Animal ProcessingHealth & Disease

How Many Ep(idem)ic Fails Does Factory Farming Get Before It’s Finished?

This time we don’t have to get into the animal rights side of things, how cruel the factory farm system is to chickens, pigs, turkeys, and cows, forcing them to live on unnatural diets in overcrowded conditions that result in trampled animals and a disturbing reliance on antibiotics. Nor is this from a vegan or vegetarian point of view, which is to say this is not about whether or not people should eat meat, eggs, or dairy. Let’s just safely assume that’s going to continue.

This time we don’t need to look at the devastating environmental impact tied to factory farms: the need to grow huge chemically-swaddled monoculture fields of corn and soy, the clear-cutting involved in creating such fields, the food miles involved in shipping this animal feed around the world, the concentrations of animal manure (turning a valuable resource into a problem) that pollute freshwater sources, the stench that surrounds the death and faeces…

These issues have been explained time and time again, but like monoculture crop production, the industrial meat, egg, and dairy scheme continues. The planet suffers, the animals suffer, but the profits grow. Of course, without people to provide those profits, this wouldn’t be an issue. Without customers to buy mass-produced, overly processed bacon, burgers, and bratwursts, the factory farms would go bankrupt. So, rather than focusing on the planet or its animals, let’s look at how factory farms affect people.

Only, this time we aren’t going to look at how the modern food system has created a cocktail of everyday health problems for people: obesity, allergies, diabetes, cancer, and heart conditions. We aren’t going to look at the livelihoods of small farmers who have been bludgeoned, along with their animals, by food corporations. We aren’t going to look at the psychological effects on workers who spend their lives in slaughterhouses. We aren’t going to even think about how the destruction of the planet will ultimately spell doom for the human race.


This time we are going to look at what the factory farming system does to people in terms of pandemics. As COVID-19 has continued to cause severe problems all over the world, a rash of factory farms in the United States have been shut down, not because of all of the reasons listed above but because of their factory workers getting sick en masse. Of course, the companies didn’t do this voluntarily. The meat machine kept rolling until the evidence was so damning even the politicians who normally stand with them were demanding action.

The Smithfield pork factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, supplies some 5% of the United States’ pork. It didn’t shut down after dozens of its 3700 employees tested positive for COVID-19. When (privately on the phone) Republican Mayor Paul TenHaken implored Smithfield executives to act in order to calm the small community, they agreed to temporary close the facility for three days to clean it. Two days later, the number had surpassed 100 infected, so the mayor wrote a letter, which the governor endorsed, and the two made it public.


Smithfield finally shut the doors, with CEO Kevin Sullivan warning: “We have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19.” He added that shutting down plants like this was “pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of meat supply.” The country’s meat supply will certainly feel the effects of big factories being shut down around the states, in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, but does that warrant risking the lives of workers, their communities and, potentially, consumers?

While the work conditions and low pay for employees of meat packing plants has long been a “controversial” topic, which is to say recognised as being unjust but preferably ignored, COVID-19 has illustrated the other problems within the system. These massive centralised supply chains are apparently not built to withstand pandemics without either sacrificing the exploited workforce (and the ripple effect of that) or the national meat production for a population unable to feed themselves without it.



On the other hand, the dairy industry has so much excess that thousands of gallons of milk are being literally dumped down the drain every day to control the supply rather than nourish hungry people. Over 20 million people filed for unemployment in a three-week span in the US, and in normal circumstance nearly 40 million in the US rely on food banks and meal programs to feed themselves. However, with the “demand” for milk weakened due to cafeteria closures, the answer is not to use it but to dump it.

The fact of the matter is that this isn’t an unheard-of situation. Milk surpluses have happened before, many times, with the same result. As people struggle to find food, the government diverts money to the dairy industry, buying up excesses of unwanted milk and cheese (a process with a long history that continues today) rather than to actually feeding people. In other words, the dairy side of factory farms is lining up yet again for an industry bailout as the government fails to help small businesses and hungry people, now with a pandemic putting on the pressure.



Perhaps, though, the most prominent aspect of pandemics and industrial meat production is the origin of this onslaught of zoonotic illnesses. While COVID-19 is being pinned on bats and pangolins thus far, factory farms have certainly been guilty: avian flu (H7N9), swine flu (H1N1), and mad cow disease (CJD). Animals in poor health cooped up in unsanitary, confined spaces in close contact with other unhealthy animals fed questionable food (mad cow was spread by cows eating other infected cows in their feed) create a petri dish in which diseases can thrive.

The exotic animals in wet markets, like where COVID-19 is said to have originated, are just an extension of the conditions in factory farms. The mix of “wild” animals are often raised on specialty farms, kept live in cages, and slaughtered with the same equipment, passing diseases between species. Essentially, these markets use the same artificial CAFO method for selling their so-called exotic meat. The conditions, just as in factory farms, are ripe for spreading disease and building problems into pandemics.



So, if we don’t do it for the animals, which are horribly mistreated in the factory farms… if we don’t do it for the sake of the planet, all those lost lots of forest and those polluted waterways, all the fertility turned fiasco, the food miles and animal feed and everything else… if we don’t do it for the workers, who are suffering from poor conditions and low pay… if we don’t do it for the consumers who are riddled with now run-of-the-mill health problems… if none of those things matter enough, perhaps the promise and proficiency of more pandemics will. How many times does it need to happen before we adjust the design?

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. Hi Mister Engels,

    Finally an article that refer to Doctor Michael Greger works on the scientific truths of the meat industries. Thank you for having pushed that far your research. What else can be done for people who deeply prefer to stay in denial…?

    Please let me make some comments on what you have presented. All these facts can be checked on Doctor Michael Greger yearly conferences and medical researches:

    1) Meat, diary and eggs are proven scientifically to be responsible in America alone for more than 500 000 deaths every single year, which cost Billions to society. And in China, fat, sugar, and the SAD diet has be responsible for the boom of diabetes and strokes, and early deaths in China’s countryside, proven by international researcher’s “China Study” in the 1960’s.

    2) Virus Pendemic have started and spread since animal domestication 10 000 years ago, and all epidemics in history have been related to bad industrial animal factory farming. Even the so called Spanish Flue which killed in 1919 between 50 to 100 millions of people in the world, had started in a farm in America :

    3) Whole plant food vegetarian diet is proven scientifically to be healthier and to provide in average 12 years for woman and 8 years for men of extension of life expectancy.

    4) And by the way, vegetables farming with permaculture and organic methods have shockingly proven to be more efficient in terms of production, and less consuming in terms of water, petrol, land and other resources. All proteins come from the plants kingdom, and you can ask gorillas or elephants, whom are herbivores, where their strengths and life come from.

    5) It may worth mentioning that Co2 emmisions, which are responsible for climate change environmental disasters, are for 18 percent due to animals farming in the world, more than all petrol used by car, trucks and planes transportation around the world, which is only pointed to 15 percent of gas emmisions.

    6) And what there is to say about millions of hectares of forest, in Amazon and Africa and Asia, lost for wild animals habitats, lost for life diversity, and lost for capturing CO2, Carbon Dioxide, that are cut to grow Genetically Modified food for animals farming…

    7) These are just scientific facts that are known since the 1950’s . These are the facts that are constantly in denial among multinationals, lobbies, politics, and conventional mass media. These are the facts that people need to know and acknowledge, for them to take better decisions for themselves, and be able to correctly educate their own children. These are the facts that can save the world from corruptions and destruction.

    Blessings to you Mister Engels
    Thank you for your article

    Grow Breath Dance Meditate Love

    1. You said: Meat, diary and eggs are proven scientifically to be responsible in America alone for more than 500 000 deaths every single year, which cost Billions to society

      What you should have said: CAFO, industrial, non-grass based, drugged, corn/soy based Meat, diary and eggs are proven scientifically to be responsible in America alone for more than 500 000 deaths every single year, which cost Billions to society

      We need to work cooperatively with herbivores in a grass-based, local farming system in order to make positive gains. Every article about meat, dairy, eggs should be very clear that there is a world of difference between industrial grain-based CAFOs and regeneratively grown, grass-based meat, dairy and eggs. As Joel Salatin says: Healing the earth one bite at a time.

      I recommend you find a local grass-based farmer and start saving our world.

      1. I’ll add that until industrial farming began in the late 19th century that animals had been an integral part of the agroecosystem from the conception of agriculture, as are animals in natural ecosystems. Besides providing food as secondary producers, they played important roles in draft power and transport, haulage, processing of products, conversion of non-food plant matter back into soil, and other tasks (horses were used in my family’s 19th century round barn in Ohio to hoist hay into the hayloft).

  2. It’s a very sad and disturbing truth that some people continuously deny as they are more focused on their target sales and income without focusing on the people behind their success. I hope that this matter will be taken into consideration and action at once and save these poor animals and these workers who continuously sacrifices their lives.

  3. Let’s not forget to include the effect on *the ocean* of all this animal-rearing,
    Industrial quantities of commercial fish are termed ‘bycatch’ and sent to be made into high protein animal feeds.

    Some such fishing vessels are as large as villages, with processing facilities to remain (out of sight to the public) offshore, at legal or illegal fishing grounds for months.
    Crew are often as badly treated as the land based workforce in your article. Indentured / slave labour, cramped quarters below deck, indifferent healthcare and low morale put them at risk. Right now many ports don’t let them in and they cannot get home or claim their wages :-(

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