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Land of empty

Can Donald Trump survive in an America where you can’t order a hamburger?

Coronavirus is so insidious that it is hitting America where it hurts — the stomach. We’ve seen huge lines of cars lining up for food banks since lockdown began, and now a growing number of reports suggest that the nation’s meat supply is breaking down, as outbreaks of COVID-19 affect the largely immigrant workers in pork and beef processing plants.

Wendy’s, the fast food chain, is facing complaints from customers who say they can only order chicken — a ‘where’s the beef?’ meme has developed on social media. McDonald’s is putting its meat products on ‘controlled allocation’ to prevent shortages. Tyson Foods, one of the country’s largest meat producers, has said that ‘the food supply chain is breaking’.

What’s happened to America when you can’t order a hamburger?

This is disastrous news for Trump and he knows it. That’s why he signed an executive order last week essentially forcing meat and poultry processing plants to stay open during the health crisis. The federal government will ‘shield’ food companies from having to take legal responsibility for their workers’ health. Another frontline in the war against COVID-19 has thus been established.

Clearly, however, take-out restaurants and supermarkets are still feeling the strain. The blockages in the supply chain could take weeks to be cleared. Americans are now reportedly cutting out the middle man, by-passing food suppliers and sourcing meat directly from farmers. That’s an efficiency, of sorts, but a very disruptive one. The political consequences could be enormous. Never mind gas prices being at record lows — if Americans start to panic en masse about their meat supply, Trump may as well give up any hope of being re-elected.

America’s idea of itself as a ‘land of plenty’ is deeply-held and almost spiritual. If Trump is widely perceived to have failed to protect the food supply, to have turned the country into ‘a land of empty’, he’s dead meat, politically speaking. It doesn’t matter whether it is his fault or not. You don’t want Americans going ‘hangry’ as an election approaches.

Mother Nature (or, if you believe the conspiracy theories, a scientist in a Chinese lab) seems to have perfectly calibrated this coronavirus to target the American way of life. It has attacked freedom of movement, the right to work, and the willingness of Americans to embrace risk. Now it is coming for their ability to eat.

Of course, America’s excessive eating is also part of the problem — obesity and diabetes are common ‘co-morbidities’ in patients who die of COVID-19. But that’s why the meat supply problem could tap into profoundly held American anxieties about their hyper-consumerism. It also connects to the now all-too stark difficulties of globalization and America’s terrible reliance on China.

It turns out that Smithfield, America’s largest pork producer was bought by a Chinese investment vehicle in 2013. The same firm bought Clougherty Packing, California’s biggest pork processor, in January 2017 — just before Donald Trump took office. Smithfield has had to shut down plants because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

It’s easy to sound paranoiac about China’s intentions, but Americans are understandably alarmed at its strategic purchases. Chinese companies seek to control important western supply chains — that much is clear. In 2016, a court two Chinese companies were accused of conspiring to raise prices and lower supply of vitamin C sold to US purchasers. Donald Trump was elected precisely because he dared to say that globalization often meant putting America’s interests last. He said he’d change that. Might he now use the coronavirus crisis, the widespread suspicion of China, combined with fears of a meat shortage — to seize back control of America’s food supply?

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