“Deutschland, erstick an deinem spargel” read the graffiti – literally, “Germans choke on your asparagus”.
The words were probably scrawled on a wall on the outskirts of Berlin by one of the 300,000 migrant labourers hired by the country’s agricultural sector.
Germans love to eat asparagus but they don’t like to pick it. The designated pickers are migrants, many from Bulgaria, Poland and Romania. Picking fruit and vegetables isn’t the only designated task for migrant labour in Germany’s food industry. Many work in meat processing plants, such as the Tonnies abattoir in Gutersloh, the largest slaughterhouse in the country where, earlier this year, 657 workers tested positive for Covid-19, prompting a lock down that encompassed the entire district of Gutersloh.
After cases at plants in North Rhine-Wesphalia, Schleswig-Holstein and Bavaria, the German government is now proposing that, from January 2021, only company employees – not sub-contractors – will be able to slaughter animals and process meat at such facilities.
As virologist Isabelle Eckerle told Deutsche Welle: “People work in closed rooms, with no possibility of social distancing. Many foreign labourers live in cramped apartments, sometimes many of them sleep in the same room, which makes it easier for the virus to spread. Damp hands, gloves, aprons and clothing could promote transmission through smear infections.” Staff also work in frigid temperatures and in noisy environments so must often shout to be heard, significantly raising the risk of contagion.
These conditions are not unique to Tonnies or Germany and nor is the incidence of Covid-19. Cases have been reported in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Spain, the UK and the US. At the time of writing, there have been confirmed outbreaks at 26 American meat processing plants with the Food & Environmental Reporting Network estimating 49,369 employees testing positive for Covid-19. The sites affected are owned by some of the industry’s biggest names: Cargill, Conagra, Perdue and Smithfields.
After being heavily criticised over its working conditions and inconsistent response to the crisis, industry giant Tyson Foods is hiring a chief medical officer and 200 nurses while instituting weekly coronavirus tests at 140 factories in the US. With some plants closed – temporarily or permanently – and consumer demand affected by lockdown, Tyson’s revenues fell by 15% in the second quarter of 2020.
The perceived mishandling of Covid-19 by the American subsidiary of Brazilian group JBS, was the final straw for European financial services firm Nordea Asset Management which announced in July that it was excluding the world’s largest meat producer from its £210bn investment portfolio.
Nordea had been already frustrated by credible allegations, stretching back for more than a decade, that cattle in JBS’s supply chain came from farms linked to deforestation in the Amazon. (JBS admits there are issues with “indirect supplier traceability” in the Brazilian meat industry but denies the charges). In the US alone, Covid-19 has been found at 13 JBS factories.
Such headlines can only damage the entire food industry’s reputation. The source of the virus has been persuasively, if not conclusively, traced back to a market in Wuhan where wild animals are sold for eating and trading.
Concerns about a spike of Covid-19 cases around the recent Eid-al-Adha religious festival prompted Pakistan’s government to ban the open air food markets where Muslims traditionally bought their animals for ritual slaughter. Proving there is still some life in the old cliché – ‘there’s an app for that’ – buyers can order animals or meat to be delivered to their home via a new online platform Qurbani.
The business critical question facing the industry across the world is trust. It is only eight years since consumers were shocked by the discovery of horse DNA in burgers, lasagne and ready meals sold in supermarkets across Europe. Covid-19 presents an exponentially greater challenge for the food sector, as it tries to reassure consumers who had begun to prioritise health and well-being even before the crisis.
The stakes are highest of all for meat producers with market research group Mintel predicting that, between now and 2030, “consumers will prioritise plants in their diets, with the planet’s health in mind as much as their own.” Every headline that links meat processing with the pandemic is effectively a promotion for the champions of plant-based meat.
“The pandemic has resulted in serious food insecurity across the globe,” Ian Proudfoot, KPMG’s global head of agribusiness told an industry webinar recently. For example, in the first week of July, one-fifth of Wendy’s restaurants in the US ran out of burgers. Prices and supply will be unpredictable for a while yet.
Proudfoot warned there could be no quick fixes for the challenge posed by Covid-19. “People will be looking for lifestyle solutions that help build immunity and minimise the risk of contagion. The effects will be felt for a long time because traditional consumer demand has shifted. History will recall that this crisis came about because of a food safety failing and, in future, food supply will need to be traceable, trusted and safe.”
To achieve that, Proudfoot argues, the industry will need to accelerate mechanisation, automation (as seasonal and migrant labour will be constrained by border controls) and digitalisation. “I believe growers, manufacturers and retailers will probably need to reinvent themselves to deliver directly to consumers.”
To become truly traceable, trusted and safe, the industry’s supply chains will need to be more visible, more flexible and much more transparent. Producers will also, very probably, have to invest significant amounts in employee healthcare.
Some critics argue the number of Covid-19 outbreaks at factories is the logical result of what Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and global health at New York University, calls “years of meat industry consolidation and vertical integration aimed at increasing profits through efficiency and low wages, regardless of the effects on animals, workers and the environment.”
Maybe, some experts say, a shock of this magnitude – and let’s be clear here, the pandemic is not a black swan event – can help the industry develop a healthier, environmentally friendlier and more sustainable system for feeding the world.
As Tim Benton, research director for energy, environment and resources at Chatham House, told SM earlier this year: “The question is not ‘will it happen?’, it is ‘when will it happen?’ We could have started to create a sustainable, equitable and nutritious food system in 2003, after the outbreak of SARS. It could happen now or it could happen in 10 years’ time when the next crisis occurs, but for the sake of our health, and the health of our planet, it cannot not happen.”