Today
Sun 17 January 2021

Tom Scott reports on the US agribusiness giants that have infiltrated the UK market and the opportunity provided by Brexit for the further expansion of these ruthless firms

This weekend, a cull of 10,500 turkeys began at a turkey-fattening unit near Northallerton, North Yorkshire, after an outbreak of the H5N8 strain of avian influenza. As the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) moved to impose a three kilometre “control zone” around the site, Public Health England assured the local population that the risk to human health was low. 

While this may be the case, the incident raises questions about the safety of US-style industrialised meat production and processing plants in the UK.

The unit in Yorkshire is run by Avara Foods, a 50-50 joint venture between UK producer Faccenda and the US food giant Cargill. In July, Avara, which employs around 2,500 people, revealed that 100 of its staff had tested positive for COVID-19 at sites in Herefordshire. Cargill has also seen numerous large outbreaks at its facilities across the US and Canada. 

In Canada, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) announced in May that it was taking legal action against Cargill, attempting to stop the firm from reopening a plant in Alberta, after nearly a thousand workers there tested positive for COVID-19. The union said the company had “ignored our calls for a worker-centred approach to ensuring the plant is safe”.

In the US, too, Cargill has been accused by unions of risking its workers’ health during the pandemic. The UFCW claims the company failed to disclose the scale of a major outbreak at a meat-processing plant in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Rafael Benjamin, a worker at the plant, was allegedly told by a supervisor to remove a face-mask given to him by his daughter because it was causing unease among other employees. He was one of hundreds of workers there to contract the virus, and died a few weeks later.

In previous statements, the company has insisted that, “the safety of our employees is our top priority,” and that it is engaging in “good faith” with the UFCW.

But Cargill is not the only US meat company that has made major inroads into the UK market in recent years, or to have seen COVID-19 outbreaks at UK subsidiaries.

One of Cargill’s main rivals in the US meat business is Texas-based Pilgrim’s Pride. In 2019, the company took over a pork-packing plant at Pool in Cornwall as part of its 2019 acquisition of Danish-owned Tulip, one of the UK’s largest meat-processors. Trade journal The Grocer reported that the move “shows the US has the UK meat sector in its sights,” in anticipation of moves by Boris Johnson’s Government to downgrade health and safety regulations on imports and domestic meat production after Brexit.

In September, more than 170 workers at the Pool factory tested positive for COVID-19  – the biggest single cluster of the virus in Cornwall since the start of the pandemic. The company has claimed that it took proper safety precautions at the plant, but this has been contradicted by a number of workers. 

Speaking anonymously, one said: “They are making a perfunctory effort in keeping people distanced but as soon as you go on to the factory floor it’s near-on impossible to socially distance. Everyone is sat side by side packing bacon.” In his view: “The factory should be closed. They are putting profit before people.”

There have been numerous major outbreaks at Pilgrim’s Pride facilities in the US and several at its other plants in the UK, including those run by its Moy Park subsidiary in Ballymena and Dungannon in Northern Ireland, and at Anwick in Lincolnshire, where 50 workers tested positive in November. In Northern Ireland, the Unite union has said the company has failed to provide financial protection to vulnerable employees, causing “deep resentment among workers”. 

There is no doubt that both Pilgrim’s Pride and Cargill – the latter of which generated sales of $113.5 billion in 2019 – have a great deal of political heft in the US. Both are members of the National Chicken Council, a lobbying group that seeks to influence lawmakers both in the US and abroad.

Every year, poultry industry giants make political donations amounting to several million dollars, the vast majority of which goes to Republican candidates according to transparency non-profit OpenSecrets. Greenpeace has even described how Cargill urged the US Government to “seek complete agricultural market access for its firms” and “eliminate intended or unintended non-tariff barriers in the agriculture sector” in its trade talks with the UK Government.

Since April, Cargill’s CEO, David MacLennan, has gained the ear of Donald Trump as a member of the President’s American Economic Revival Industry Group for Agriculture, formed by the White House in the wake of the pandemic to “chart the path forward toward a future of unparalleled American prosperity”. 

The Pilgrim’s Pride board, meanwhile, is reported to include influential Trump supporters – which may have helped in persuading the President to issue an executive order earlier this year for US meat processing plants to remain open, despite well-founded concerns for the health of their workers.

Mass production of cheap meat can be a dangerous business for the mostly low-paid workers within it. In 2015, an Oxfam report found that US poultry workers suffer five times the rate of occupational illness compared to other workers, with 72% reporting significant work-related illness or injuries. Recent events here in the UK raise serious questions about whether the inroads made by US corporate giants are creating less secure conditions for British workers too.

With the election of Joe Biden as President, it now seems unlikely that Johnson’s Government will be signing a trade deal with the US any time soon. But this does not mean that US firms will refrain from expanding aggressively into the UK food market, importing their policies on labour rights and production standards. And with UK producers reeling from the dual impacts of Brexit and COVID-19, there are likely to be many opportunities for them to do so. 

If this is the future of meat production in the UK, we should all be worried.


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