A couple weeks ago we saw obscene images of dairy farmers discarding milk, and vegetable growers plowing over tomatoes intended for restaurants that have been shuttered, all while thousands of hungry Americans waited in line for handouts at food pantries. 

Now, a similar juxtaposition of images seems to be playing out with chickens being gassed and pig sows aborted after meat packers were forced to shut down because workers are sick and dying from Covid-19. Except this time, the commodity system’s crisis points up a huge looming challenge for the entire country as it tries to re-open: What responsibility do businesses have to protect workers in close quarters from contracting Covid-19? In other words, can companies be sued when they fail to provide adequate protections? Can they pass the buck to a government that stumbled and bungled for months and is still unable to provide full-scale national testing that would enable businesses to screen workers and job applicants?

The ultimate question is this: Will workers and their families retain the right to sue companies that fail to provide adequate safety and other protections as workers return with the Covid-19 still a big threat? 

I got a sense of this conundrum on Monday, when I received a press release from a large national law firm, Laphrom GPM, that stated: “As businesses begin to reopen and employees return to work, companies may be held responsible if an employee or customer becomes infected with COVID-19. In the coming weeks and months, companies can expect to see an increase in the number of tort litigation cases, particularly those involving wrongful death claims, where individuals allege negligence or even intentional infliction of emotional distress. Businesses that have a high concentration of employees working in close quarters are even more at risk.” The firm offered its lawyers as experts for media interviews.

Which leads back to the collapsing commodity food system. On Tuesday, the White House announced that President Trump was “taking all appropriate action” via an executive order to keep the nation’s corporate meat companies operating, after more than 20 had shut down for various periods because workers became sick or died with Covid -19.

Tyson Foods, one of the major corporate meat companies, put out full-page newspaper ads over the weekend warning that the nation’s food supply was in danger. 

Of course, there was a subtext to this unfolding horror story: Tyson and others are glad to reopen, and force workers back on the line….so long as the workers can’t sue when they die from Covid 19. Trump’s executive order apparently danced around this issue, according to the NY Times story: “As states begin reopening, businesses have begun pushing the Trump administration and Congress to shield American companies from a wide range of potential lawsuits related to restarting the economy. Companies want assurances that they will not be held legally liable if a worker or customer contracts the virus at their warehouse, coffee shop or grocery store.”

What will the Washington pols decide to do? The question will likely be decided as part of a new aid package to states. Apparently, suits have already started, from cruise ship passengers and Walmart workers sickened by Covid-19. 

America’s meat companies have always been marginal operations in terms of the quality food they supply and the damage to worker and environmental health they cause. Increasing numbers of Americans in recent years have been seeking out suppliers who raise their animals without GMOs and antibiotics, and who also slaughter humanely.  While it’s tempting to simply suggest this pandemic be used an excuse to let the commodity companies die a quiet death, unfortunately, they provide many thousands of jobs and many lAmericans a supply of cheap protein. 

My guess is profits will win out, as they usually do, and meat workers along with many others will have a grim choice: face a serious risk of contracting Covid-19 without any legal rights, or don’t work. That additional menace could have been avoided had the U.S. done what dozens of other civilized countries did: get on top of this pandemic in February and March with a viable national testing program that would have enabled businesses to avoid playing Russian roulette with their employees.