On March 11, U.S. Senator Cory Booker and U.S. Representatives Rosa DeLauro and Bennie Thompson reintroduced the Safe Line Speeds During COVID-19 Act, which would suspend all current and future waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that allowed slaughterhouses to increase slaughter line speeds during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the successful passage of this bill could be an improvement over current conditions at many slaughterhouses, it is just a start.
Big Meat—like Big Oil, Big Tobacco, and Big Pharma—is a ravenous machine of exploitation pursuing profits at almost any cost. It readily treats its workers, the public’s health, and the environment with the same sacrificial logic as it treats the billions of terrestrial animals it farms and kills every year. It is clear that adequately addressing the harms of this industry requires ambitious policies that confront the problem head-on, such as banning the sale of meat altogether.
Workers at risk
The industry’s cruel response to the COVID-19 pandemic has in many ways highlighted the extent to which it is willing to sacrifice its workers. Slaughterhouses quickly emerged as epicenters of infection, and subsequent reports reveal Big Meat intentionally concealed early cases while continuing to force employees to work closely together without protection. As of March 23, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, there have been at least 58,298 reported positive cases and at least 286 Covid-related worker deaths directly tied to U.S. slaughterhouses.
This callous disregard for worker safety reflects Big Meat’s utter indifference toward public health more broadly. The industry poses a significant risk in contributing to the spread of zoonotic viruses—including novel flu strains potentially even more deadly than SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19—as well as to the rapid evolution and proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, both of which pose significant threats to public health today.
Just as the industry has become a leader in human rights violations and public health threats, so too has it become one of the most significant threats to the environment. Commonly cited reports from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimate that Big Meat contributes anywhere between 14.5 percent and 51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. An endless flood of animal waste runoff poisons water systems and kills aquatic wildlife, while industrial animal farming simultaneously guzzles a third of global freshwater consumption.
Given both the quantity and quality of these collective harms, it is not a stretch to say that the animal industrial complex’s hyper-externalization of all these costs onto the public and the environment has brought us to the brink of multiple disasters.
Avoiding such catastrophes will require addressing the industry at its core. Thankfully, convincing arguments to limit or end the growth of industrial animal farming are becoming more common. Some have advocated for more moderate systemic solutions, such as a meat tax. While these solutions are on the right track by focusing on systemic change over personal habit change, their moderation fails to address the harms caused by industrial meat production with the urgency and scale required.
Better still, others have advocated banning small sectors of the industry, such as live animal markets. These proposals correctly seek to end rather than reduce intolerable harms, but they still fail to address the majority of the issues caused by animal farming while also reinforcing xenophobic and racist tropes about non-Western food practices.
The most ambitious proposal to date has come via Senator Booker’s Farm System Reform Bill, which seeks to end the expansion of the animal industrial complex and eliminate it by 2040. While this would be an important accomplishment, there is reason to doubt its immediate passage at the federal level.
A more pragmatic approach
Considering the limitations of these policies, one of the most pragmatic strategies for ending the harms of Big Meat is simply banning the sale of all animal food products, including meat, dairy, and eggs. Until now, this idea has only been floated rhetorically in order to reject it. However, the time has come to begin seriously discussing the merits of such a policy, and ultimately, for enacting it in the immediate future. Whereas tepid policies like a meat tax falsely mislead consumers to believe that the harms can be addressed by reducing consumption, a ban correctly conveys that the industry should not continue at all. Moreover, by avoiding the regressive impact of a tax while simultaneously targeting all cultural dietary habits equally, a sales ban addresses the problem in an equitable way.
A sales ban would no doubt face significant pushback even at a municipal level, but it is legally feasible. Because the policy is focused on sales—rather than production—it minimizes what would otherwise be a significant legal risk of preemption. Instead, it follows an already legally tested method proven by foie gras sales bans and strengthened by recent fur bans.
In doing so, a sales ban empowers progressive municipalities and states to act to address the harms caused by industrial meat production. Generally speaking, in jurisdictions where animal farming is centered, its industry profoundly influences politics. A sales ban transcends this political challenge by enabling progressive legislative bodies to target the harms caused by industrial animal farming, despite the production of its harms being centered elsewhere.
As such, a sales ban can feasibly be pursued and enacted with the urgency required. Although the federal passage of this policy remains a distant goal, it can be enacted immediately at the municipal level. In the same way that California’s fur ban began in progressive districts like West Hollywood and Berkeley before being passed at the state level, the same path exists for banning the sale of other animal products. And once one state does so, the odds that other municipalities, states, and eventually countries will follow suit only increases.
Fortunately, people are increasingly coming to understand the severity of harms caused by industrial meat production and that our survival and the survival of our planetary ecosystems depend upon addressing them. It is time that our policies catch up with this understanding. Big Meat needs to end now, and we need to use every available tool to hasten its demise and replace it with a compassionate, ethical food system that prioritizes health and wellbeing over profit. A sales ban on animal food products is a particularly pragmatic policy that is long overdue for consideration and that activists can begin fighting for at the local level immediately.
Elan is a visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University. He has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and a JD, and his research focuses on animal rescue and care, animal farming, and food politics. His recent book, Saving Animals: Multispecies Ecologies of Rescue and Care was published in May 2021 by the University of Minnesota Press. He is also Vice President of Programs at The Phoenix Zones Initiative, a nonprofit organization working to advance the rights, health, and wellbeing of humans, animals, and the environment.