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Our industrial food production system abets coronavirus

UK food writer, Joanna Blythman, has written a provocative piece on modern food factories – and how they can abet the spread of coronavirus. It’s not a pleasant picture she paints – this should give many food industrialists pause for thought…

It’s a blessing that the coronavirus isn’t spread by food. If it was, the virus would be even harder to contain, and instead of eating being a consolation of lockdown, it would pose a daily threat to our health.

Yet there is an emerging association between food processing and the virus. Food factories and meat plants in the US, Europe and the UK have become Covid-19 hotspots. Most recently, a chicken plant in Anglesey, Wales, had to shut down when 200 employees tested positive out of a total workforce of 500.

Expect the usual “I told you so” interpretation of this phenomenon from vegan propagandists who seize any opportunity to frame their usual suspect: meat production. But it’s not the type of food – animal or plant-based – these factories handle that creates the problem.

One suspected cluster of cases, for instance, has occurred in a Chinese factory that manufactures crisps. It’s the physical set-up.

Why food factories shun visitors

Food factories don’t do ‘Doors Open’ days, and for good reason. If we saw how the products we buy, so slickly presented on supermarket shelves, were produced inside such places, it would kill our appetite for them.

Knowing a little of the inside story, most locals don’t want to work there. That’s why their workforces are typically 90 per cent from abroad, usually young East Europeans, and why major plants are consistently understaffed, relying on employment agencies to find them temporary workers.

When I was researching my book Swallow This, which investigates the processed food industry, I inveigled myself into several factories that supply the major multiples, and take it from me, it’s no mystery why people get ill working in such environments, or why they have such high staff turnovers.

They are horrible places to work in. Food manufacturers want us to think that these factories are just like a scaled up version of a domestic kitchen. But they more resemble car plants and oil refineries, or even the missile-launching pad at the end of Dr No, where James Bond sabotages the efforts of a small army of operatives, lost and almost robotic-looking inside their bulky protective clothing.

Abetting the coronavirus

Whether they’re turning out packs of chicken pieces or vegan lasagna, chilled food factories operate in similar ways. To inhibit the growth of dangerous food poisoning bacteria, such as campylobacter and listeria, the ambient temperature in most zones of food factories is bitingly raw and cold. It chills you down to the bone marrow.

Covid-19 appears to love such conditions. So there’s problem number one.

Thanks to the sheer scale and heft of the machinery in these factories, the noise is deafening. Staff usually get given ear plugs, but when they do have to communicate, they have to shout. Shouting appears to increase the risk of spreading coronavirus; problem number two.

Problem number three? Let’s call it inadequate physical distancing because there’s nothing sociable about standing closely on a factory line arranging vegan nuggets on trays, or checking that each jalfrezi barbecue skewer has the stipulated four chunks of meat.

I wouldn’t last an hour in one of these places, let alone get through the demanding shifts that workers typically put in – 12 hours isn’t unusual, sometimes nightshift. That’s problem four right there: factory workers have protracted exposure in circumstances where coronavirus flourishes.

And that includes sharing tables in the canteen. The one I saw was small and intimate compared to the factory floor. Its dish of the day was bigos, the Polish meat and sauerkraut stew.

Housing presents us with problem five. Staff often share living quarters – basic accommodation is frequently part of the employment package – and workers are bussed from there to the factory and back again after their shift. The Unite union says that staff often struggle into work when they feel sick because they’re scared of their pay being docked.

Bottom line? You’d need a very strong immune system to work in one of these factories at the very best of times, let alone when coronavirus is around.

This should give us pause to think. The industrial food system didn’t create Covid-19, but its workplaces are a vector for it. Surely an essential requirement for any sane food economy should be that it creates safe jobs for the people who work in it?


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