We have been saying this for more than six months: COVID-19’s main source of unchecked spread might be meat. While there is undoubtedly some person-to-person spread, the main vector is meat.
But here we take a look at the evidence, sources linked in-line include the CDC, Johns Hopkins University, the WHO, and other trusted sources.
Look at the evidence; see for yourself.
Outbreaks don’t correlate with large gatherings
So-called super-spreader events tend to be food centric. Weddings, small gatherings, in restaurants: Places where people eat together.
Under current assumptions, we should have seen massive spikes in the wake of the George Floyd protests, when hundreds of thousands of people gathered and yelled together. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh had some of the largest demonstrations in the nation, peaking during the first week of June.
Despite these mass gatherings – some of the largest in the history of this country, Pennsylvania’s new case rate continued to decline through late June and early July.
This was seen in many of the cities with the largest demonstrations.
The real outbreak epicenters
The series of meatpacking outbreaks has been attributed to the close working conditions in meat packing plants.
But we’re here to remind you that meatpacking is hardly the only assembly-line style industry. Apparel, shoes, cars, machinery, electronics and a host of others also work in assembly lines, but have not been hit with outbreaks repeatedly.
Here’s a picture of an electronics manufacturer plant. Pretty crowded – no outbreaks here or in the many factories like it around the world.
The concentration of cases in meatpacking outbreaks – many clocking 80% or more of thousands of employees – tells us there’s something here beyond a sick worker spreading germs.
But imagine numerous workers “processing” the body of something with other blood-transmissible viruses, like HIV or hepatitis. Now 80% infection rates make a lot more sense.
It is no coincidence that lighting keeps striking the same industry repeatedly.
Case study: Colorado
Recent In and Out outbreaks have clocked 145 COVID cases among employees, so far.
Two different, but nearby locations both experienced outbreaks: Colorado Springs and Aurora.
In the same week, the first case of the COVID-19 variant, first identified in the U.K., was diagnosed in a rural Elbert County man.
The man had no history of travel.
Is it that the employees coincidently failed to wash their hands, the same week, accidentally infecting all of their coworkers, the same week a nearby man with no travel history was diagnosed with the new variant of the disease?
The explanation offered by experts is that the new variant had to have been circulating earlier – at least a month earlier.
To go by current assumptions about COVID, one would have to believe that the In-N-Out employees both dropped the ball and caused mass outbreaks in the same week AND (both conditions need to be met) the new variant had been circulating for about a month before presenting symptoms in those that it infected at about the same time.
Either that, or a COVID-contaminated batch of meat circulating in Colorado that week.
Usually the simplest explanation is the most likely.
COVID across species
We know COVID can transmit between species, a somewhat unique characteristic of the virus.
Its spread in minks is well documented by the media.
It has also been found in dogs, cats, different kinds of primates, ferrets, tigers, and others.
Tigers? Yes, tigers. Strangely, there have been numerous tigers and lions infected with COVID-19 in various different zoos, despite their closed off habitats. Lions are pack animals, but tigers tend to be solitary and socially distance in nature.
That seems strange.
Well, maybe not.
Per the CDC, chickens and pigs were not susceptible to contracting the virus, but goes on to say that “these findings are based on a small amount of animals.”
In September, a Canadian study found that pigs could contract COVID-19, challenging previous assertions that pigs were not susceptible to the virus.
If it can move that freely between species, it’s not impossible it can spread from meat to humans.
Asia gets it
In our previous coverage of this topic, we talked about how the most densely populated regions in the world have the lowest test positivity rate, while some of the least densely populated regions have the highest.
That global pattern, based on millions data points reported by agencies like the CDC, Johns Hopkins University, and the WHO, is at odds with our current assumptions.
The test positivity rate, which controls for testing capacity and population size, have much stronger correlation with global per-capita meat consumption.
In Asian countries, meat supplies were audited early in the outbreak.
Take China, the supposed source of outbreak (though origins of outbreaks have often been attributed to the countries that discover them, not necessarily where they originated, like the Spanish Flu).
China’s government put the city of Wuhan into a strict, 76-day lockdown from late January to early April.
The CCP examined all possible sources. They audited imports and local suppliers. The flow of food and goods into the city was tightly monitored and controlled.
In early April, Wuhan residents were allowed to emerge from their homes.
The freedom would be short lived.
About a month later, COVID-19 struck again. Several Chinese cities went into lockdown 2.0.
In the meantime, China began to raise questions about the source of the virus.
In late May-June, they suspended meat imports.
China reopened for the second time in August, this time successfully.
As China began to accept meat imports again, they began to see little outbreaks here and there and jumped into contain mode.
They recently called for meat exporters to disinfect imported meat.
Just this week, they announced they would be testing meat imports from the U.S., the U.K., and Brazil after turning away up to 70% of meat imports.
They have found live virus and traced outbreaks to imported foods numerous times. Yet for some reason, despite China’s ability to manage the virus significantly better than the West, the West has remained incredulous without providing any quality reason to refute the very plausible, fit-everything-we’re-seeing hypothesis, despite our current assumptions frequently being contradicted by the data.
In a November Fortune article, that called China’s assertions of live virus on meat and packaging “dubious,” the counter argument does not question the presence of the virus but instead dismissed the claim, noting “Epidemiologists say the risk of outbreak from frozen food is low, because the virus has to enter a person’s body to infect them, so proper hand-washing should be enough to prevent it.”
You know what else might eliminate it? Not coming in contact with it in the first place.
While China continues to have outbreaks of the virus, the almost 1.4 billion-person nation currently reports less than 1,400 active cases. That means for every one active Chinese case, there are 25,716 American cases. Even if China was underreporting cases by a multiple of 1000, they would still have less than 10% of the U.S. prevalence.
Maybe we should, for our own self preservation, put our preconceived notions aside, and listen to what the Chinese are saying.
In India, the city of Chennai is among the least vegetarian populations in the country at 6%.
Yet their rates are as low as cities where half the population are vegetarian.
If meat is a vector, what accounts for this difference?
Answer: Government action. At the beginning of the outbreak, Chennai city officials shut down all meat production in the city. Residents were advised to only buy domestic meat, which was in short supply.
And they weren’t messing around either. Residents caught selling meat against government orders were arrested.
Because of the government’s swift action, officials were able to keep the virus under control in a meat-loving city.
Not all meat is infected
Chennai’s orders to only buy domestic are important.
It’s important to understand that not all meat would become infected at once, as not all animals would be infected at once.
Factory farming in the U.S., Brazil, and other epicenters of COVID outbreaks, would greatly exacerbate a viral problem.
Animals in close quarters, assembly line slaughter, and infected bodily fluids and waste explain why these countries have exponential rates compared to countries like India.
In countries where meat production isn’t on steroids, an infected animal is less likely to infect others or contaminate other meat. They have more space, aren’t slaughtered as regularly nor slaughtered with the same instrument one after another.
Though India has a high case count by raw numbers, they have quadruple the population and half the cases of the U.S. at the time of this writing. That means that for every one Indian diagnosed with COVID, eight Americans contract the virus. That means that India’s COVID pervasiveness is less than 13% of the U.S.
That is why the West’s meat trading partners, namely the U.S. and Brazil, volume map looked like a clone of COVID test positivity maps earlier on in the outbreak.
These maps are from June – since then global trade patterns have shifted significantly, and the meat consumption map has not been updated. But once/if it is, we’d probably see a similar trend that reflects the trading shifts.
We know what you’re thinking. Well, obviously, they would have tested the meat.
Prepare to be disappointed.
We reached out to the FDA and USDA. Though we have clarifying Freedom of Information Act requests pending, initial results were that they had 0 records of testing meat product itself for safety.
That’s right: 0 records. (for now, more once we hear back on our second rounds of requests).
Though the second request submitted answers a critical question, as of right now, it looks like the government is not inspecting meat product for safety of consumption and handling.
Not only does the U.S. itself not bother to test meat for live virus – it has protested that China has taken such actions on imported product.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian defended the decision after the U.S. called the measures “groundless and unreasonable.” Lijian asserted China’s testing of frozen food imports was “reasonable and justified.”
Doctors, COVID, and meat
If the data doesn’t make it obvious enough, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a non-profit organization with over 12,000 physicians in its ranks, is suing the USDA for dropping the ball on their responsibly of ensuring consumer safety.
We’re glad someone’s paying attention, because the mass media definitely isn’t. We contacted every major media outlet in the country with this story – Vox, WSJ, LA Times. Crickets.
COVID the Mysterious
Since the beginning of COVID, there’s always been a significant amount of case transmission we couldn’t explain.
Initially the assumption was that a significant amount of cases were being transmitted from asymptomatic patients.
In June of 2020, the WHO came out and stated that from the data they had, asymptomatic transmission was very rare.
“From the data we have, it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onward to a secondary individual,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization
But because people, already frustrated after a few months in lockdown, began questioning the virus all together, (and a few Karens torn down mask stands in retail stores), they walked back their statement.
This makes sense; we would do the same.
While in the discovery phase of a virus, better safe than sorry.
Though they were probably right, there were still too many unknowns for the WHO to provide information that might make people dial back their vigilance.
These mystery transmissions were probably contracted by the handling and consumption of infected meat.
That, coupled with symptomatic person-to-person transmission, would account for the exponential rate of spread.
Case trends in the United States
In early May and through most of June, it looked like the U.S. was turning a corner. Remember those days, when we were talking about flattening the curve and had hope?
It seemed like the life we once knew was within reach.
That must have been the result of the lockdowns, which, at the time, people were a little more open to, right?
Could be. It likely did curtail some degree of person-to-person transmission.
But many forget that about that time, we also experienced meat shortages because meatpacking plant workers were getting sick with the virus at alarming numbers. (Our first clue).
Take a look at these headlines over this case count graph over time.
But what happened in recent months? We’ve seen cases grow exponentially.
Staying on brand, experts defaulted to their consistent position: You saw your family over Thanksgiving and the holidays and now there’s a surge of cases. It’s your fault, America. You and those damn In-N-Out workers.
Little problem though. The exponential incline began in late October – a month before the holidays.
So what happened around that time?
Well, in April and May, with hundreds of meatpacking workers sidelined with COVID-19, there were a lot of backlogged animals to slaughter.
Despite the pandemic raging on, the meat packing companies pushed to make up for lost time.
October was a record month for U.S. meat output.
A dirty pig head
China has come right out and said they believe COVID-19’s spread have to do with frozen meat imports and meat packaging. They have been met with skepticism.
Despite the worsening crisis, the West is reluctant unwilling to reevaluate their assumptions.
If they were, they might pay closer attention to what Chinese officials have said with an open mind.
In a recent NPR report, a story that supports the Chinese’ assertion:
“A Tianjin CDC official, Zhang Ying, said both individuals, a warehouse loader and a truck driver, had been in physical contact with a shipment of hog heads from North America. According to CCTV footage, officials said the truck driver, not wearing any personal protective equipment, picked up a hog head when it fell out of the warehouse.
The frozen meat and its package have yet to be tested to this day, but Zhang said:
“Samples taken from the spot where the pig head fell on the ground came back positive for the coronavirus. There was also a genetic match to the samples taken from the two patients.”
The most plausible explanation for the presence of the viral particles on the ground, is that they were festering on the hog head.
Cases continue to clock new highs everyday.
That tells us something: What we’re doing right now is not working.
We need to keep an open mind.
As for the meat industry – they’ve cleaned up their act and learned their lesson. In October, Rob Larew, the National Farmers Union’s president released a statement that read:
“The pandemic confirmed something farmers have known for some time: there is a severe shortage of local and regional meat processing facilities across the country.”
In the twilight period of his presidency, Trump has been trying to roll back slaughter speed regulations, actions that will almost certainly exacerbate the problem.
In Tyson’s – the country’s largest meat producer – most recent earnings call, both management and investors were aligned on priorities.
One investor asked: “How do you prepare for increased risks of labor shortages in the next couple of months not just because of actual illness, but also because of workers maybe afraid of getting a little sick?”
A lil’ sick?
At least 200 meatpacking workers have died – and that figure is from September. No more recent data as of the time of this writing. That’s three, record setting months of the pandemic ago.
But we know that there have been outbreaks at plants since then, and that cases rose exponentially between then and now.
Alas, not surprising coming from a company where management bet on which workers would get sick and die.
Unfortunately, everything we know (and don’t) about COVID-19 is trial and error and trial by fire.
Until we know more, we should all follow orders of public health officials about wearing masks and sanitization. But it does seem that there is enough data to assume a strong connection between COVID-19’s spread and meat.
Knowing that the federal government did not fulfill proper due diligence on ensuring the safety of meat as a consumer product, it would be prudent to avoid meat, particularly in areas where case rates are exploding exponentially.
Eventually, the with time and more data, the truth will come to light. But it seems we are overlooking a big, meaty piece of the puzzle despite bright neon signs pointing to it as a vector of spread.
Remember: You are the biggest beneficiary of taking this precaution.
We are lucky that those working on the vaccine were able to deliver such effective product in such a short amount of time. They are reason to keep faith in science.
But new variants are emerging everyday. While the vaccine might protect against the first few, if we don’t address the true source of the virus, it’s only a matter of time before it mutates enough to overcome the vaccine.
Vaccine makers say they’ll be able to tweak the vaccine as needed much faster than the initial development went. We will essentially be required to have a new vaccination every year, not unlike we do now to protect ourselves from influenza.
Or, we should tackle the issue at the source, understand what happened, learn from it, make adjustments, and move on.