Covid-19 Makes the Case for More Meatpacking Robots

On Memorial Day weekends past, you might have joined in the All-American ritual of firing up the grill, cracking a cold one, and feuding with your family over which hot dog condiment is correct. (Mayonnaise, clearly.) But this holiday, you might not have as many wieners to argue about.

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Across the US, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 has rampaged through cold, cramped, meat processing facilities, sickening thousands of workers and killing at least 30 of them. With dozens of plants closed or cutting back operations, meat shortages have been forcing some grocery stores to ration grilling staples like ground beef and chicken breasts. At least one sausage factory, in Milwaukee, has had to hit pause on its hot dog production line.

But on the other side of the ocean, inside Europe’s largest pig slaughterhouse, the only visible sign that there’s a global pandemic going on is in the break room, where every other chair has been spirited away to leave conspicuous gaps between any would-be socializers. Otherwise, it’s business as usual. That’s because, at this meat plant, robots do most of the work.

At 5:20 am, the first pigs start arriving on straw-lined flatbed trucks. While darkness still covers the nearby seaside town of Horsens, Denmark, coveralled workers herd the animals into pens inside a hulking 90-acre facility owned by Danish Crown, the biggest meat processing company in Europe. An hour or two later, automated partitions nudge them, a few pigs at a time, out of the pens and into a gas chamber where a blast of CO2 knocks them out. Moments later, they spill onto a conveyor belt where a worker wearing a waterproof apron and elbow-length gloves cuffs one of each pig’s rear feet to a moving production line, which hoists the animal overhead. Another worker inserts a knife into the pig’s carotid artery, and an attached vacuum hose siphons out the blood. That’s when the robots really take over.

An infrared laser-emitting robot first measures each pig carcass. Next up, the so-called rectum loosener robot uses computer vision to identify the pig’s tail, cuts a 4-inch hole around it, and extracts whatever poop is inside. Then the feces-free carcass moves into a cabinet-like robot, where a large, circular blade splits the pig from sternum to ham. Next, each one moves onto a mechanized, autonomous organ remover, tendon slasher, and finally, the spine splitter. Ten minutes. Six robots. Minimal human supervision. By midnight, when the second (human) shift calls it quits, 18,000 pigs will have passed through this gauntlet of actuated steel and knives.

Danish Crown’s Horsens facility isn’t just one of the largest pig slaughterhouses in the world, it’s also, by most accounts, the most modern. (And the most transparent—in pre-pandemic times, it hosted hundreds of visitors a week. Today you can still take a virtual tour.) But heavy automation is a feature of all 18 of the company’s in-country meat processing facilities. And it’s one reason that might explain how Denmark’s slaughterhouses have so far escaped becoming Covid-19 hot spots. According to a Danish Crown spokesperson, among the company’s 8,000 employees in Denmark, fewer than 10 workers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. None of its slaughterhouses there have had to close or slow down production.

There are likely other explanations and contributing factors, too—like Denmark’s early adoption of lockdown measures and its robust nationalized health care system. But scientists who study the meat industry say the rest of the world should take note. The new realities of social distancing mean rethinking the layout of all kinds of workplaces, including slaughterhouses. In the US, these facilities are characterized by cramped, loud, icy conditions that make it easier for the coronavirus to stay alive and jump from person to person. Robots could help keep workers safe and meat plants running.

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