We don't know yet how much fire-safety equipment the factory had.
We don’t know yet how much fire-safety equipment the factory had.
Brian Yap

We’re still reeling from April’s garment-factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1,100 people, making the 112 fatalities of a clothing-factory fire in the same country five months earlier seem tragically routine in comparison. Today’s news, then, of at least 119 deaths in a fire at a poultry plant in northeast China, not only adds another unwanted entry to this history of horror, but also shows that mortally unsafe working conditions are not limited to the apparel industry.

According to Chinese news reports cited by The New York Times, when a fire broke out inside the Baoyuanfeng Poultry Plant, “a major domestic poultry supplier,” workers rushed to the factory’s few exits only to find some of them blocked — the same safety hazard that made November’s fire in a Bangladesh factory so lethal, and that killed workers in the U.S.’s notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire a century ago (which spurred important safety reforms in this country).

Industrial-scale ag is taking off in China thanks to a growing middle class with an appetite for meat. The Baoyuanfeng plant began operations just four years ago in Jilin Province, whose administrative city, Dehui, “has promoted itself as a base for commercial agriculture,” and claims it can produce 250 million broiler chickens a year. Last week’s announcement that Chinese meat company Shuanghui hopes to buy U.S. pork behemoth Smithfield demonstrated the global implications of a rapidly expanding Chinese meat market. This week’s tragedy shows the human consequences.

The New York Times reports:

China’s food-processing industry has grown rapidly to feed an increasingly prosperous population in the nation’s cities, and the poultry plant appeared to be one beneficiary of that growth. …

Chinese factories and mines have been troubled by work hazards during the country’s rapid economic expansion. The frequent industrial accidents have drawn criticism that officials are putting economic growth before safety.

Ironically, one of the goals — or at least one of the hoped-for side effects — of the Shuanghui-Smithfield deal is better food safety on both sides of the Pacific. Bloomberg News notes that buying Smithfield “would give Shuanghui access to more advanced production technology,” while Tom Philpott at Mother Jones points out that China’s ban on the growth additive ractopamine could be behind Smithfield’s recent decision to phase out its use of the drug.

Could the deal also lead to higher safety standards in meat-processing plants? We sure hope so.