Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers at the largest meatpacking plants faced dangerous working conditions. As of early September 2021, nearly 60,000 meatpacking workers had tested positive for the virus and at least 300 had died. Meatpacking workers have faced unsafe and inhumane working conditions long before the pandemic as well, from being denied bathroom breaks to risk of injury and even death. Packing plants are highly automated and essentially require workers to be another piece of machinery, making the same cut thousands of times a day.
These large meatpacking plants dominate the industry and process the vast majority of the meat and poultry consumed in the US, but there are other packing plants as well. Smaller-scale meat processors allow small farmers and ranchers to process meat for themselves and local customers. Demand for meat processed in these plants is increasing from both farmers and consumers, but one of the primary challenges to the growth of this sector is a labor shortage.
The labor needs of small and mid-size-scale meat processors are very different from that of massive packing plants. They need highly trained workers who can move from slaughter to butchering to packaging and who know about meat science and food safety. These workers are in short supply and not enough are being trained; niche meat industry experts point to a real crisis if this situation doesn’t change.
Fortunately, an increasing number of community colleges, universities, and even high schools are investing in butchery and meat processing training programs. Some, like this one in Northeast Iowa, is sponsored in part by the local meat locker, which pays for students’ tuition and guarantees job placement. We have heard anecdotal stories of workers from large-scale plants enrolling in these programs in order to pursue a higher-paying job with better working conditions at a small plant.
State legislators can support these programs by working with a state university or local community college and directing funding to these efforts. For more information, or if you’d like to work on meatpacking and food chain worker issues, reach out to us at [email protected]