Student Scholarship: Hazelton Fellow presents ‘Meating the COVID Moment'

Over the past year, COVID-19 has magnified inefficiencies in the U.S. meat processing industry. As the country looks to life beyond the pandemic, the need to address areas of critical need is readily apparent.

That’s the argument Savannah McKinnon, a 2L and Hazelton Fellow in the UW's Tech Policy Lab, and co-author Rian Wanstreet make in their new scholarly paper, “Meating the COVID Moment: Creating a Stronger Processing System.”

Earlier this year, they presented their findings at the Yale Big Ag and Antitrust Conference, one of the country’s premier summits focused on creating sustainable and humane food systems. In their presentation, which can be viewed here, the authors outline policy proposals to address harms exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“When I was doing my initial research, it was overwhelming how many different facets of the agriculture industry there are and the problems throughout,” McKinnon says. “Every aspect of the sector intersects and is so interdependent that it is difficult to start and research because there are so many questions to be answered.”

In the paper, McKinnon and Wanstreet, a UW Ph.D. candidate in Communication, grapple with how the hyper-concentrated nature of the meat processing industry has fostered a system replete with vulnerabilities that contributed to COVID-19 outbreaks in meat processing facilities. They also spotlight systemic issues, including shortcomings in government oversight and applications of agricultural technologies, that transcend the reality of the pandemic.

Despite the lift a reimagining of an entire industry presents, the authors argue this is the right time do so.

“Ultimately, we believe that COVID-19 has provided a unique opportunity to change the system for the better, as extreme shocks to the system are often the moment when policy and legal improvement are possible,” McKinnon and Wanstreet write.

This latest work is an example of the many reasons McKinnon was interested in joining the Tech Policy Lab. The lab is an interdisciplinary collaboration among various units at the UW that provides opportunities to engage in hands-on work with the aim of enhancing technology policy through research, education and thought leadership.

Originally intent on becoming a broadcast journalist, the Bay Area native says growing up in Silicon Valley steadily drew her interest toward technology. After working in digital marketing until 2019, McKinnon took her growing interest in intellectual property and technology to UW Law.

“There is just so much opportunity in agriculture for technology,” McKinnon says. “One of the arguments we make [in the paper] is that the industry is potentially pursuing the wrong technologies in a way that prioritizes efficiency over health. There is so much data available — whether it be weather data, soil pressure, best times to harvest — but these companies aren’t using it in the best possible ways.”

The authors point to the consolidation of beef processing, as well as a lack of coordination among state and federal authorities, as other important circumstances to address.

An even more comprehensive study is in the works, with McKinnon contributing to a whitepaper the TPL will be releasing later this year. Today, McKinnon says her presentation at the Big Ag conference, and the feedback she and Wanstreet received, reinforce the importance of the work already underway.

“I was just really impressed by some of the other papers I read and the questions that were asked,” McKinnon says. “We had some really positive feedback, whether it was in my Zoom or LinkedIn messages I received. It was really validating and gratifying to hear that, but also it means our research is going in the right direction. It showed we were obviously hitting on the right aspects of policy that need to be changed.”