in front of his office. Their car had broken down, and they needed food and shelter. Ever since, Peter Kossen has been helping Eastern European migrants in the meat industry and campaigning against their working conditions (Deutschlandfunknova, 2020). He says their accommodation is often mouldy and overcrowded and they are driven to work in packed buses (DW, 2020). It is to these horrendous conditions that the spread of Coronavirus is now attributed.
Through his work as a doctor, Florian Kossen, Peter Kossen’s brother, has learnt harrowing details about these people living in the margins of society. He was speechless when he treated slaughterhouse cleaners whose entire bodies were cauterised due to insufficient protective clothing. That was an emergency, but the less dramatic, more common issues are just as dangerous such as serious joint or spine infections. The physician has seen petite women, barely 20 years old, carrying boxes weighing 30kg during 12 hour shifts through deep frozen warehouse facilities, 6 days a week (Scheeben, 2020).
These scandalous reports reveal the enormity of the suffering that the meat industry creates: it is not only non-human animals who bear the brunt, but also humans. The meat industry has no mercy for either, treating both as if they were machines.
The health toll: Coronavirus, overconsumption of meat and the danger of underlying health conditions
Excessive meat consumption is often associated with increased risk of mortality and chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) (Richi et al, 2015), all of which are reported to increase the risk of hospitalisation and death related to Coronavirus.
However, this is neither an entirely new nor surprising phenomenon: CVDs were already the leading cause of death in the EU, US and Australia prior to the Coronavirus outbreak, and the potential association of CVDs (and other health issues) with excess red and processed meat consumption has been studied for years (Better Health Channel, 2018; Eurostat, 2019; American Heart Association News, 2019).
Risk factors for severe COVID-19, as identified by public health agencies in the UK, US, as well as by Harvard and the WHO, include cardiovascular disease, hypertension, chronic kidney disease, diabetes, and chronic respiratory disease (Lancet, 2020). A study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that people with underlying health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, are 6 times more likely to be hospitalised with Coronavirus and have a risk of Coronavirus-related death 12 times higher than otherwise healthy individuals (Reuters, 2020). All of the aforementioned diseases are linked to diet, especially to an excess of meat and so The European Heart Network has strongly emphasised the role of diet in limiting the risk of CVD: “dietary factors make the largest contribution to the risk of CVD mortality at the population level across Europe of ALL behavioural risk factors” (European Heart Network, 2017).
Meat consumption rates in industrialised countries are very high; in 2014, the average person in the world ate around 43kg of meat. Nevertheless, there are intercontinental variations ranging from over 100kg of annual average meat consumption in the US and Australia to only 5kg in India (Ritchie and Roser, 2017). Although meat offers some major nutritional benefits such as highly bioavailable iron, essential fatty acids, and complete protein, research suggests that overconsumption of red and processed meat in particular is a risk factor for currently widespread (and potentially deadly) illnesses such as CVD and type 2 diabetes.
And now, this eating habit is potentially aggravating the fallout of Coronavirus by raising the risk of hospitalisation and death from contracting the virus.
A wake-up call
The working conditions of slaughterhouse workers and potential adverse health effects are only two of the downsides of meat overconsumption that were already known, but largely ignored before Coronavirus flipped our world upside down and turned them into frontpage news. In response to an increased scrutiny of slaughterhouse practices, the German government announced its intesntions to tighten the regulation of this industry. That is, of course, a reasonable proposal; the government has a role to play in guaranteeing safety at work. But what, if any, is the alternative to the current system? Without farms and slaughterhouses that exploit humans and non-human animals like machines – how would countries supply such vast amounts of affordably priced meat? Is it realistic to expect that government regulation can fundamentally change the situation when consumers demand more than 60kg of meat per year? Does a system like this leave any room for the humanity of workers, and rights of non-human animals?
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