Covid-19 outbreaks in slaughterhouses across several European countries reveal the excesses of our cheap meat system and the mass consumption of animal products. In light of the current situation, small, artisanal slaughterhouses must be promoted more than ever. Meanwhile, governments need to implement and monitor comprehensive legal protection for humans and animals in food production.
The market for meat across the European Union is dominated by large industrial farms that produce far too large quantities of meat and set far too low prices. Covid-19 has now publicly demonstrated this widely tolerated practice, which comes at the expense of farmworkers, animals, and the environment.
Meat processing plants and slaughterhouses have a five times higher Covid-19 infection rate than the average population. According to a report published by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, although the worst situation is in the United States, in the first part of June 2670 Covid-19 cases were confirmed among the employees of slaughterhouses and meat processing plants in Europe. In addition to Germany, which is the third-largest pork producer in the world after China and the United States, outbreaks have occurred in Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, and the UK.
The roots for these unprecedented Covid-19 outbreaks are found in the dreadful conditions that are created in these facilities.
It must be said that there is no evidence that farm animals are carriers and transmitters of the virus. On the contrary, a study by the German Friedrich-Loeffler Institute tested under experimental conditions that neither pigs nor chickens have been shown to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection.
It is the slaughterhouse environment itself that is ideal for the transmission of the virus: meat processing requires low temperatures, high humidity, and vaporization. Moreover, the risks of spreading the virus are often aggravated because farmworkers, employed through cooperatives of foreign workers, live in crowded housing, often in conditions of promiscuity and poor hygiene. The shoulder-to-shoulder work, in real assembly lines at the time of portioning and deboning, completes the high-risk picture.
“The current outbreaks are a wake-up call that must spur us on to change towards sustainability and overcoming old patterns. Instead of forcing humans and animals into a cruel and degrading system, we must promote structures that respect the worker and animal welfare needs, by reducing the size of these structures and the number of animals slaughtered, traded and consumed,” says Marta Messa, director of Slow Food’s European Office.
Slow Food, through the Slow Meat campaign, invites people to reduce meat consumption and to pay attention to the impact on the environment, animal welfare, and the protection of jobs. Slow Food encourages to support small and medium-scale producers who respect animal welfare and try to weigh as little as possible on the environment.
In the most sustainable farms, animals, often of indigenous breeds, graze freely and are fed on fodder, hay, cereal mixtures, and legumes of the territory. However, artisanal slaughterhouses have been systematically eliminated in the EU, obliging farmers if they want to market the meat of their animals, to take the livestock to be slaughtered in large authorized facilities.
The EU law, though, leaves the Member States freedom to maneuver. In some countries such as Germany, Austria, Italy, or France there are some experimental projects set up, where animals are killed on the farm, and then transported in mobile vans to slaughterhouses, not causing additional stress to the animal. These experiments, however, concern a small part of the large meat market, which is still too much oriented towards the approach of industrial dimensions. The EU Lisbon Treaty officially recognizes the status of animals as sentient beings, encouraging the Member States to work to adopt policies that are as respectful of animal welfare as possible, even at the last stage of their lives.
The Covid-19 outbreak and newly emerging cases in slaughterhouses have revealed the contradictions of the system and the differences between what is declared in the laws and what is done in reality. The alarming situation should serve as an incentive for the EU to enforce the much-needed changes and build a truly sustainable future.