Will The Pandemic “Cure” America’s Addiction to Cheap Meat?

Photo: Paul Sancya, Associated Press via The New York Times

Eating meat is as American as apple pie, so baked into our culture and identity that President Trump declared meatpacking plants essential and ordered them to stay open. Even so, CNN reports that some plants are such virus hotspots they have had to close or slow production and as a result reduced pork slaughter capacity by 25% and beef slaughter capacity by 10%, according to UFCW. Some grocery chains such as Costco and Kroger are limiting the amount of meat consumers can buy, and prices are spiking too.  Meanwhile, plant-based meats are flying off the shelves.

Why This Matters:  Thanks to the virus, Americans may now be forced to learn how to eat less meat and why that might be good for them.  The horrors of the meatpacking and industrial agriculture systems are good reasons to slow meat consumption, in addition to the climate benefits.  But for most Americans, this would require changing a part of our national identity and that will take some convincing.  That’s why we need more public campaigns and media coverage of Americans enjoying meals of fish and how, as CNN explains, the “potential for reduced meat consumption as the result of shortages could have a silver lining for Americans’ health.”

Changing Minds

Clearly necessity, fear, and guilt over the dangers of meatpacking plants will change American behavior in the short run.  But systemic and cultural change will take time.  Still, perhaps one more Americans try them, they will like them.  They might have to get used to eating these products because the largest beef producer in the US said the impact of the novel coronavirus will be felt across the meat industry for months. The Verge reported that grocery stores are seeing sales skyrocketing of products like Beyond Meat and Tofurky  — they were up 264 percent during a nine-week period ending on May 2nd, according to The Wall Street Journal. By comparison, retail sales overall dropped 16.4 percent from March to April.

And then there are organizations like the Food for Climate League, a new nonprofit organization, founded by two health-conscious moms “to redefine sustainable eating and help businesses, nonprofits and governments promote food that’s good for both humans and the planet.”  The founders, Eve Turow-Paul and Sophie Egan explained in The Washington Post that they got “seed” funding from Google and are now working with leaders in the food industry from Unilever, Sodexo, and Future Food Institute to change the conversation about what is good American food.  Their goal is to promote sustainable food offerings and make them the choice of consumers who want to eat healthily and also do what they can to tackle the climate crisis.

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