Writing about what the food industry should do about the coronavirus pandemic long-term, while we’re still very much in its grip, may feel like pushing one’s luck. Nonetheless, I can’t help speculating about how we, as an industry and a nation, will handle such situations in the future.
As we all know, the food industry, especially the meat sector, has unfortunately been an infection vector. There have been instances where the majority of COVID infections in a county, or even a large part of a state, have been traceable to a single meat or poultry processing plant.
Undoubtedly this is partly due to how such plants are often not only the biggest employer in the area but the place where the largest number of people regularly congregate. And increased testing undoubtedly plays a role. But it’s indisputable that food in general, and meat and poultry in particular, has one of the highest rates of workforce infection of any major industry.
An appalling situation, to be sure. The question is what, if anything, can be done about it over the long term?
To answer that question, we first have to answer: Are there more pandemics in our future?
To which I would pose yet another question: Does anyone remember the hundred-year storm?
That’s what really bad hurricanes, floods, etc., used to be called. The idea was that they were so improbable that they should only come along once every century – in other words, they had only a 1% chance of occurring. Except that all of a sudden, we seemed to be getting those hundred-year storms every few years.
The culprit, of course, is climate change. But efforts to deal with flooding and other effects of climate change, like building seawalls or forbidding development in floodplains, keep getting hamstrung by politics. To be specific, they’re hamstrung by people who have political and/or financial reasons to maintain that human-caused climate change doesn’t exist.
The parallel between climate change and COVID-19 isn’t an exact one, of course. No one (except for some fringe types) denies that the illness is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Conversely, those who believe in human-caused climate change know that more floods and other weather catastrophes are coming unless the human race cleans up its act.
It’s not clear that’s the case with pandemics. SARS-CoV-2 is a catastrophe because it combines ease of transmission with lethality to a degree that is mercifully rare among viruses. So once the current crisis is over, it should be a long time until the next one.
Or so we hope. Which leads us to the big parallel between climate change and the COVID-19 crisis: A lack of political leadership.
It’s not my intention here to go into the whole sordid story of how the Trump administration, and assorted state governments, botched the response to COVID-19. Suffice to say two things: The political leaders of this country have been as irresolute and irresponsible in their handling of this pandemic as they’ve been on climate change; and they probably won’t get any better as the pandemic winds down.
That means the food industry is going to have to figure out for itself what to do going forward. That has profound implications, especially for companies that are planning new plants in the near future.
The biggest reason COVID-19 has struck so many food plants, especially meat and poultry plants, is crowded work conditions. Most plants, for food or anything else, are designed to make the most of every cubic foot of space, which often means putting workers close together. Microbial safety has always been thought of in terms of not contaminating the food; almost no one worried about workers infecting each other. What the industry has to decide, very soon, is how much to worry about that going forward.
If plants are to be designed to keep workers apart, they’ll be more expensive. However worker distancing is accomplished – bigger facilities, slower throughput, more automation – it will add to the cost. The problem is, sinking those extra costs into a plant, and then finding out they’re not needed, may very well turn into a competitive disadvantage.
This is a tough decision. And it will have to be made with no help from above. Don’t trust our governments to give you any meaningful guidance on designing a new plant when they can’t decide whether it’s safe to open bars.