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Three Ways To Fix The Meat Industry’s Empathy Problem
A view of the chicken and meat section at a grocery store, April 28, 2020 Washington, DC
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Three Ways To Fix The Meat Industry’s Empathy Problem

Hank Cardello

Tyson Foods is the latest example of why the sector needs ‘herd immunity’ from itself

Like many of its beleaguered workers — almost 27,000 of whom have tested positive for Covid-19 — the American meatpacking megalopolis is showing up for work despite being very, very sick. Production lines continue to run at high speeds and in cramped quarters, exposing workers to the virus. While the workers deserve our sympathy, the meatpackers have nobody to blame but themselves. They are infected with a stubborn virus strain, called “a lack of empathy.” It will prove to be deadly to their businesses over the long term unless they treat themselves.

Tyson Foods provides yet another case of why that industry’s fossilized thinking is clouding its future. Just this week it was reported that the company, with over 7,000 cases of Covid-19 among employees, reinstated its standard attendance policy: Workers will be penalized if they stay home because they’re fearful of catching the coronavirus, unless they exhibit symptoms or have tested positive. This came despite accusations by plant workers that those facilities were pushing employees to deal with high-speed lines, making it extremely difficult to maintain social distancing.

Grim pictures have emerged of the Dickensian work environments inside meatpacking plants. Workers are packed shoulder-to-shoulder doing grisly work with limited breaks and low pay. In a complaint filed in April, workers at a Missouri-based Smithfield plant alleged that they were under so much pressure to work quickly that they couldn’t cover their sneezes and suffered from urinary tract infections because they couldn’t take bathroom breaks. Caring for employees’ well-being is clearly not top of mind for company management.

Underscoring these concerns, former Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety Jerold Mande told me that “meat companies are failing to protect their workers because the marketplace and USDA have made a low-cost steady supply of meat the current priority and seem willing to sacrifice low-income workers’ lives to maintain it. This will become that industry’s legacy from this terrible time and I suspect the future marketplace w* on’t look kindly on it,” Mande said.

On top of all this, the industry is fighting wars on multiple fronts:

  • Price-fixing. Four giant meatpackers that control 80% of the U.S. beef processing market have been accused of price fixing. This practice has been outlawed for many decades, and defying these rules is egregious and anti-competitive.
  • High worker illness rates. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported that meat and poultry workers have more than four times higher illness rates than other manufacturing workers. While declining, these high rates show that employee health is not the top priority. To make matters worse, meat companies have been cagey about sharing accurate data about the number of outbreaks.
  • Exorbitant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Total annual greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture (production emissions plus land-use change) contribute 14.5% of all human emissions. Beef alone accounts for 41% of the food industry’s GHGs.
  • Rapid growth of plant-based meats. Sales of alternative meat products have increased more than 200% in grocery stores during the coronavirus outbreak. These products are gaining consumer awareness and trial, and are expanding market share in the meat category.

To grow, meatpackers can no longer rely on the public’s insatiable appetite for cheap cuts. Consumer tastes are changing, fueled by Millennials, who last year eclipsed Baby Boomers as the largest generation and were expected to represent 30% of the projected $1.4 trillion in U.S. retail sales. While the pandemic has dampened all spending, the number of Baby Boomers is declining. As the Millennials population grows, their consumer power will be unstoppable.

The meat industry is antithetical to everything Millennials value. Their treatment of employees runs counter to Millennials’ No. 2 value: empathy, according to a Gallup report.).pdf Their role in global warming is antithetical to Millennials’ concern for the environment. Their price-fixing is antithetical to Millennials’ demand for transparency and decency. Their role in promoting products increasingly linked to global warming and poor health is antithetical to the priorities of younger workers, who say they want to work for a company with a purpose.

These concerns will continue to shape Millennials’ purchasing decisions as they become a consumer bloc as powerful as their Baby Boomer parents before them. A study by Midan Marketing found that a growing number of consumers are already gravitating towards grass-fed meat, meat alternatives or a combination of the two (so-called flexitarians). In other words, mass-produced factory meat, from a handful of profit-oriented corporations instead of socially conscious firms, is increasingly out of favor.

Permanent change is on the way for this important food sector. To survive, the meat industry must inoculate itself now from a long downward spiral. It can’t continue to cling to its glory days like a dog to a steak, or pretend everything will be OK once this pesky pandemic is over. Here are three ways the entrenched meat industry can save itself:

  • Put employees and consumers ahead of production – The industry must no longer hide behind its archaic practices. It must replace its zeal for product output with employee care. Poor working conditions, price fixing and hiding Covid-19 results defy employees’ and consumers’ need for transparency and breaches trust.
  • Aggressively pursue alternative meats – Sales of meat alternatives are growing phenomenally. “Flexitarians,” who still eat meat but increasingly embrace non-meat alternatives, are here to stay. Meat companies must step up efforts behind non-meat alternatives and sell them side-by-side with traditional meats, recognizing their appeal to complementary consumer segments.
  • Commit to making positive social change – Meat products are leaving a large, negative footprint on our environment and climate. By making a public commitment to reduce that footprint, large meat companies would not only help the environment; they would broaden their appeal to large and younger consumer segments.

Meat companies must come into the 21st century if they are to flourish and survive. They must shed their operator mindsets and adopt a more empathic stance to employees and consumers. Otherwise, like a cow entering the stunning room of a meat packing plant, they eventually won’t know what hit them.

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