The Cargill Ltd. meat processing plant where there has been an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in High River, Alberta, April 21, 2020. Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail
Cargill has now joined the WH Group/Smithfield in having a meat processing plant that is a top national hotspot for Covid-19 infections. As of April 25, its beef processing plant in High River, Alberta had confirmed 558 cases of Covid-19 among its workers, making it one of the worst Covid-19 clusters in Canada. Two weeks earlier, Smithfield’s pork processing plant in South Dakota became the largest cluster for Covid-19 in the US, after more than 800 cases were connected to the plant.
The outbreak at Cargill’s High River plant was predicted by workers and their union representatives. They had observed the escalating situation in the US since late March, where rates of coronavirus infection are 75 per cent higher in rural counties housing large meat plants, and they called for the plant to be shut down until proper protective measures could be put in place for workers. But Cargill, with the support of the provincial government, insisted in running its plant at full capacity, making adequate social distancing impossible.
Cargill, a sprawling multinational company with over 50 firms operating in China, knew about the importance of social distancing. On March 24, 2020, Cargill's CEO, David MacLennan, told Bloomberg TV that social distancing, keeping people at least 6 feet apart, was the main reason why none of the company’s 50 operations in China had Covid-19 outbreaks and not one of its 12,000 employees in China had supposedly tested positive for Covid-19. He also credited the decisive actions taken by the Chinese government, which had forced Cargill and other meat companies to shut down or drastically reduce their production output operations during the height of the epidemic in late January.
Cargill's initial public communication about Covid-19 on March 18 even stated that the company would be “adopting social distancing practices” at its North American operations. Two weeks later, however, as Covid-19 infections in US meat plants started to be reported, Cargill’s spokespeople qualified the statement, saying that the company would only be “adopting social distancing practices where possible”.
Cargill's overwhelming priority during the Covid-19 crisis, as with other meat giants, has been to keep its processing plants running at full capacity, even though this has made it impossible to implement the necessary social distancing measures to protect its workers. In the interview with Bloomberg, Cargill's CEO explained how the company was working with governments in the US to ensure its production would not be interrupted.
“We have been working very closely with state governments, with regional governments, so that, as shelter in place orders have been given, that they’ve declared the production of food to be essential, so that has allowed our employees to get to the plants,” MacLennan told Bloomberg. “The thing that we are focussing on the most in our operations around the world is our employee safety, making sure that they can get to work and that they are not prohibited either by local edict or by some breakdown in their own local transportation systems.”
MacLennan had pushed a similar line in a conference call a week earlier with President Trump, calling on the government to ensure there would be enough inspectors for meat plants so that his company’s operations would not be disturbed. In Alberta, Cargill worked around the reluctance of inspectors to visit its Covid-19 infected beef plant by arranging for the health and safety authority to conduct the inspection remotely by live video.
Cargill's decision to keep its plants operating at full capacity has meant that social distancing, which Cargill's CEO acknowledged as being key to effective protection against Covid-19, has not been implemented within its plants. “Outside we have to be six feet apart, but literally everywhere else in the building we’re not,” said one worker at a Cargill meat plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado.
The results are now apparent. On top of the mass outbreak at its High River facility, there have been cases of Covid-19 infection in at least four other Cargill meat plants in North America, resulting in at least two worker deaths so far. The vast majority of the workers and community members affected by these outbreaks are immigrants. At the High River facility, 70 per cent of the workers are Filipino, and the one worker who died of Covid-19 on April 20 is of Vietnamese descent.
Cargill is not only putting profits ahead of worker safety in North America. In France, for example, workers at Cargill’s maize processing plant in Haubourdin went on strike in early April because of the company’s insistence on operating at full capacity without providing adequate safety measures. In the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, Cargill teamed up with other major grain traders to block a lockdown order protecting port workers in the town of Canarana At stake for Cargill: a shipment of 3,000 tonnes of grain, which is roughly the amount of maize and soybeans the company ships out of Brazil every 90 minutes.
Cargill and the other meat giants have tried to dodge responsibility for this health crisis by saying that they were providing a "vital" service to ensure people's access to food. Smithfield even blamed its immigrant workforce, saying it was the "living circumstances of certain cultures" that led to the outbreak.
But the reality is that North American companies had huge surpluses of meat going into the Covid-19 crisis, and much of their production was for export, especially to China where meat prices are sky high because of a devastating outbreak of African Swine Fever.
Cargill, Smithfield and the other meat companies implicated in the Covid-19 disaster have been making record profits over the past months because of these exports. Cargill’s profits in its last financial quarter were a staggering US$1.19 billion. And profits for US meat exporters were expected to rise even further in the first half of 2020, as China began implementing its phase 1 trade agreement with the US, which opened the door to more meat imports, especially for beef, with China agreeing to ease its regulations on hormone levels as part of the deal.
But now Cargill has been forced to shutter its beef plant in High River and a government investigation has been opened, with labour groups calling for a criminal investigation. A neighbouring, Covid-infested beef plant has also been idled, owned by the Brazilian company JBS, the world's largest beef packer. These two foreign-owned plants, and another Cargill plant in the Province of Ontario, account for 95% of Canada's beef processing capacity, and nearly all of its $3 billion worth of beef exports. Canadian cattle farmers have almost no choice but to sell to these two companies.
It is the greed of the meat companies that has amplified the Covid-19 pandemic to horrific proportions in the North American industry: with thousands of workers and their families now sick with Covid-19, with potential meat shortages looming, and with livestock farmers left without a way to market their animals.
“Excessive concentration of ownership and centralization of beef processing has now put the health of workers, the beef supply and the livelihoods of thousands of farmers in jeopardy,” said Iain Aitken, a cattle farmer with the National Farmers Union of Canada.
The Covid-19 crisis is laying bare the problems with corporate power in the food system, and exposing the need for a major overhaul to the way meat is produced, processed and sold. But things will not improve if and when this disease fades away. These corporations are driving other major crises too, like the climate crisis. Cargill and four other meat and dairy companies generate more combined greenhouse gas emissions than Exxon, and their share of emissions is growing. We cannot deal with the climate crisis without challenging their power. And, if we are going to prevent future pandemic diseases, we have to put a stop to the factory farming that these companies promote and depend on, as these farms are the main breeding grounds for new pathogens.
This won't be easy. The big meat companies are, and have always been, deeply connected to the highest echelons of power. On April 14, US President Trump named Cargill's CEO, David MacLennan, and the CEOs from two other Covid-19 infested US meat packers, Tyson and Perdue Farms, to lead the agriculture division of his Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups, described by Trump as the "opening our country taskforce”. At around the same time, news broke that Cargill would be spending US$1.5 billion on a new office space in Washington DC, just down the road from the White House.
Below is a timeline of some of Cargill’s actions around the Covid-19 crisis that helps illustrate how the company knowingly puts its workers health at risk.
January 7: Cargill reports a US$1.19 billion profit for the second quarter of fiscal 2020, up 61% from the year before, mainly because of increased exports of meat to China.
Late January: Cargill’s Chinese plants and offices are closed down or operations reduced in line with orders of various levels of government. Cargill reports that its massive poultry plant in China is running at 30-40% capacity.
January 29: Cargill says it is sourcing several hundred thousand N95 face masks for its employees in China and says it is “offering support services for any employees who have been exposed to coronavirus or have traveled to Wuhan.”
Early February: under edict from China’s Ministry of Agriculture, local governments ordered to withdraw restrictions on meat industry and Cargill’s operations resume production
End February: Cargill says 40 out of its 50 operations in the country have resumed production.
February 27: Cargill bans “non-essential” international business travel for its employees
March: Cargill says production at its poultry plant in China is now at 80%
March 15: Cargill CEO urges President Trump to ensure that there are safety inspectors at its plants so that production is not impeded.
March 24: Cargill CEO tells Bloomberg TV that strict social distancing (minimum 6 feet) and quick action by Chinese government are main reasons why Cargill’s plants in China have not been affected.
March 24: Cargill CEO says in the US they are operating at full capacity and that their focus is on ensuring that there are no restrictions preventing workers from getting to work.
April 6: Cargill is reported to be spending $1.4 billion on a new office space near the White House in Washington, DC.
April 7: Cargill shuts its Hazleton, Pennsylvania meat plant after 130 “hourly workers” test positive for Covid-19
April 13: Worker representatives say there are at least five cases of Covid-19 at Cargill’s Fort Morgan meat plant, and that insufficient protections are being implemented.
April 13: 16 cases of Covid-19 are reported among employees at Cargill's meat-packing plant in Dodge City, Kansas
April 13: The Media Relations Director for Cargill says,“Cargill has had a handful of employees test positive for COVID-19 around the globe. … Due to privacy laws, we cannot share further details.”
April 14: Cargill idles a second shift at its High River beef plant in Alberta, Canada after the union demands a two week closure because of lack of proper safety rules and claims that 38 workers are positive for Covid-19.
April 16: Cargill scales back operations at its Fort Morgan meat plant after state health officials confirm one employee died from Covid-19 and 18 others are infected.
April 20: Cargill's High River beef plant is closed down after 350 cases of Covid-19 and one death of a worker are connected to the plant. The Provincial government announces it will be conducting an investigation.
April 25: A worker at Cargill's meat processing plant in Guelph, Ontario, Canada is confirmed to be infected with Covid-19.