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The role of meat plants in the coronavirus spread to Brazil’s countryside

. May 30, 2020
meat plants covid-19 coronavirus brazil Unfit for the "new normal." The coronavirus will severely alter meat plants' production lines. Photo: Alf Ribeiro/Shutterstock

Across the globe, the meat industry has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. This labor-intensive sector is a breeding ground for respiratory viruses such as SARS-Cov-2 — just like prisons or nursing homes. Meat plants are made up of closed, refrigerated spaces — ventilation systems are built to avoid external contamination — where hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people work “shoulder to shoulder,” manipulating animal protein.

In the U.S., over 17,000 meat workers might have been infected with the coronavirus so far, according to the nonprofit group Food & Environment Reporting Network. Over 100 plants were shut down across the U.S., and companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars to adapt to the “new normal,” purchasing protective gear or better ventilation systems. Even if most plants are reopening, a May report from CoBank, which specializes in rural customers, warns of a possible 35-percent drop in meat supplies this year.

</p> <p>In Brazil, labor authorities are starting to become aware of the silent spread of the coronavirus in meat plants across the countryside. The looming crisis could have massive repercussions across the globe —&nbsp;as Brazil is the <a href="https://brazilian.report/business/2018/11/05/embassy-jerusalem-halal-meat-exports/">world&#8217;s largest meat exporter</a>.</p> <p>According to health authorities in Rio Grande do Sul, the country&#8217;s southernmost state, meat workers account for at least 14 percent of all confirmed infections in the state (842 of 6,470 cases) — with an additional 3,300 suspected cases. By tracing the movements of the meat workers who caught Covid-19, authorities estimate they might have exposed another 26,862 individuals to the virus.</p> <p>But the problem might be significantly worse than what these figures suggest. Brazil&#8217;s Labor Prosecution Office claims the number of cases in the meatpacking industry plants is at least twice as large as the official tally. According to Priscila Dibi Schvarcz, a labor prosecutor responsible for monitoring the industry, tests run within plants somehow are often not in states&#8217; official numbers, thus skewing the data. “In the southern city of Lajeado, two plants alone had around 900 people who tested positive for Covid-19.”</p> <p>Beyond Rio Grande do Sul, there are positive cases in plants located in the states of Santa Catarina and Paraná (South), Goiás and Mato Grosso do Sul (Center-West), and Rondônia (North).</p> <h2>What has Brazil done to mitigate the risks?</h2> <p>In Germany, where companies were accused of failing to protect their labor force, the government announced the <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/22/exploitative-conditions-germany-to-reform-meat-industry-after-spate-of-covid-19-cases">overhaul of the sector&#8217;s labor standards</a> —&nbsp;banning the use of subcontractors, which usually enjoy fewer protections than hired staff. In Brazil, adaptation has been left up to companies&#8217; discretion.</p> <p>The Agriculture Ministry issued on May 11 —&nbsp;two full months after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic — a set of 70 <a href="https://www.gov.br/agricultura/pt-br/assuntos/noticias/governo-federal-divulga-manual-com-recomendacoes-para-frigorificos-para-pandemia-covid-19">recommendations</a> to meat companies. The list includes measures such as keeping workers apart from one another and the use of protective masks by all. The document, however, is not legally binding.</p> <p>Giants of the industry, such as JBS, BRF, or Marfrig Global Foods have taken some action to enhance safety measures. But the evidence suggests that it has not been nearly enough.</p> <p>In São Miguel do Guaporé, a 25,000-people municipality in the northern state of Rondônia, one single JBS plant accounted for 60 percent of all confirmed cases in the state — leading authorities to shut down the facility and impose a <a href="https://g1.globo.com/ro/rondonia/noticia/2020/05/28/termina-sem-acordo-audiencia-sobre-acao-que-interditou-frigorifico-da-jbs-em-sao-miguel-do-guapore-ro.ghtml">14-day lockdown</a> to control the spread. At least five other sites across four states have also been shut down by courts.</p> <p>According to labor prosecutor Priscila Dibi Schvarcz, the biggest mistake was to neglect the control of workers with flu-like symptoms — who in many cases were allowed to keep working. Some companies also failed to grant leave to the spouses of Covid-19 patients, despite their daily exposure to infection risks. “There was a case where an infected worker, a confirmed case, stayed for three days in the production line. It is a severe mistake that exposes a huge amount of people”, Ms. Schvarcz told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>The goal now is to set rules to slow down transmission of the coronavirus. Besides increasing separation between members of the production line, labor prosecutors want to limit the number of people on the buses taking them to their plants —&nbsp;which are usually located outside of urban perimeters. Ms. Schvarcz says companies have been cooperative and accept agreements to improve practices. “To completely avoid transmission is impossible. But companies must be ready to identify and isolate workers who might be infected, reducing others&#8217; exposure to the virus.”</p> <h2>Business is still booming</h2> <p>The pandemic did not hinder the Brazilian meat industry from achieving its most successful January-to-April stretch since 2015. While most sectors have been falling apart, the Brazilian meat industry raised USD 2.1 billion in exports alone between January and April. An increase of 23 percent from 2019 — and 30 percent when compared to 2018.&nbsp;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/2627370" data-url="https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/2627370/embed"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <p>Moreover, Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina announced this week that Brazilian beef has gained one new market in Thailand. The Southeast Asian country has opened its market to five Brazilian meat-processing sites. According to Ms. Cristina, 60 external markets have been opened to Brazil&#8217;s agricultural products since January 2019.

 
José Roberto Castro

José Roberto covers politics and economics and is finishing a Master's Degree in Media and Globalization. Previously, he worked at Nexo Jornal and O Estado de S. Paulo.

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