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Meat Processing Plants Close as Working Conditions Encourage Spread of Coronavirus

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Meat Processing Plants Close as Working Conditions Encourage Spread of Coronavirus
Meat processing workers are particularly vulnerable to infection because they stand very close to each other. Russ Schleipman / The Image Bank / Getty Images

Meat processing plants across the U.S. and Canada are being forced to close as employees sicken with the new coronavirus, raising concerns both for the meat supply chain and worker safety at the often crowded plants.


One of the biggest closures to date was Sunday's indefinite shuttering of a Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota that is responsible for around five percent of the U.S. daily pork supply, as The Associated Press reported. Its closure came after almost 300 of its 3,700 workers tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.

"The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry, is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply," Smithfield President and CEO Kenneth M. Sullivan said in a statement announcing the closure. "It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running."

Other plants have shut their doors, at least temporarily, according to Reuters. They include:

  1. A JBS USA plant in Greeley, Colorado that is responsible for five percent of the U.S. daily beef slaughter, which said Monday it would close until April 24.
  2. A Tyson Foods hog slaughterhouse in Columbus Junction, Iowa that said Monday it would extend an April 6 closure for another week.
  3. A National Beef Packing Co. plant in Tama, Iowa that suspended cattle slaughtering until the week of April 20.
  4. An Olymel pork plant in Yamachiche, Quebec, that closed for two weeks starting March 29.
  5. A Maple Leaf Foods poultry plant in Brampton, Ontario that suspended production April 8.

Overall, hundreds of workers have fallen ill at plants in Colorado, South Dakota, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and other locations, according to The Associated Press.

Meat processing workers are particularly vulnerable to infection because they stand very close to each other on assembly lines and share crowded locker rooms, leading some food safety and worker advocates to criticize companies and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for not doing more earlier to prevent the spread of the virus.

"Social distancing is impossible in meatpacking plants," senior government affairs representative for Food & Water Action Tony Corbo said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. "The plants are incubators for spreading COVID-19 and neither the plant owners nor the USDA has provided adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers and inspectors to use while on the job. Workers and inspectors at these plants must be immediately tested for COVID-19 and then immediately provided PPE and hazardous duty pay. We must treat these people who are critical to ensuring the safety of our food supply like the frontline workers that they are."

Food & Water Action said the Smithfield plant should have been closed weeks ago. But, as Newsweek reported, it only closed following a letter from South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul Ten Haken Saturday, asking the plant to close for 14 days. When it was sent, 238 of the states's 626 cases were among Smithfield employees.

"This is your moment to take swift action for your people, the community of Sioux Falls and the State of South Dakota," Noem and Ten Taken wrote.

Smithfield workers at the shuttered plant will receive full pay for the next 14 days.

It is hard to know how much plant closures will impact U.S. meat eaters. So far the decreased production has been offset by meat stored in freezers, Kansas State University agricultural economist Glynn Tonsor told The Associated Press.

"You could shut multiple plants down for a day or two, and we've got wiggle room to handle that," said Tonsor. "But if you took four or five of those big plants ... and they had to be down for two weeks, then you've got a game changer."

For animal welfare advocates, however, the spread of the new coronavirus at meat processing plants is just another symptom of the industry's disregard for both human and animal life.

"Even without the connection to coronavirus, animal flesh is one of the most cruelly obtained and unhealthy things you could consume," People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wrote. "Eating meat has been conclusively linked to heart disease, cancer, obesity, and other health issues β€” and according to the United Nations, animal agriculture is responsible for nearly a fifth of human-induced greenhouse-gas emissions. But each person who goes vegan won't just help fight climate change β€” they'll also save the lives of nearly 200 animals a year, animals who, just like us, don't want to be killed. Don't wait for COVID-20 β€” forget freezer meat and go vegan now."

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes β€” the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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