This project started from a consideration of spatial clusters that have created COVID-19 hotspots in non-densely populated, predominantly rural geographies in the United States.1 Meatpacking plants, alongside prisons2 and nursing homes3 have featured prominently in defining pandemic geographies beyond urban areas. Extensive reporting on COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants highlight a perceived tension between the national food supply chain and worker’s lives, justifying the presidential executive order designating meatpacking plants as “essential infrastructure”.4 However, official reporting on the scale of the impact of COVID-19 on meat and poultry processing facilities remains relatively obscure.5 The Center for Disease Control (CDC) produced two reports highlighting state-reported aggregate data,6 while some meatpacking corporations, like Tyson Foods, released their own data on specific processing facilities.7 The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting has diligently aggregated a publicly available dataset of reported outbreaks that triangulate news articles and press releases from worker’s unions with data provided by official sources.8
The CDC’s “COVID-19 Among Workers in Meat and Poultry Processing Facilities” report for April-May, reveals that 87% of reported COVID infections were among non-white populations.9 This study seeks to unravel some of the dynamics of the meat and poultry processing industry that places this statistic within a long duree history of racial capitalist expansion and consolidation that has profited off of the exploitation of predominantly Black and Latinx populations in the United States. We take our cue from Carrie Freshour’s recent article, Poultry and Prisons: Toward a General Strike for Abolition, which relies on writings of the Black Radical Tradition to evince the intersection of COVID-19 and poultry processing plants as, “critical sites of racial capitalist accumulation produced through an unequal valuation of people and places, which simultaneously robs the worker and the soil.”10 Our work is similarly indebted to historical and ethnographic accounts of the rise of the meat and poultry processing industry in predominantly agricultural areas, where historical relations of slavery and debt bondage were replaced by cattle “farming” and factory work that reproduced strucutural inequality and exploitation.11 Labor historians have written extensively on the power of the civil rights movement, the advances made by the increased unionization of meat and poultry processing workers, and the deliberate efforts by corporations to break and curtail the growing influence of labor organizing. Specifically, ethnographic accounts are replete with examples of how meatpacking corporations strategically leverage real and perceived gender and racial differences to curtail worker’s bargaining power.12 Beginning in the 1980s, the migration of Latinx populations in parts of the United States transformed the practices of meat and poultry corporations who increasingly relied on and actively recruited Latinx workers into their revolving labor pool, often violating immigration policy in the process.13 COVID-19 has laid bare traces of all these historical dynamics that transformed, in less than a decade, the meat and poultry industry from a household business into an extractive, consolidated, industry with some of the most poorly paid and dangerous jobs in the country.
We sought to match our historical approach grounded in secondary literature with critical data visualization from a variety of sources. Anchored in three distinct meat and poultry processing sites in Longsport, Indiana, Camilla, Georgia, and Springdale, Arkansas, we traverse a circuit of disparate geographies operated by Tyson Foods.14 Tyson Foods is not exceptional in this regard, rather, it exemplifies patterns somewhat consistent among major corporations including JBS, Cargill and National Beef Inc., that together control, for example, 80% of the beef market in the United States.15 Equally, the most recent failure to comply with public health standards is not exceptional. Rather, it is added to a long list of exploitative practices central to the maintenance of cheap labor and intensified production, including speeding up processing lines, violating labor and environmental standards and eliminating paid work breaks.
We pull from a range of publicly available official and aggregated datasets. The COVID-19 data at the county level is taken from the New York Times repository.16 Data on outbreaks from the meatpacking industry are taken from the Midwest Investigative dataset,17 and cross referenced with the USDA Meat, Poultry and Egg Product Inspection Directory.18 The Public Use Microdataset19 of the American Community Survey allowed us a granular look at race and its intersection with Animal Slaughtering and Processing jobs from the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS).20 The historical maps of cotton and poultry production are reproduced from georeferenced USDA historical maps.21
Our project relies on satellite images and its ability to commensurate geographic and social difference into a continuous plane from which we effortlessly zoom in and zoom out. While seeking to connect patterns of capitalist exploitation across diverse US terrains, the dominance of the satellite image admittedly omits the voices of workers and their active organizing and struggle against corporate greed. A coalition of worker advocacy groups have taken important steps by filing a Title VI complaint against Tyson Foods, Keystone Foods and JBS USA, accusing them of racial discrimination for failing to protect minority workers from exposure to COVID-19.22 Similarly, the labor of activists and critical journalists in assembling alternative and accessible COVID-19 datasets that correct the partial image provided by official sources must be recognized and acknowledged.23 Our work would not have been possible without them.
- “Covid in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count,” New York Times, Updated September 11, 2020, Link
- “A State-by-State Look at Coronavirus in Prisons,” The Marshall Project, Updated September 10, 2020, Link
- Karen Yourish, K.K. Rebecca Lai, Danielle Ivory and Mitch Smith, “One-Third of All U.S. Coronavirus Deaths Are Nursing Home Residents or Workers,” New York Times, Updated May 11, 2020, Link
- Ana Swanson and David Yaffe-Bellany, “Trump Declares Meat Supply ‘Critical,’ Aiming to Reopen Plants,” New York Times, Updated April 28, 2020, Link
- Michael Corkery, David Yaffe-Bellany and Derek Kravitz, “As Meatpacking Plants Reopen, Data About Worker Illness Remains Elusive,” New York Times, May 25, 2020, Link
- Dyal JW, Grant MP, Broadwater K, et al. COVID-19 Among Workers in Meat and Poultry Processing Facilities ― 19 States, April 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:557–561; Waltenburg MA, Victoroff T, Rose CE, et al. Update: COVID-19 Among Workers in Meat and Poultry Processing Facilities ― United States, April–May 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:887-892.
- “Tyson Foods, Inc. Releases Covid-19 Test Results At Northwest Arkansas Facilities,” Tyson Foods, June 19, 2020, Link
- Sky Chadde, “Tracking Covid-19’s impact on meatpacking workers and industry,” Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, Updated September 4, 2020, Link
- Waltenburg MA, Victoroff T, Rose CE, et al, “Update: COVID-19 Among Workers in Meat and Poultry Processing Facilities”
- Carrie Freshour, “Poultry and Prisons Toward a General Strike for Abolition,” Monthly Review 72, No. 3 (July-August 2020), Link
- Monica R. Gisolfi, The Takeover: Chicken Farming and the Roots of American Agribusiness (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017).
- Angela Stuesse and Laura E. Helton, “Low-Wage Legacies, Race, and the Golden Chicken in Mississippi: Where Contemporary Immigration Meets African American Labor History,” Southern Spaces, December 31, 2013, Link
- For a review of recent literature, see: Margaret Gray, Sarah Horton, Vanesa Ribas, and Angela Stuesse. “Immigrant Labor, Food Politics: A Dialogue between the Authors of Four Recent Books about the Food System.” Gastronomica 17, no. 1 (2017): 1-14.
- Brent E. Riffel, “The Feathered Kingdom: Tyson Foods and the Transformation of American Land, Labor, and Law, 1930-2005,” (PhD diss., University of Arkansas, 2008).
- David McLaughlin, “DOJ Subpoenas Four Biggest Meatpackers in Antitrust Probe,” Bloomberg, Updated June 4, 2020, Link
- New York Times (2020), Covid-19 Data in the United States, Accessed August 1, 2020, Link
- Chadde, “Tracking Covid-19’s impact on meatpacking workers and industry.”
- Department of Agriculture (2020), Meat, Poultry, and Egg Inspection Directory by Establishment Number, Accessed August 1, 2020, Link
- United States Census Bureau (2010), American Community Survey public use microdata sample (PUMS) 2010, Link
- Data USA, “Animal Slaughtering and Processing”, Accessed August 1, 2020, Link
- United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, “Livestock and Livestock Products, Value of Poultry,” 1940 Census of Agriculture Volume 3, Part 7, Accessed August 1, 2020, Link
- David Pitt, “Worker advocates file meat plants discrimination complaint,” The Washington Post, July 9, 2020, Link
- The Midwest Investigative dataset on outbreaks in the meatpacking industry is heavily referenced in the Food Chain Worker’s Title VI complaint. Another important effort is a crowdsourced dataset of infections at Amazon warehouses compiled by company workers, seee: Emily Kopp, “Amazon workers tally virus cases, voice alarms about risks,” Roll Call, April 29, 2020, Link