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Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

There’s a sign outside the JBS meat processing plant in Brooks, Alta., that thanks its workers for service during the coronavirus crisis: “You feed Canada/Vous alimentez le Canada. Without you, none of us could eat."

This is a plant where, as of midweek, 276 people were diagnosed with COVID-19. Many of Canada’s meat- and poultry-processing outlets, which are staffed largely by foreign workers and people from racialized communities, have had to temporarily shut down because they’re hotbeds for the virus. The Cargill meat plant near High River is the largest single site of outbreak in the country, with 821 workers affected.

Yet Cargill plans to open again next week, over complaints from the union that represents its workers. Those workers had protested their working conditions, which they say did not adhere to proper physical-distancing regulations near the beginning of the pandemic. Advocates for the community, many of whom are temporary workers from the Philippines, have said that the meat-processing employees are worried to go back to their plants, but also worried about losing paycheques. This is one of the prices we pay for a seemingly bottomless appetite for meat, at cheap prices.

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Let’s revisit that sign, which shows an improbably cheery woman not wearing a mask. “Without you, none of us could eat.” Of course, this is untrue – and the 10 per cent of Canadians who are vegetarian or vegan could happily tell you over a plate of non-flesh. I’m not a vegetarian, but the current crisis has me wondering, again, if I should be. The virus may well have started at a “wet market” in China, where wild and domesticated animals are sold together in gruesome conditions. And as Paul Shapiro writes in Scientific American, the crowded conditions of livestock agriculture lend themselves to the rise of deadly viruses, the next one of which could be even more lethal than COVID-19: “It’s very likely that such a virus will also have its origin in humanity’s seemingly insatiable desire to eat animals, whether wild or domestic.”

Is the consumption of animal flesh essential for our existence? Obviously not. There are hundreds of millions of vegetarians and vegans around the world who get their protein elsewhere. Eating meat is comforting for many people, delicious for others, a habit, a fallback, a source of identity. The consumption of beef in particular comes with an enormously high price tag as a factor in climate change. It’s also, of course, a lucrative product for the companies that buy, slaughter and sell animals. As Ian Mosby and Sarah Rotz, authors of the forthcoming book Uncertain Harvest: The Future of Food on a Warming Planet recently wrote in The Globe and Mail, “Just four multi-billion dollar corporations (Cargill, JBS, Maple Leaf and Olymel) control nearly all of Canada’s meat production.”

A meat counter in a Montreal grocery store as seen on April 30, 2020. The shutdown or the reduction of capacity in meat-packaging plants in Alberta is affecting Canada's food supply chain.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

It obviously is in the best interests of the meat-processing industry to have its product be considered essential, and in Alberta it is an essential service. Whether this endangers the health of a segment of already marginalized and low-paid workers seems hardly to matter when it threatens the arrival of our next burger.

In the United States, President Donald Trump – reportedly in consultation with corporate bigwigs – has invoked the Defense Protection Act to declare meat-processing plants “essential infrastructure” in defiance of some governors, who may want them closed, and unions worried about the health of their workers. American plant workers, like those in Canada, had complained about working conditions that didn’t protect them from the virus. In Missouri, workers at a pork-processing factory are suing their employer, claiming they aren’t even given enough time on the line to catch their sneezes.

Raul Reyes notes on CNN, “Trump's order may well amount to a death sentence for workers in meatpacking plants, who have little choice but to continue to work to provide for their families.”

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stopped short of Mr. Trump’s dangerous actions, saying that protecting the food chain must be balanced against protecting workers’ health. "The priority for us is both things: keeping people safe and ensuring a good supply of food to Canadians.”

Again, we equate the supply of food with the supply of meat. That’s because we’re a meat-eating country, a land of cattle-ranching and barbecue-attending and BLTs at brunch. It’s the way things have always been, the natural law, the reward for sitting atop the food chain. Perhaps people have already made their peace with what goes on in the slaughterhouses and the wet markets, have factored in the risk of zoonotic diseases to their enjoyment of a Popeyes chicken sandwich.

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Will anything change? Possibly not. People have been rereading Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which exposed the grotesque conditions in Chicago’s stockyards, and saying, “See, we knew all this a hundred years ago, and it hasn’t stopped us from making the same mistakes again.”

But some things are changing. Young people are much more likely to be vegetarian or vegan than older ones. Many more Canadians are willing to be flexitarian – that is, to cut down on their consumption of meat. The world of meat alternatives, which are quite delicious and taste almost like the real thing, is opening up before our eyes. Meat that’s grown in the lab is on the horizon. Perhaps in a few decades – if the next pandemics are kind to us – we’ll look back and shake our heads at what we once considered “essential.”

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