Pilgrim’s shame – the price of cheap meat

Bo Pilgrim statue in Texas. Photo Wikimedia Commons

While argument rages over whether Cornwall should have been assigned to Tier 1 of the government’s social distancing regime, little attention has been paid to the US company operating the meat-packing plant in Cornwall which has been at the centre of a major outbreak of Covid-19. Tom Scott lifts the lid on its grim record as one of America’s most voracious agribusiness corporations.

In September and October, more than 170 workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride meat-packing factory at Pool, near Redruth, tested positive for Covid-19 after a member of staff alerted the national test and trace service. It’s not clear how many of these developed full-blown symptoms of the disease, but the majority of cases appear to have been asymptomatic, and Cornwall Council’s public health team seems to have done an efficient job of containing the spread of the virus locally.

But this has been the biggest single cluster of the virus in Cornwall since the start of the pandemic, and it’s by no means the only one at a factory run by the multinational meat giant. There have been outbreaks at several of the company’s other facilities in the UK, including plants run by its Moy Park subsidiary in Ballymena and Dungannon in Northern Ireland, and at Anwick in Lincolnshire, where 50 workers tested positive earlier this month.

In Northern Ireland, the Unite union has said that the company has failed to provide financial protection to vulnerable employees, causing “deep resentment among workers”. Unite’s regional officer Sean McKeever said: “Sales revenues for foodstuffs are very sharply up. It is surely not too much to ask that workers who are self-isolating and those shielding due to their vulnerable status would not also have to face a financial crisis in this worrying time.

“Other bosses in the food production and retail sector, such as Sainsbury‘s, have extended similar guarantees to their vulnerable workers, but for Moy Park the only priority that matters is maximising profit so that shareholders accumulate even more wealth and capital. This is about naked corporate greed.”

In the US, the company has been the subject of multiple complaints to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, with workers alleging they have not been informed of positive tests and that protective equipment has not been mandatory in the workplace. In April, employees at one Pilgrim’s Pride factory in Minnesota walked out in protest at the company’s failure to protect their health, alleging that Pilgrim’s Pride forced sick employees to keep working, supplied inadequate PPE and obliged workers to take group breaks with hundreds of other employees using the same canteen, without active cleaning or sanitisation.

The company’s UK subsidiary, Pilgrim’s UK, has claimed that it took proper safety precautions at its Pool plant, and that “all of our sites follow strict hygiene controls including barrier controls and intense daily cleaning regimes”. But this has been contradicted by a number of workers there.

Speaking anonymously, one told Cornwall Live: “They are making a perfunctory effort in keeping people distanced but as soon as you go on to the factory floor it’s near-on impossible to socially distance. Everyone is sat side by side packing bacon.” In his view: “The factory should be closed. They are putting profit before people.”

An office worker at the plant, forced to isolate with symptoms, said he was “not happy with the measures they’ve taken”. He described how there was no social distancing possible with the eight or more people with whom he shared a tiny office: “They have screens up on the bacon lines but in the offices and other areas there doesn’t seem to be any social distancing measures at all.”

Pilgrim’s Pride, which last year reported sales of $11.4bn, is one of 18 companies that together produce more than 90 per cent of all the chicken eaten in the US – an estimated 94.3 pounds (42.8kg approx.) a head in 2019. Mass production of cheap meat is a dirty business and a dangerous one for the mostly low-paid workers within it. In 2015, an Oxfam report found that US poultry workers suffer five times the rate of occupational illness of other workers, with 72 per cent reporting significant work-related illness or injuries.

Last year, these 18 companies were alleged to have been conspiring to keep down wages for their mainly-immigrant workers. “These workers are some of the most vulnerable in the United States,” said George F. Farah, the lead attorney for the three former employees bringing the case, who are seeking class-action status for hundreds of thousands of their colleagues.

Pilgrim’s Pride has also faced multiple allegations of price-fixing. In June, its Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and three other executives were indicted on criminal charges of conspiring to fix prices on chickens sold to fast-food restaurants and supermarkets. Last month, after a plea deal with prosecutors, the company announced that it would be paying $110.5m to settle these federal charges.

Even before the pandemic, the company had frequently been found in serious breach of health and safety regulations. In 2018, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed “shocking hygiene violations” at 24 meat-processing plants operated by Pilgrim’s Pride in the US, and last year it detailed a catalogue of serious allegations against the corporation’s parent company, JBS of Brazil – the world’s largest producer of meat, chicken and leather. These included allegations of bribery and corruption, large-scale animal cruelty, sale of contaminated meat, slave labour and deforestation.

In May and June 2017, the Humane Society of the United States filmed undercover at a Pilgrim’s Pride contract farm in Georgia and a company slaughterhouse in Texas. It uncovered appalling cruelty by workers at both facilities, with chickens being bludgeoned and thrown around “seemingly, just to let off steam” as well as many birds deformed by the conditions in which they were kept, “so heavy they could do nothing but collapse on the manure-covered floor of the windowless warehouses they were crammed into”.

At the slaughterhouse, chickens “were ineffectively rendered unconscious by electrified stun baths which can cause chickens to be cut or scalded while conscious – a tragedy that happens so often that the industry has a slang term for these unfortunate animals: ‘red birds’.”

The plant at Pool was acquired by Pilgrim’s Pride as part of its 2019 acquisition of Danish-owned Tulip, one of the UK’s largest meat-processors. Enthusing about the takeover, Pilgrim’s Pride’s then-CEO Jayson Penn said that “the transaction represents the logical next step in our evolution to expand our geographical footprint and enhance our value-added portfolio.”

This came hot on the heels of the acquisition by Pilgrim’s Pride of major poultry producer Moy Park, the largest private-sector employer in Northern Ireland with some 8,000 employees. According to Unite the Union, the US company immediately  began “to tear up Moy Park’s workers’ terms and conditions”.

As Unite’s Sean McKeever explained: “Producing chlorinated chicken is a lot cheaper than through our current process using high British standards. It’s faster and requires a lot less manpower.” Responding to comments by Zippy Duvall, President of the  American Farm Bureau Federation, who had told the BBC he expected the UK to move to US food standards, McKeever said he believed these remarks were “the opening salvo in a lobbying offensive to introduce cheaper, less safe methods of processing food here in the UK, all to further increase the profits of a massive multinational that has absolutely no concern for workers, consumers or animal welfare”.

Pilgrim’s Pride takes its name partly from its co-founder, Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim, but this is also a reference to the words of  America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee), the patriotic song that was for many years the de-facto national anthem of the United States:

Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From ev’ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!

Cluckingham Palace. Screenshot

Bo Pilgrim, now deceased, was an eccentric bible-basher who resided in a vast mansion in Pittsburgh, Texas that he named Chateau de Pilgrim, though it is known locally as “Cluckingham Palace”. Other local residents have been less than delighted with the impact of Pilgrim’s Pride on their communities, with many filing environmental complaints against it. In one African-American neighbourhood near one of the company’s facilities, chicken fat was said to flow “like thick, foul-smelling soup down the gutters”. 

Bo Pilgrim was a major donor to right-wing Republican politicians, particularly those who might be able to swing political decisions in his favour. On one occasion, he handed out large cheques to nine Texas state senators two days before a vote on a workers’ compensation scheme that he objected to. More recently, the company’s board is reported to include influential Trump supporters – which may have helped in persuading the US president to  issue an executive order earlier this year for meat processing plants to remain open, despite mounting concern for the health of workers in them.

On its website – adorned with soft-focus images of pigs romping happily in bucolic countryside – Pilgrim’s UK plays down its US roots and presents itself as committed to sustainability and high animal welfare standards. It has also recently launched a public relations campaign under the banner “Meat Isn’t Evil”.

The company is by no means the only meat producer to have seen outbreaks of Covid-19 at its plants, even in Cornwall. In the last few days, another significant cluster of cases has emerged at a meat-packing factory in Bodmin run by a rival firm, Kepak.

But recent events in Cornwall and elsewhere have underlined the unpleasant and often downright dangerous reality of the industrialised style of meat production that Pilgrim’s Pride has done so much to advance, both in the US and globally.

With the election of Joe Biden as US president, it now seems unlikely that Boris Johnson’s government will be signing a trade deal with the US any time soon. But this does not mean that US companies will not continue to expand aggressively into the UK food market, bringing their distinctive approach to low-cost production with them. Indeed, with UK producers reeling from the impacts of Brexit, there are likely to be plentiful opportunities for them to do so.

And if this is the future of meat production in the UK, we should all be worried.