The Pandemic Has People Rethinking Their Relationship With Food, Especially Meat The COVID-19 outbreak may well cause a shift in our meat consumption habits.
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The Pandemic Has People Rethinking Their Relationship With Food, Especially Meat

The Pandemic Has People Rethinking Their Relationship With Food, Especially Meat

President Trump's order to keep meat packing plants open is aimed at maintaining the kind of supermarket selection that was seen at a store in southeast Denver on Monday. David Zalubowski/AP Photo hide caption

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David Zalubowski/AP Photo

Most of us are paying closer attention to what we eat. Prior to the pandemic, demand for meat alternatives was on the rise. But the COVID-19 outbreak may well cause a shift in meat consumption and production.

The pandemic has shaken the meat processing industry over the last month. Factories like Perdue Farms in Maryland's Eastern Shore remain open and operational to keep the food supply chain from breaking down. That comes after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan lobbied the Trump administration to protect meat processing plants from closures.

Officials with Perdue said in an email to WAMU that among other protective measures "All of our facilities are fully cleaned and sanitized from top to bottom every 24 hours. Before we can start running the plant for the day, someone from the USDA has to inspect and sign off on the cleanliness of the plant."

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The Pandemic And Animal Welfare

The meat processing industry has become more mechanized over the last few decades, says Dena Jones of the Animal Welfare Institute in D.C. Automation is good for animals but not for American factory jobs.

"There are humans in the slaughterhouse and the processing house, but expect them to be increasingly replaced by robotics," says Jones. "And from an animal welfare point, I support automation. I want people to have jobs. But for the most part, animals do better the more automated the process is. There's less animal cruelty."

Perdue Farms has taken extra safety measures to protect employees from contracting the coronavirus on the job including adding dividers between workers on the line and requiring face masks. Courtesy of/Perdue Farms hide caption

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Courtesy of/Perdue Farms

COVID-19 has ravaged workers at meat processing plants all over the U.S. At last count, at least 5,000 workers had tested positive for coronavirus and at least 20 people have died, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Chicken processors on the Delmarva peninsula have been particularly hard-hit. Allen Harim Foods plants in Delaware and Maryland were forced to "depopulate" two million chickens because they lacked the staffing to process these birds.

"[Depopulation] is not as humane as euthanasia," says Jones. "One method is called ventilation shutdown. That's where [processors] turn up the heat and turn off the ventilation. So, the animals basically bake to death."

Jones says depopulation is normally used to destroy diseased animals, not healthy ones.

"But the system, the very industrial, intensive system that we have for raising animals in this country has led to this dilemma that when the plants are shut down, they don't know what to do with the animals because the production of meat in this country is so high," she says.

And demand for meat remains high.

The National Chicken Council predicts that 2020 per capita consumption of chicken will be a little more than 100 pounds. That's almost as much per capita consumption as beef and pork combined.

'There's Never Been A Better Time To Be A Vegetarian'

D.C. resident Tucker Cholvin has been a vegetarian all his life and tofu is a major part of his diet. Tofu isn't a food item that usually flies off the shelf. When the pandemic first hit the region, and panic buying was in full effect, Cholvin says tofu was nowhere to be found.

"I've never experienced that before," he says. "But it was also this funny moment of representation of thinking like, 'Oh my gosh. There are actually other vegetarians around here in the community. It's not just me with my sad side-fridge off of the produce section.'"

Kathy Gunst's simple vegetarian burgers. Jesse Costa/WBUR hide caption

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Jesse Costa/WBUR

Cholvin says tofu is still hard to find in some areas of D.C. That doesn't necessarily mean that people are shifting to a more plant-based diet. But, he says, it's an idea worth considering.

"I would say there's never been a better time to be a vegetarian with all of the ingredients and flavors and inputs from different international cuisines that are now much more common in American cuisine," says Cholvin.

Some people are eating less meat, in part because they're having a hard time finding it. Others say they're taking this time to reflect on what they put in their bodies and meat is one of the foods they've chosen to cut back on.

Cholvin says the closest he's come to eating a hamburger is an Impossible burger, a plant-based meat alternative made to look and taste like beef.

But while companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods saw tremendous demand for their products over the last several years, some say they might have a hard time surviving the pandemic.

One issue could be the price. A Beyond Meat burger sells for about $13.00 a pound, as opposed to beef which, for now, sells for about $4.00 a pound. Many would-be vegetarians might find the price of these meat alternatives unpalatable.

The Case For Meat

Dr. Denise Heard has a vested interest in eating poultry. She's a veterinarian and director of research projects at the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association. She says her family is eating much more poultry these days as they continue self-quarantining at their home in Georgia. Heard says she eats poultry not just because the industry helps to keep her employed, but also because she believes the industry, and its products, do a lot of good.

"I know that we have safe poultry and eggs going into the food supply. [They] are a great source of protein," says Heard.

But tofu and beans are great sources of protein too, right?

"Most plant proteins are incomplete, which means that they are missing at least one of the essential amino acids," Heard says. "Some sources of plant protein may take longer for the body to digest and use."

Heard says she also believes in the poultry industry's animal welfare practices, "and the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association is a leader in funding important and innovative research that is helping poultry companies and farmers improve their understanding of welfare, behavior, and what the bird actually wants and prefers."

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