March 2021

The Sickening Effects of Carceral Veganism

Carceral veganism speaks for silenced animals, and it does so at the expense of marginalized people who are kept voiceless by the meatpacking industry.

by Riley Clare Valentine

COVID-19 has dramatically reshaped our lives, and pandemic exhaustion is causing people to act unpredictably. We do not yet know the long-lasting impacts of this, and its potential repercussions within at-risk communities. It is important to keep this in mind in discussing carceral veganism.

Carceral veganism is a form of veganism which uses the State to protect animals through forms of violence in which workers at meat packing plants are at high risk of both infection of COVID-19 and imprisonment as well as potential deportation. It predominantly does this through legislation enforcing anti-cruelty laws. These anti-cruelty laws are often over-applied to marginalized communities.

At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, carceral veganism worsens an already devastating public health crisis. COVID-19 cases are prolific in the meat industry as well as prisons and jails (Hawks, Woolhandler, and McCormick, 2020; Wurcel et. al, 2020; Nowotny et. al, 2020; Waltenburg et. al, 2020). The pandemic puts workers at high risk of infection, and any potentiality of imprisonment heightens that risk.

The meatpacking industry is reluctant to provide numbers of infected individuals. The reported numbers of infections to the Centers for Disease Control was nearly 5,000 individuals in April 2020 (CDC, 2020). However, investigative reporters estimate that there are nearly 77,186 workers in the meatpacking industry have sickened due to COVID-19. In a testimony before the Nebraska legislature, several plant workers stated that they were fired “because of coronavirus-related incidents” (Goodwin, 2020).

The backlash against workers is evident of a neglect of the five values of care. In putting marginalized minorities in spaces in which they could potentially contract an illness with no known cure, the meatpacking industry is not displaying compassion. They are not nurturing their employees. They are not meeting their physical or emotional needs. They are absconding responsibility for their workers as human beings. Capitalist workspaces do this more broadly; however, the particular violence of the meatpacking industry lies in its actions. Its actions demonstrate that neither workers nor animals have dignity. The workers who kill the animals, are likewise at risk of dying or suffering the long-term consequences of the pandemic because of the meatpacking industry.

When we take care of others, we notice a problem and assume responsibility for addressing this problem. Often this problem is unnoticed. Care ethics argues that the conflicts we respond to in our daily lives require us to step outside of ourselves—to imagine what the other being is experiencing, and to try to understand their needs. The needs of beings, both human and non-human, differ according to their identities. Research on animal cruelty notes that not only are offenders typically poor, they often live in rural areas (Hensley and Tallichet, 2005). Animal cruelty research does not involve interviews on what a person’s life experiences were like or the context for this harm towards animals. Instead, we have a picture in which people of color, poor people, uneducated people, and rural people are more violent than their white, middle-class, well-educated peers. Privileged people, then, are more moral. The assumption that the most privileged in society have a more fully developed moral sense upholds normative beliefs that law enforcement agents and institutions are acting in society’s best interest.

Personhood itself is relegated to bourgeois consumer ethics that plays out in the violence of meat plants as well as the rest of the capitalist landscape. In no way would they be targeting marginalized communities because they are simply penalizing those who are less moral. 

The silence of the meatpacking industry is violent: from the more obvious silencing of workers surrounding COVID-19 to a culture in which workers are unknown. Workers often live near the plants. They are hidden from public view. The AG-GAG laws which make filming footage of meatpacking plants illegal further silences workers; they are unknown entities.

Family members hold a photo of Saul Sanchez, who died of COVID-19 while working in JBS meatpacking plant in Colorado in April 2020. The company has refused to pay compensation to his family, along with six other workers who died at the plant. Photo via New York Times.

Meatpacking plants predominantly rely on immigrant labor. In particular, the plants utilize refugee labor. During college, I volunteered with an English tutoring program in Clarkston, Georgia. Clarkston is a neighborhood on the outskirts of Atlanta. It is a neighborhood predominantly made up of Black and refugee residents. The organizer of the tutoring program told me, in a voice hushed with anger directed towards the state employment guarantee, that while refugees are guaranteed jobs, those jobs were at a chicken plant. Many of the refugees I knew would shift labor at the plant. One person would work, while another would take care of the other family members and typically engage in other labor. The people who worked at the plant were traumatized and needed moments of respite. Trauma on top of trauma. The trauma of displacement. The trauma of entering a nation defined by white supremacy and xenophobia. The trauma of laboring at meat processing plants with little care extended to their laborers. A caring response to influxes of refugees with guaranteed employment is providing meaningful labor. Factory farming and the industries connected to it utilize the labor of the disenfranchised (Joseph Marin, 2020). These collapse their labor into a singular process, asking that their employees be thankful for poorly paid labor-intensive work.

The silence around the meat industry is deafening. There is the active silencing of workers in meatpacking industries during a pandemic, and a culture of silence in which meatpacking jobs are given to people who are seen as invisible. The meatpacking plant holds the future of these people in a way that is viscerally different from citizens. If I were to work at a plant, I would not be subject to the same fear of potential deportation and reporting that undocumented workers face. The meatpacking plant directly enforces weapons of state silencing.

The legal apparatus of the state gives jobs that do not give meaning to a person’s life. Working at a chicken plant is a quiet job. It is not a career. The state gives jobs, but they do not respect the dignity of a person—the right to have a job that adds to their life. These two factors are ethical problems. By taking away workers’ voices, the workers are unable to establish their needs. Because of this, their needs are erased. They cannot advocate for themselves or assert their own personhood. Silenced workers cannot access good care. Good care requires a relationship in which all participants are heard; it is an active process that necessitates being able to understand one another. In silencing workers, it becomes easy to privilege others’ needs, which is precisely what carceral veganism does. By neglecting workers who are suffering, they focus their attention on beings whose needs they believe that they know how to address.  

Likewise, animal law is silencing. It is not situated in animals’ customs and practices; it is centered in human law adapted to animals. Animal law separates humans from the fact that we are also animals—by constructing which animals are important to us, we slowly move away from recognizing our own animality.

Cramped and poor working conditions make meat work both undesirable and dangerous, a situation worsened by COVID-19. Photo via USA Today.

The development of animal law reflects us. Laws often approach animals as property with limited rights—these rights include a right to not be tortured, subject to cruelty, and to not be hurt by individuals who are not their owners (Stilt, 2018). Moreover, only some animals are protected. Kristen Stilt in Critical Terms for Animal Studies (2018) notes that farm animals receive no federal protections from abuse, and that the AWA only protects some warm-blooded animals. The AWA excludes fish and reptiles. The prioritization of animals which are considered more “pet-like” than others, and thus more sympathetic, reflects human biases and preferences. Our cultural biases pervade the law. Despite these biases, the laws offer a false sense of moral superiority. Not all animals are protected under the law. Human biases, while inevitable in legislation, importantly reflect how we distance ourselves from animality.

Animal welfare legislation places animals in a relationship of dependence on humans. It frames animals as victims who lack personhood. Animals held in “captivity” experience psychological and physical distress. Lori Marino (2018) defines captivity as, “a persistent psychological state of extreme dependence, tedium, and anxiety.” Animals in factory farm scenarios are held in captivity, awaiting inevitable harm. Welfare legislation puts animals at the mercy of human perceptions over which animals are more deserving than others. The preferential treatment of some animals put animals in a position in which they are dependent upon our perceptions of them.

Carceral vegans, perhaps unknowingly, replicate relationships of silent violence and bad care. By assuming animals’ best interests and creating laws that exist outside of animal practices and customs, they, too, forget that humans are animals. Animals are held in a relationship in which they are in a state of utter dependence upon humans for the future. The way in which animal law is currently used exemplifies bad care. It forgets where human and animal needs come together and where they differ. It looks for a single answer to end violence against animals—the state.

The bad care of carceral veganism, much like that of silent violence against marginalized persons, erases the autonomy of animals. By picturing animals as victims, they are denigrated to beings who are worthy of respect insofar as we provide it for them. Carceral veganism speaks for silenced animals, and it does so at the expense of marginalized people who are kept voiceless by the meatpacking industry. Much like morality and legality replicating systems of power, carceral veganism denotes whose voices matter, and it is the voice of privileged vegans.

Riley Clare Valentine is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Louisiana State University. Their research focuses on language, neoliberalism, and care ethics. They have been a street medic since Occupy and were trained in Occupy Atlanta. Since then, they traveled to protests across the country as a medic, participated in disaster response, and continue their work as a street medic. Beyond their grassroots organizing, they have also worked on campus changes at LSU for other LGBTQ+ individuals.

Further Reading

Dyal, Jonathan et al. “COVID-19 among workers in meat and poultry processing facilities – 19 states, April 2020.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. May 8, 2020.

Goodwin, Connor. “Nebraska Meatpacking Workers Continue to Struggle During the Pandemic.” The American Prospect, https://prospect.org/coronavirus/nebraska-meatpacking-workers-continue-to-struggle-during-pandemic/.

Hawks, Laura, Steffie Woolhandler, and Danny McCormick. “COVID-19 in prisons and jails in the United States.” JAMA Internal Medicine (2020).

Hensley, Christopher and Suzanne E. Tallichet. “Animal cruelty motivations: Assessing demographic and situational influences.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 20, no.11(2005): 1429-1443.

Marin, Joseph. “What is ‘agricultural’ anyway: A closer look at the H-2A and H-2B loophole.” Journal of Corporation Law 45, no.2(2020): 557-572.

Nowotny, Kathryn, Zinzi Bailey, Marisa Omori, and Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein. “COVID-19 Exposes need for progressive criminal justice reform.” (2020): e1e2.
Stilt, Kristen. Gruen, Lori, ed. Critical terms for animal studies. University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Waltenburg MA, Victoroff T, Rose CE, et al. “Update: COVID-19 among workers in meat and poultry processing facilities – United States, April-May 2020.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6927e2.htm.

Wurcel, Alysse G., Emily Dauria, Nicholas Zaller, Ank Nijhawan, Curt Beckwith, Kathryn Nowotny, and Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein. “Spotlight on jails: COVID-19 mitigation policies needed now.” Clinical Infectious Diseases (2020).

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