As COVID-19 impacts are felt severely in the US, media hype surges around an impending meat shortage. State politicians are calling for federal support for the meat industry, citing that “it is critical that plants continue to operate.” Even emerging are talks of bailouts for what’s considered an essential industry for feeding the nation.
But there is one gaping hole in this discourse: meat is not essential for human survival or health. This is something made clear by plant-based nutritionists, leading dietary organizations, and vegans every day.
Yet, our obsession with meat and the pervasive notion that meat is, in fact, essential, put working Americans at great risk to bring meat to consumers’ tables. Given the demand for products made from animal bodies, there are jobs made available. Those who take these jobs find themselves in grave risk of severe injury and apparent mental health damage, exhibited in crime rates across slaughterhouse working communities. And now, as COVID-19 spreads, these workers risk their lives in order to produce meat.
Washington Post reports that workers feel “helpless and afraid” as a Tyson beef slaughterhouse in Nebraska incentivizes employees to come to work sick during the pandemic by offering an extra $30 in pay per day. And for what? Tyson will make more profit, yes — but at the great expense of workers' health and public safety. These costs all so that grocery stores can stock a food product that the Harvard School of Public Health recommends be eaten “only on special occasions.”
Let’s be clear: ensuring health and safety of meat industry workers and that they are able to pay for rent, food, medicine, and education for children is essential. Ensuring the profits of multinational corporations, continued exacerbation of resources, and enormous contributions to climate change by the uninterrupted inhumane slaughter of billions of animals in slaughterhouses is not essential.
Marketing meat production as essential glosses over the industry’s limitless environmental impact and increasing consolidation into the hands of a few exploitative corporations. It has been well-documented by nutritionists that meat is not an essential part of a human diet, and no lives should be at risk in order to keep running such a destructive enterprise as factory farming of animals.
Kiely Smith is the New York Director for FFAC and a graduate student studying Animal Studies in the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University.