s food factories in England and Wales close, with around 250 confirmed cases of coronavirus among workers, pressure for regulatory changes mounts across Europe, the UK and the United States.
Advocates are calling for smaller local plants, saying consumers are prepared to foot the bill for subsequently higher retail prices. This comes hand in hand with calls for improved conditions and better health cover for food processing workers.
The link between high consolidation and the risk of food insecurity has long been observed. 2 Sisters Food Group is the UK’s main supplier of chicken. It closed its Anglesey plant this week for 14 days after 58 people tested positive for coronavirus.
In Canada, a Covid-19 outbreak at a single Cargill plant in Alberta impacted close to one-half of Canada’s beef supply. In the United States it was estimated that 10% of all beef production and 25% of pork production closed when 13 packing and food processing workers died after contracting Covid-19.
In France, Germany and the UK, the top five beef and poultry producers account for a large majority of their respective markets. In the United States the top four beef processors control about 80% of meat supply, all four of which, Tyson Foods Inc., JBS SA, Cargill Inc. and National Beef Inc. are being investigated over alleged price fixing.
Pressure for change is coming from local communities as well as food policy advocates. Flare-ups in local factories lead to the re-imposition of lockdown, meaning schools and offices must close again.
Workers are shoulder to shoulder, processing 400 cattle per hour
Consolidated competition leads to pressure for quicker processing. The faster animal carcasses move along a production line, the closer together workers need to operate, putting them at high risk of infection from airborne virus particles. German poultry line speeds can be faster even than those of the United States, where employees work shoulder to shoulder, processing up to 400 cattle per hour.
Meat processing relies generally on low-paid migrant labour, living and working in tightly-packed, unhealthy conditions. Living hand to mouth and without access to adequate sick pay, the current conditions dissuade staff from skipping work to self-isolate and prevent the transmission of the illness.
In France, the Confédération Paysanne farmers’ union called for a return to smaller-scale, local meat production, saying, “The re-localisation of (meat) processing is a necessary step toward a more resilient system.”
The European Commission has echoed these proposals in its new Farm to Fork Strategy, for the continent-wide Green Deal. The Commission says it plans to promote “shorter supply chains” in order “to enhance resilience of regional and local food systems”.
Small producers have to transport their animals long distances for processing at large plants, often hundreds of miles. Consolidation means that, in the United States for example, small producers are often told that plants cannot process their meat for six months. Or they are turned away completely.
This week Germany announced new measures, in response to the closure of a number of meat plants, The sector employs at least 90,000, 70% of whom are subcontracted through employment agencies. From January 1st next year large meat processing companies will have to directly employ all their workers.
The UK’s dependency on large processors is such as that in March, Ronald Kers, the CEO of 2 Sisters Food Group, referred to his company’s role in national food security, saying 75% of the UK population eats its food every day. He made a social media video appeal for a nationwide recruitment campaign.
Mr Kers said in his video post: “2 Sisters’ job is literally to feed the nation. Getting food to people has never been so important. As we come together as a country to fight the coronavirus, we need everybody’s help.”
Privately-owned 2 Sisters employs 20,000 in the UK and Europe, processes one-third of all chicken consumed in the UK, it is the largest ready-meals producer and makes Fox’s Biscuits and other bakery goods.