Breaking Vegetarian: The Human Face of Food Labor

Paste's column on eating meat mindfully

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In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s harrowing novel The Jungle exposed the frightening, dangerous conditions inside American meatpacking plants: liquid waste and sewage spilling across the floors, freezing cold rooms that led to the spread of disease, forced long hours and no overtime pay. While Sinclair’s primary goal in writing had been to garner national attention for the plight of the immigrant men who worked in these plants, the American public largely focused on the meat itself. The U.S. government passed several pieces of legislation designed to reform conditions, but mostly, as Sinclair himself noted, because the American public didn’t want to consume contaminated meat.

Then, as now, it seems it’s easy to forget the human face of our meat: the people whose job it is to kill, process, and pack the animals we eat.

Though the middle part of the twentieth century saw some labor conditions improve, in the 1980s, as slaughterhouses began to move out of urban centers and into more rural, isolated areas, the faces of these workers have again been hidden from the public eye, and no one seems to mind. The result, of course, has been that conditions have become increasingly dangerous, without much political pressure for change.

What is it like to work in a slaughterhouse today?

During the 1980s and 1990s, major meat corporations consolidated, and moved slaughter operations into rural areas, which meant they could get much bigger and operated on much smaller profit margins. As a result, the level of mechanization, and the speed of the slaughter line increased significantly.

The faster the line moves, the greater the profit. But when line speed increases, worker injury rates also go up. Imagine yourself in the midst of automated machinery moving chicken, pig, and cattle carcasses past at the rate of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of bodies an hour. Now imagine you have to use hooks, knives, and saws to pull and cut those speeding bodies apart.

The most common workplace injuries are lacerations, from workers cutting themselves or those nearby, with these fast flying blades. But workers also suffer leg and knee injuries from slipping on wet slaughter floors, muscle tears from lifting and moving heavy carcasses, and severe repetitive stress injuries like tendonitis and carpal tunnel, from making the same cuts thousands of times over the course of a ten-hour shift. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 12.6 injuries per 100 full-time meat-packing employees in 2005, a number twice as high as the average for all other U.S. manufacturing jobs.

The average earnings of production workers that same year was $11.47 an hour, about 30 percent less than the average wage for all U.S. manufacturing jobs.

Slaughterhouse workers also suffer psychologically; research suggests that workers can develop a form of PTSD as a result of slaughtering massive quantities of animals without the time or opportunity to ensure the animal doesn’t suffer.

Unsurprisingly, because the work done on the slaughterhouse floor is so dangerous, is located primarily in less-populated rural areas, and pays comparatively poorly, there aren’t that many skilled, educated, urban Americans who want these jobs. The result has been a sharp increase in Hispanic workers, largely foreign-born, filling these dangerous, low-paying slaughterhouse jobs.

According to the USDA, between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of Hispanic workers in meat-packing plants rose to nearly 30 percent of the workforce, and the vast majority of those workers are born outside the United States. Though most agencies can only estimate, it is believed that many slaughterhouse workers are undocumented immigrants; the Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that about a quarter of all slaughterhouse workers in Nebraska and Iowa are undocumented immigrants.

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Surely, the vast majority of slaughterhouse workers live in poverty, and in constant fear of losing their jobs, whether as a result of injury or immigration status. This means, of course, that injuries are significantly underreported, as many workers have no legal status to protect them, or can’t afford to spend time away from work, or risk getting fired, as the result of an injury.

In early 2005, Human Rights Watch released a report concluding that the working conditions in America’s meat packing plants were so bad they violated basic human and worker rights; this was the first time the human rights organization had singled out a U.S. industry.

Yet somehow, labor conditions in slaughterhouses still don’t warrant a major topic of discussion. I’m sure this is due in part to the rural isolation of slaughterhouses—most of us don’t spend much time, or even want to, thinking about what the inside of a slaughterhouse looks like. But in recent years, the slaughter conditions of animals in these same plants has become a serious issue. So why aren’t we talking more about the people who handle those animals?

Are humane slaughter standards changing labor conditions?

Worker safety in the U.S. is monitored by OSHA, while animal safety and wellbeing is monitored by the USDA, so it’s difficult to tell whether the changes for animals are equating to changes for slaughterhouse workers. As standards and practices for humane handling in slaughterhouses have evolved, workers haven’t necessarily been involved. But there are some positive effects.

Thanks to the work of animal rights advocates such as Temple Grandin, additional animal welfare certification standards have been developed, including from the Animal Welfare Institute, Humane Farm Animal Care, and the American Humane Association.

In general, humane handling standards require a significantly slower rate of slaughter, additional worker training for both regular and new employees, and cleaner working environments. While these standards were developed to make the process of slaughter smoother and less frightening for animals, it’s easy to see how workers would benefit from a slowed pace, cleaner environment, and additional training in safe handling of animals and equipment.

But still, remarkably little in these humane-handling standards is spelled out expressly for the purpose of making work environments safer for employees who conduct slaughter. The positive effects for workers seems to be incidental; I couldn’t find a study more recent than 2005 that explicitly looks at workers conditions. While a good deal of research has been conducted to see the effect of humane-handling standards on animals, and on meat quality, I couldn’t find a single study that examined the physical or psychological effects of humane-handling standards on slaughterhouse workers.

In general, though, I think the push for greater transparency in slaughterhouses—including slower paces and smaller sizes—can also benefit workers. More often, meatpacking plants are moving back into urban areas, where the increased visibility encourages consumers to visit and view the facility that harvests and processes their meat.

When, in 2005, I toured a small-scale, humane-handling certified slaughterhouse in Wisconsin, I heard managers talking specifically about worker protections; the slaughterhouse owner told me he rotates his crew once a month, so that no worker is exposed to the most brutal aspects of slaughter too frequently. He wanted to make sure to address psychological factors, too, so led his crew each morning in a moment of silence to honor the animals they were about to process.

Visibility is a central part in moving forward the discussion of what happens behind slaughterhouse doors, and in improving conditions for both animals and laborers, and consumers, as always, vote with their dollar. Supporting these small-scale, local processing plants not only helps keep them in business, but acts as encouragement. By supporting the most transparent slaughterhouses, we help put a human face on the work it takes to bring meat to our tables.

Because I also heard from the line workers and floor managers at this local slaughterhouse, that the emphasis on carefully handling the animals equated to a more comfortable pace of work for them. The floor manager I spoke to had previously worked at a massive Johnsonville plant outside of town, and told me he far prefered this job. When I asked him what the biggest difference between the two slaughterhouses was, he answered with just one word: “Slower.”

Marissa Landrigan’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, where she completed a food memoir titled “The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat.” She currently lives in western Pennsylvania, where she runs the food-themed reading series Acquired Taste, and teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.

Main photo by Scott Olson /Getty
Photo of meatcutting table by Joe Raedle /Getty

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