Where’s the Beef?

An employee checks packaged meat at a 365 by Whole Foods Market grocery store in Los Angeles in 2016. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
The answer could affect people’s dinner tables — and Trump’s reelection chances.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A merica’s meat processing-plants are hard-hit by COVID-19. Speculation runs that the immigrant laborers are less aware of health precautions given in English and that their living situations and the “elbow-to-elbow” nature of work at these industrial butchers and packers make them especially vulnerable. Tyson’s CEO warned that closure of plants mean that “millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain.” Millions of animals that are raised for slaughter may simply be plowed under and buried alive.

For the first time since the 1970s oil crisis, Americans on a mass scale may be exposed to rationing, shortages, and long lines for a resource they consider essential to their lives.

President Trump has responded by declaring meat-processing plants “critical infrastructure.” The White House will take all appropriate action to “continue operations” at meat-processing plants, he has vowed.

It’s unclear what those actions might involve. Sick workers will not be able to return. Health workers may not feel safe returning to the line. Meat processing is an industrial affair, and workers are trained to follow health regulations and learn manual skills that can’t be transferred to new recruits in a moment, or to National Guardsmen drafted into service in the plants.

As with the giant testing tents in Walmart and Target parking lots that was announced on the White House lawn, this may be Trump’s attempt to announce an idea and express concern, but with little in the way of follow-up. One is tempted to ask: Where’s the beef, Mr. President?

However, as is so often the case, Trump’s political survival instinct is kicking into gear at the right time. The sight of empty meat counters at supermarkets, alongside images of unslaughtered cattle or poultry falling under bulldozers, will be terrible for him. These images alone, cut into a well-narrated campaign ad, could be fatal to his reelection.

Why? Because it is a potent symbol. Bloomberg relays that “the U.S., Brazil and Canada account for about 65% of world meat trade.” America is meant to be a land of plenty, blessed with some of the greatest cattle pastures. Cattle ranchers are still venerated enough in our culture that we basically allow them to get away with sedition, as in the Bundy-family stand-off.

Trump began his presidency talking about making the Republican Party a worker’s party — and a party for immigration restrictionists. Well, some of the workers in meat-processing plants in the Dakotas speak Amharic, Nepali, and Swahili. Smithfield was able to get their employees health guides that were printed only in English. Is the Trump White House going to endanger the health of these multinational workers for the sake of the supermarkets?

The meat shortage isn’t Trump’s fault, of course. Although better public-health messaging and an awareness of America’s vulnerabilities might have helped contain the problem, Trump did not cause the incredible concentration of the meat processing and packing industries in America. He didn’t make the industry reliant on foreign workers. The efficiency (and brittleness) of these supply chains was a feature of the modern economy he wants to restart. It’s also the reason restaurant food is so affordable in America, and why our national shift toward eating at home is leading to such quick disruption.

But Americans expect that America ought to be able to feed itself beef, pork, and chicken — that this is one area where the country was self-sufficient and where its supply chains were insulated from foreign threats. And yet it is under a nationalist president that the whole system may be breaking down.

Trump better hope that the industry finds ways to adapt quickly, that its workers recover their health, and that the store shelves aren’t empty for long. Or he’ll be the second Republican president to lose reelection and have “supermarkets” under his list of political regrets.

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