Getting Off the Meat Hook

Feb. 2, 2021
The meat and poultry industry has caught considerable legal breaks – but that situation may be changing soon.

With the end of the pandemic in sight, it’s a good time to take a look at the meat and poultry industry’s legal responsibilities—and how it’s seeking to evade them. Not just ones related to the pandemic, either.

“Evade” is a harsh, loaded term, I know. The lobbyists on whom Tyson Foods spent nearly a million dollars in the first three quarters of 2020 would probably frame it as something like “informing lawmakers of the industry’s priorities.” But there is little doubt that one big priority is staying out of court whenever possible.

That’s why Congressional debate over the second coronavirus stimulus went down to the wire just before Christmas. The Republicans were holding out for blanket legal immunity for all U.S. businesses related to COVID cases, so that no worker or customer could sue; they dropped that demand only when Democrats agreed not to push for bailouts for state and local governments. Speculation at press time was that Republicans will seek to revisit the issue in 2021.

For the meat industry, the stakes are high. As we all know by now, meat plants have been epicenters of infection. Tyson Foods, in particular, has been hit hard, with more than 11,000 COVID cases and 36 deaths, according to the Food & Environmental Reporting Network. Tyson has been the target of several wrongful death lawsuits, including one that brought to light shocking allegations about managerial abuse that led to seven plant managers being dismissed.

So on the face of it, release from legal liability would seem to be a fine idea for the food industry, especially the meat sector. Who doesn’t want those pesky tort lawyers off their backs? But there are a few drawbacks.

To start with, insisting that you never even face the possibility of answering for something in court is not a good look; people are going to suspect that you have something to answer for. By the same token, lawsuits are a crude but effective instrument for finding out what’s really going on in your plants, as Tyson discovered with those managers.

More importantly, legal liability is a backstop – a way to ensure that food companies operate with minimal standards of safety and human decency. That shouldn’t be necessary, but it is, because there will always be bad actors who try to undercut prices by cutting every corner they can.

The pandemic isn’t the only area where the industry is getting favorable legal treatment. For a long time, it has pushed to run lines faster. Under the Trump administration, its prayers were answered. Last April – just as the pandemic was starting to get under way – the USDA allowed 15 plants, a record number, to increase their poultry processing from 140 to 175 birds per minute. Similar line-speed waivers have been granted to pork plants.

Line speeds have been controversial for years. The meat industry insists it can handle higher speeds; critics point to a checkered safety record. But in general, the Biden administration will not be as hostile to business regulation as its predecessor was. If a spate of injuries, or – far worse, from a public perception standpoint – a serious food poisoning outbreak occurs in a plant with newly accelerated line speeds, it might lead to a long, hard re-evaluation of the entire issue.

In the worst case, critics outside and, especially, within government might take a hard look at another issue: concentration within the meat and poultry sector.

Well over half of the beef, chicken and pork in this country is processed by four, three and five companies, respectively. So far this situation has been winked at, because it has given consumers what they want: a reliable supply of inexpensive meat.

But now that wink is becoming a hard stare. “Trusts” got their name because they comprised ostensible competitors who trusted each other a little too much. That’s exactly what the U.S. Justice Dept. alleged in a June indictment of a former CEO and other poultry company execs for price-fixing.

In the last presidential campaign, Democratic candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders promised to break up “big agribusiness.” Joe Biden is considerably more moderate than those two, but he’ll still look more favorably on antitrust action than any Republican would be likely to.

That last point illustrates why it’s important not to rely too much on legal exemptions. They are granted by the government, and what the government gives, it can always take away.

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