The meat industry has come to be dominated by a handful of huge corporations that slaughter and process most of the country’s meat at large centralized facilities. The volume and speed of production demanded at meatpacking and slaughterhouse facilities often make for dangerous and unsanitary conditions that can lead to worker injury and contaminated product. The US Department of Agriculture oversees the industry, but a lack of funding and lax enforcement of existing regulations means that often the industry is left to regulate itself.
Meatpacking refers to the process of turning livestock into meat, including slaughter, processing, packaging and distribution. These days, the top meatpacking companies do not just produce meat, they also control how the animals are raised long before slaughter: in the chicken industry, companies oversee the process from chick genetics through supermarket packaging; in the beef industry, cattle come under the control of the big meatpackers four to six months before slaughter.
The ownership of all parts of the supply chain is called vertical integration. It gives integrators – the companies who have integrated all the different parts under one umbrella – control over price and quality; and the economies of scale they have achieved have helped to drive down the consumer prices of meat. Vertical integration has also allowed the meat industry to become highly consolidated, controlled by just a few companies: As of 2015, the four largest companies in each sector controlled 85 percent of the beef packing industry, 66 percent of pork packing, and 51 percent of broiler chicken processing. 1 The slaughter and packing plants these few companies run operate on a tremendous scale: in 2015, 85 percent of beef cattle slaughtered took place in just 30 US slaughter facilities (of the almost 650), with more than half slaughtered in 13 plants. These top 13 plants process more than one million animals per year, which is approximately 2,800 cattle/day, 365 days/year. 2
The history of the meatpacking industry closely traces the history of corporate power and consolidation in the US. Upton Sinclair’s famous 1906 exposé, The Jungle, revealed the horrific conditions of Chicago’s meatpacking plants at the turn of the last century, laying blame on the consolidated power of the packing companies. The novel helped to catalyze changes in the industry, including the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.
In the same period, antitrust laws aimed the stranglehold of big business in all sectors broke up most powerful players of the meat cartel. 3 Large-scale unionizing, along with the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, improved wages and working conditions at meatpacking plants; by the middle of the twentieth century, meatpacking jobs were considered skilled labor, and workers could expect to rise to the middle class. This period of opportunity didn’t last long, however, as companies began to move the packing facilities out of cities into rural areas, to be closer to the animal stock and to have more control over their workers. Transition to a production line, where workers performed the same task repeatedly, meant unskilled workers could be hired at lower wages. Consolidation began to rise again, such that today meatpacking is one of the most concentrated sectors of the economy; with consolidation, conditions at plants have worsened severely.
The meatpacking industry, as a 2015 report by Oxfam America on poultry workers put it, “churns out a lot of chicken, but it also churns through a lot of human beings.” Oxfam estimates that from every dollar spent on a McDonald’s Chicken McNugget, just two cents goes to compensate the processing labor. 4 Conditions are generally the worst at poultry plants, which tend to have the least union representation. Some beef and pork slaughter plants are still unionized, and, according to United Food and Commercial Workers, union meatpackers make 15 percent higher wages than non-union.
The costs of working at meatpacking plants are not offset by the low pay; and worse, many workers sacrifice their bodies on the production line. With line speeds twice as fast as forty years ago, 5 the stress of repetitive cutting motions can lead to serious injury. A 2013 Southern Poverty Law Center report found that nearly 75 percent of poultry workers described having some type of significant work-related injury or illness. 6 The US General Accounting Office (GAO) found in 2016 that while injury rates for meat and poultry processing workers have declined in recent years, they are (at 5.7 percent) still higher than in manufacturing, overall. 7 According to the Department of Labor, the incidence of occupational illness reported in the poultry industry is more than six times the average for all US industries. 8
Injuries from the cutting equipment, from falls on slippery floors and from exposure to chemicals and pathogens are common. Musculoskeletal disorders — injuries to the nerves, tendons and muscles — are especially prevalent. For example, the incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome in poultry processing is seven times higher than the national average. On a chicken processing line, a worker can repeat the same motion as many as 20,000 times in a day, which can lead to permanent damage in the hands, arms, shoulders or back. In some plants, workers are not allowed regular bathroom breaks, which can lead to severe health consequences, as well.
Many plant workers are immigrants and have been threatened with deportation or firing if they speak up about unsafe working conditions, are injured on the job, seek medical treatment outside the company or complain about work-related health issues. 9
In 2015, USDA issued 150 recalls of contaminated meat products, covering 21.1 million pounds, including 5.1 million pounds for contamination by Listeria, Salmonella, and various forms of E. coli. 10 Meat and poultry were responsible for 2.1 million illnesses in the US in a ten-year period examined by Centers for Disease Control researchers — 22 percent of all foodborne illness. In 2014, Wolverine Packing Company recalled approximately 1.8 million pounds of ground beef products after 12 people were infected with an outbreak E. coli strains in four states. That same year, Tyson Foods recalled 33,840 pounds of mechanically separated chicken parts, some of which had infected nine people in a correctional facility in Tennessee with Salmonella. Baseline studies by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service found that 26.3 percent of raw chicken parts in the US tested positive for Salmonella and 21.4 percent for Campylobacter, 11 two harmful bacteria.
Bacteria can enter the food supply if proper care is not taken in slaughter and processing. Fecal matter from animal intestines or animal hides can spread to tables, tools or to the meat itself. The high speeds of production lines in many processing plants, however, make it difficult for workers to take the necessary care to prevent contamination.
While rates of documented contamination are relatively low given the scale of total annual US meat production (48.5 billion pounds red meat and 40.5 billion pounds chilled and frozen chicken), even one instance of death caused by bacteria in the food supply is too many. Along with production line speeds, the centralization of slaughter and processing facilities is a major culprit in contamination outbreaks. Meat processed in one facility may end up in supermarkets or restaurants all over the country, making it difficult to trace the origin of the outbreak, and even harder to contain.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) regulates the safety of meat and poultry. Meat sold in the US carries a USDA “Inspected and Passed” seal proving that government inspectors have verified only the effectiveness of the processor’s food safety systems, through the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Program (HACCP), not, however, that they have inspected every piece of meat. 12
The HACCP system, introduced in 1996, modernized meat inspection and introduced testing for some bacteria that make people sick. It was a major advance; but critics, including internal government oversight agencies, point to significant shortcomings. Audits of the system by the Office of the Inspector General and Government Accountability Office have repeatedly shown that meatpacking plants fail to properly identify potential hazards (including commonly tested pathogens like shiga-toxin producing E. coli and Salmonella) in their HACCP plans, and that FSIS has no procedure in place for approval of plants’ plans; this enables recurring violations of the protocol, with little consequence or corrective action, as well as other problems. 13 The HACCP system allows many inspection tasks to be carried out by the meat companies themselves, and actually reduces the involvement of USDA inspectors. 14 Finally, the system does not allow USDA to shut down a meatpacking plant that, through testing, is shown to have high levels of bacterial contamination in its products. 15 As a result of the landmark case Supreme Beef vs USDA, the agency cannot rely on the results of its testing alone to determine whether a meat processing facility is unsanitary and therefore also cannot on its own shut violators down. 16
HACCP also impacts worker safety. A USDA rule, Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection, finalized in 2014, had initially proposed an increase in production line speed from 140 to 175 birds per minute. The increase was rejected in the final rule, but there has been no subsequent rulemaking by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to further protect meat or poultry workers. According to a Southern Poverty Law Center’s report, OSHA “has no set of mandatory guidelines tailored to protect poultry processing workers. Workers cannot bring a lawsuit to prevent hazardous working conditions or even to respond to an employer’s retaliation, if they complain about safety hazards or other abusive working conditions.”
Although consumer demand for local, sustainably-produced meats is growing, satisfying this demand is no easy task, in large part because decades of consolidation has wiped out the infrastructure needed to produce and market meat products from small farms. Small slaughter and processing operations have been closing across the country, because of industry consolidation, low profit margins, the complexities of federal regulation and the challenges of disposing of slaughter byproducts. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of slaughterhouses in the US declined by 15 percent. 17 The lack of smaller processing facilities poses a challenge (both logistical and financial) for small farmers, and it can be very hard for them to schedule an appointment in the few-day window when their animals are, for example, at peak condition; without alternatives, they have no choice but to pay the higher prices they are charged. Many small farmers point to processing costs as one of their biggest expenses.
Fortunately, there are many sustainable farmers and ranchers throughout the US that care about where their animals are processed – and in some areas, independent slaughterhouses and butchering facilities are slowly re-opening, including mobile slaughterhouses. The most successful of these efforts include an independent middleman or aggregator, who negotiates the relationship between farmer and buyer (a store, restaurant or institution) and coordinates the slaughter, processing and delivery of the meat. Because the aggregator is working with product from multiple farmers, it is easier for them to gain access to slaughter facilities and juggle buyers’ changing schedules than it is for a single farmer. For consumers, meat that goes through a local aggregator is often easier to find – it may be available in the supermarket or restaurants rather than just at a weekly farmers’ market, and it may be cheaper than buying direct from the farmer. The aggregator usually has a recognizable brand under which meat from all its farmers is sold. Firsthand Foods in North Carolina, Ranch Foods Direct in Colorado and Black River Meats in Vermont are a few thriving examples of this model; some of these are farmer cooperatives instead, such as Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative in Arkansas.