Biden on meatpacking safety: 'No worker's life is worth me getting a cheaper hamburger'

Christopher WilsonSenior Writer
Yahoo News

Former Vice President Joe Biden said that the conditions in meatpacking plants have to be safer for workers as the U.S. tries to keep the food supply chain viable during the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking at a Yahoo News town hall about food security along with chef José Andrés, Biden said that workers were being hurt by a speedup in slaughterhouse lines.

“Whether it’s cattle, whether it’s beef, whether it’s pigs, whether it’s chicken, they’re moving down that line faster and faster and faster to increase the profit rate,” said Biden, citing his own familiarity with the poultry industry on the Delmarva peninsula. “People are getting sicker. People are getting hurt. The very thing we should be doing now is making sure these people are protected. That they have space 6 feet apart, that they have shields around them, slow the process up. Make sure they have the protective gear, make sure they are being taken care of.”

Biden was asked if increased meat prices to pay for improved worker safety was an acceptable burden to place on the American people.

“Absolutely positively, no worker’s life is worth me getting a cheaper hamburger,” said Biden. “No workers life is worth that. That’s what the hell’s happened here.”

“We don’t treat the workers well at all across the board. You’d think Milton Friedman was running everything these days, God rest his soul,” said Biden, referencing the late economist famous for his free-market views. “We have obligations to workers, we have obligations to the community. Yes, yes, yes.”

Last month, President Trump announced he was using the Defense Production Act in order to keep meatpacking factories open and secure the supply chain. This raised concerns from unions that there wasn’t adequate protection from the coronavirus in the facilities, as multiple plants had to shut down because they became public health issues for both the workers and the communities in which they lived.

Chef José Andrés and Joe Biden during a Yahoo News Town Hall. (Screengrab via Yahoo News)
Chef José Andrés and Joe Biden during a Yahoo News Town Hall. (Screengrab via Yahoo News)

“To protect America’s food supply, America’s meatpacking workers must be protected,” said UFCW International president Marc Perrone following Trump’s announcement. “The reality is that these workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep our country fed during this deadly outbreak, and at least 20 meatpacking workers have tragically died from coronavirus while more than 5,000 workers have been hospitalized or are showing symptoms. For the sake of all our families, we must prioritize the safety and security of these workers.” 

Andrés was asked if the increased costs would affect his restaurants, such as the Bazaar in Beverly Hills, where a whole roasted lamb shank with natural jus is listed on the menu at $45.

“It’s not about how expensive or how cheap food is,” said Andrés. “Food has to have the right price. Right now, the way our farm bill works, we are subsidizing certain segments of our food production and others that we need more, like fruit and vegetables, are not having the same opportunity and benefits of being subsidized by the federal government. By subsidizing corn, all of the sudden we are able to produce beef and hot dogs and burgers that are super cheap so America keeps eating them every day.”

Andrés called the lack of healthy food a national security issue, stating that admirals and generals were calling for a reinvestment in school lunch programs because children are too obese to join the military. Andrés also suggested Americans read Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle,” which led to public outrage about the terrible conditions in meatpacking factories and the unsanitary products they sold.

The conditions Sinclair described led to the passage of the Food and Drug Act that year. Watchdog groups have warned that enforcement actions under the law have nosedived under the Trump administration. 

“Our food policy needs to be one that protects the people that produces those meals,” said Andrés. “Cheap food at the expense of unhealthy workers and an ecosystem that is deteriorating every day, I don’t think any American I know wants that. They want a good America that is clean America, that is a healthy America and so we can keep looking at the future with good food, one plate of food at the time.” 

An April report published by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found that many of America’s largest meat processing plants operate in counties where the rate of coronavirus infection is high and growing. There is no evidence, however, that the virus has been spread to consumers through meat.

Tyson Foods took out a full-page ad in a number of newspapers defending its response to the outbreak and warning that “the supply chain is breaking.”

“We have a responsibility to feed our country. It is as essential as health care. This is a challenge that should not be ignored,” John Tyson, chairman of the company, wrote. “Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America. This is a delicate balance because Tyson Foods places team member safety as our top priority.”

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