The Atlantic: The Essentials — Why we’re killing the people who feed us

Eric Schlosser

Author of Fast Food Nation

Under the headline “A Delicate Balance: Feeding the Nation and Keeping Our Employees Healthy,” a letter from John H. Tyson appeared as a full-page ad in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sunday, April 26. Tyson is chairman of the board at Tyson Foods, the largest American-owned meatpacking company, and the grandson of its founder. “In small communities around the country, where we employ over 100,000 hard-working men and women, we’re being forced to shutter our doors,” he wrote. “This means one thing—the food supply chain is vulnerable.” He raised the prospect that millions of animals would have to be “depopulated” and that only a “limited supply of our products” would be available if Tyson had to close its slaughterhouses.

What John Tyson failed to mention is that meatpacking plants, along with prisons, had become the nation’s leading hot spots for the spread of COVID-19 infections. Thousands of meatpacking workers had fallen ill, many had died, and local health departments were considering whether to shut down plants operated by the industry giants: Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield Foods, and JBS USA. Two days after the publication of Tyson’s letter, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that declared meatpacking plants to be “critical infrastructure” under the Defense Production Act of 1950—and prohibited their closure by state health authorities. The order provided meatpacking companies with a legal defense from liability claims by their employees. But it failed to impose any federal rules on how those companies must protect workers from outbreaks of COVID-19 at meatpacking plants. MORE