“Patriot Act” host Hasan Minhaj explained how six companies came to control the majority of the U.S. meat industry.
More than 5,000 meat plant workers have been infected and at least 20 have died as a result of COVID-19, according to union officials. Beef and pork production is down 40 percent from last year, but millions of animals have been “euthanized” by farmers who could not send them to slaughter.
Minhaj explains that pandemic is causing “historic disruptions” to food supply chains. The effects happened fast. In early May, 18 percent of Wendy’s restaurants were not serving hamburgers.
Major retailers Costco and Kroger placed limits on meat purchases, anticipating shortages. And, Minhaj adds, The New York Times published a full-page ad by Tyson Foods, the world’s second-largest processor of chicken, beef, and pork, warning that the food supply chain is “breaking.”
These disruptions are happening, Minhaj continues, because just six companies control two-thirds of U.S. meat and poultry sales: Tyson, Hormel, National Beef, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield. In the Reagan era, many smaller meat companies merged into corporations in the name of efficiency. This is what allowed COVID-19 to spread so quickly through meat processing plants, where workers work shoulder-to-shoulder to meet production demands.
“This isn’t just part of their business model,” Minhaj says. “It is their business model. Efficiency depends on workers being packed on the line. Meat plants were basically destined to become COVID hotspots.”
The Defense Production Act
In response to processing plants closing, President Donald Trump invoked The Defense Production Act of 1950 (DPA). The Korean War-era law “encourages” processing plants to follow federal safety guidelines and “prioritize federal contracts.”
Minhaj points out that it took two months for the president to invoke the DPA to define ventilators and protective equipment as “essential to the national defense,” but only two days to do so for the meat industry. He highlights that Trump said the order will “help solve any liability problems.”
“Trump is invoking the DPA to shield meat plants from liability from their workers,” he adds. “He’s not forcing them to stay open. He’s giving them cover to stay open, so the plants can avoid liability.”
Meat plants are typically able to keep their treatment of workers under wraps, Minhaj explains, because “they hire some of the most vulnerable people in America. More than half of their employees are refugees or immigrants. Many of them, undocumented.”
Under the DPA, plants that would have closed down due to liability concerns may remain open. Hasan adds that a workers’ group sued a Smithfield plant in Missouri, but the company had the case overturned by invoking Trump’s “executive order.” COVID cases spiked at nearly twice the national rate after trump signed the order.
“Here’s the most ironic thing about all of this: Trump says he feels like a wartime president. But the way he’s used his powers shows you exactly where his priorities are,” Minhaj concludes. “The Defense Production Act is so that the president can take control of supply chains to protect the public. But Trump is using it to protect corporations at the expense of the public.”