In recent weeks, the coronavirus crisis has also exposed serious shortcomings in the meat industry. This demonstrates once again that there is an urgent need for change here – both for people and for animals.
Every year, 763 million animals are slaughtered and processed for meat in German abattoirs. This amounts to over 2 million animals every day, with up to 30,000 of these accounted for in the largest operation of Tönnies (Germany’s largest meat-processing plant) alone. Having recorded mass coronavirus infections in recent weeks, this particular meat plant has seen conditions for workers and animals alike come under the spotlight of public interest like never before. The crisis has unearthed something that people could have known already, had they taken an interest.
The meat industry has evolved into a system in which pursuit of maximum profit has clearly allowed companies to ride roughshod over the treatment of people and animals. Corporate social responsibility is conspicuously missing in action. And politicians have constantly swept the matter to one side as well. But now that more and more outbreaks of the coronavirus in meat plants are being reported, politicians will find it far harder to sidestep the questions being asked. Above all, why is there such a clear focus on this one sector right now?
What are working conditions like in the meat industry?
This can be attributed to the cold temperatures that favour the spread of the virus, to cramped working conditions that simply do not permit physical distancing, and to operators ferrying workers to their plants in buses where they are packed closely together. But there are also circumstances that go far beyond this and that are being reported on again and again. Such as overtime that never turns up on the payslip. Or sick people being forced to turn up for work for fear of being fired. Or about people being crammed together in tiny accommodation – and having to part with much of their low wages for the privilege.
This is made possible by the work contracts that the employees enter into with subcontractors so that workers can then be deployed in plants where they are not directly employed. Which evidently also means that no one takes responsibility for the welfare of these workers.
Cutting corners for cheap meat
If, difficult as it is to imagine, at least something positive were to come of recent events, then perhaps it would be that many people who have never given much thought to where their meat comes from will finally realise that there is no such thing as cheap meat. Producing meat so cheaply that it can be bought for a song in supermarkets and discounters means that other costs are swept under the carpet – costs such as animal welfare abuses, high CO₂ emissions through intensive livestock farming, environmental damage and the exploitation of meat processing workers.
But it is also important to look beyond Germany to see the problems associated with meat as a mass-produced commodity in a global system. Such as the soy plantations in Africa, Asia and Latin America that provide much of the feed needed for livestock farming. This is because this kind of farming calls for enormous tracts of land, which in turn means that small-scale farmers are displaced, not only losing their livelihoods but also land needed to grow food for local people.
How can we move away from “cheap meat”?
But who can we make responsible for ensuring that things change? The answer is a complex one. Farmers claim that raising animals the traditional way is no longer profitable, meaning that industrial factory farming is the only viable option. The meat factories blame supermarkets, which dictate prices or push them down themselves directly with a view to retaining their market power. The supermarkets, for their part, point the finger at consumers, who are simply not willing to pay enough money for meat. And politicians are quick to join in this chorus, appealing above all to the goodwill of the buying public. After all, voluntary agreements have already been entered into with the meat industry …
And yes, consumers clearly have an important role to play. We all have decision-making powers when it comes to the food we buy in the shops. And deciding not to buy “cheap meat” – or any meat at all – is both ethically sound and an effective means of refusing to support this system. This can also be seen, for instance, in the ever-growing range of meat substitute products on the market, which would not exist if there were no demand for them.
However, it is also true that, even though more and more people are embracing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, there has scarcely been a dip in meat production. Here in Germany, we produce far more meat than we eat on average per capita. This is because the surplus is simply exported – to Africa, for instance. And this in turn has an impact on the local meat industry, which cannot compete with these prices. So, by producing cheap meat, we are also destroying other markets in these countries.
Which wheels are now in motion – and which aren’t
Real change not only needs individuals to take responsibility but, more than anything else, policymakers to pull the levers at their disposal. And to finally outlaw work contracts that fly in the face of our labour laws. The welfare of the animals is also to be taken into consideration. On 26 June, German Minister for Agriculture Julia Klöckner called the industry together for a “meat summit” that led to a ban on dumping prices and repeatedly brought up the possibility of introducing an “animal welfare tax”. A promising start. But will the measures actually be implemented, what effects will they have and who will verify that they are being adhered to?
What good does it do if an additional tax makes meat more expensive but allows plant owners to fill their pockets even more while the animals face the same miserable conditions? And how about a climate protection tax? After all, worldwide livestock farming accounts for some 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, making it a major cause of global warming. Or how can we structure this in a socially equitable way? It is high time we took a long hard look at the meat processing, delivery and value chain as a whole rather than merely singling out individual details.
We should also ask ourselves why it seems to be acceptable in our country for financially disadvantaged people to be exposed to a disproportionately higher risk of infection on account of their cramped working and living situations. Where is the solidarity that was demanded so vehemently, again and again, in recent weeks?
For us at Tomorrow, at least, our stance has been clear from the outset: unlike conventional banks, not one cent of our money goes towards factory farming. After all, we are investing – together with you – in the future, not in a broken system.