Return to the Jungle?

Upton Sinclair caused a sensation in 1905 with his novelization of the harsh conditions, poor pay, and desperation of Lithuanian and other immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry of Chicago and similar Midwest cities that was originally printed in an obscure radical newspaper. The flood of attention it drew, however, led to mainstream release and even ushered in outrage and demands for reform. President Teddy Roosevelt, who originally dismissed Sinclair as a crackpot Socialist, eventually was to write “radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist.” [1] The reforms, particularly the key legislation of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, were ironically not so much the social justice aims of Sinclair who wanted to highlight the lack of a safety net and exploitation of the workers, but the first national programs of food inspection by the federal government due to the filthy conditions of many industrial slaughterhouses and packing facilities. Sinclair lamented the missed opportunity for a deeper change in society stating his work had become famous “not because the public cared anything about the workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef.” [Sullivan, Mark (1996). Our Times. New York: Scribner. p. 222. ISBN: 0-684-81573-7]

Only as the organized labor movement slowly made progress, as it did in other industries, did employees begin to receive better pay, benefits, and less dangerous and unhealthy workplaces in the meat trade. The most effective organizing efforts were led during the Great Depression and World War II years by the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA). The influence of unionization in private industry, not just limited to meatpacking workers, rose at a post-war time when America experienced a great upswing of affluence from a booming economy. Up until the 20th century many modest households in the U.S., and certainly in Europe and elsewhere, did not eat meat with the regularity of modern Americans. Societies with religious disqualifications against eating certain animals or any animal flesh can be found throughout the world, such as the halal and kosher traditions of Muslims and Jews respectively, or those found among Buddhist, Hindu, or Shinto cultures which have historically limited the intake of meat. Many European peasants and lower class urbanites may have only had meat at festive times of the year (e.g., Easter) into the 19th century, and their Chinese counterparts rarely had occasions to consume meat until well into the 20th century. [2] Meat eating was then a mark of affluence in society because it entailed that the household could afford the expensive commodity of animals on their land, or could buy the meat from others. Preserving meat before it could spoil also meant that the meat-eating family could effectively utilize storage and possess the materials available to brine, cure, and salt it which were beyond the means of most. As American meat consumption rose with increased societal affluence, so did the fortunes of American meat industry workers due to the demand of their product.

Meatpacking work is never going to be completely stripped of unpleasantness when done on a large-scale unimaginable to the community butchers of a bygone era. In most slaughterhouses and processing facilities the conditions can be very difficult. Killing animals is not an occupation many persons would seek. Even for those who are not performing the actual slaughter, the work is physically challenging. Depending on the facility and workstation, employees might labor in hot and humid conditions to sanitize their knives and saws; others might work in cold conditions where the animal carcasses must be preserved during processing.  The mechanized aspect of large-scale, high-volume animal slaughter means that workers are expected to do fast, repetitive, assembly-line work that can lead to chronic hand, back, and other medical conditions. Employees routinely use dangerous tools like knives, carry heavy loads, hear frequent loud noise, and are exposed to potentially harmful chemicals used to speed up preservation or kill bacteria found in animal viscera or feces. In addition, production facilities can have slippery floors.

As unpleasant a workplace as meat plants can be, eventually workers began to develop their skills into a specialized trade that took in-depth training and experience in order to perfect. Meat workers became a craft union similar to those of welders, carpenters, printers, electricians, and shoemakers, which had elements of an old-fashioned guild. New employees would need to spend time learning simple tasks and duties and would develop their way toward the jobs requiring more expertise rather than learning all that was needed in the first few days or months.

Meat processing companies will likely always have a high turnover of employees due to the difficulties of this type of work, however the worker professionalization that occurred during unionization meant that more employees had a vested interest in their workplaces succeeding, and that, along with better pay and benefits, meant a happier and more stable workforce. With the stability also came more overall community sustainability as meat packers (and other industrial/manufacturing workers and skilled tradesmen) could more likely afford homes, and could spend dollars elsewhere in the community, thus expanding the local economy. With less tension on the job they were more likely to get involved civically.

According to the PBS documentary series Now feature on meat processing, from the 1960s up to the 1980s wages in the industry remained better than average, perhaps as much as 14%–18% higher than manufacturing industries of similar size in the labor market. Adjusting for inflation, meat industry workers were earning the equivalent of $20 per hour up to the 1970s and early ‘80s. [3] But consolidation and technological changes in the industry have worked to reverse the gains employees had made.

When the UPWA was working to organize and represent worker concerns in the 1940s there were four big industrial concerns (and many smaller and, thus, less likely to be unionized companies) leading the industry—Armour, Swift, Wilson, and Cudahy. By the end of the 1960s there were only three main players: Iowa Beef Producers (IBP), ConAgra, and Cargill. The consolidation occurred as big companies used improved distribution links, better preservation methods, and increased consumer demand for meat to become more profitable. IBP, in particular, pursued methods that at once made some of the more dangerous and unpleasant aspects of slaughter more mechanized but also allowed it to cut labor costs as the work became less specialized and required fewer man-hours of training and craft expertise. Similar to how the giants of the oil and gas industry became bigger and bigger as they took more of the allied industries under their own house rather than working with middlemen, becoming responsible for all exploration, production, refinement, distribution, and sales, so too did “Big Meat”. The companies often own their own herds of cattle or pigs, or can get them inexpensively from the declining base of independent ranchers. With few competitors among the Big Meat concerns the small-scale animal raisers have few options, and Big Meat members now primarily own their own feedlots rather than requiring sub-contractors. They also do their own slaughtering and processing.

As companies began to move their operations away from urban centers to where land was cheaper and closer to the source of their commodities (i.e. the animals), they also recruited workers less likely to unionize in rural areas, and, in any event, required less skilled employees. The slaughterhouse industry was able to meet the demand for its products by speeding up production, delivering its goods to market quicker, while, over time, cutting its labor costs. Big Meat also benefited from the rise in another consolidation of the marketplace: big supermarkets (particularly national and regional chains) that provided a more predictable and profitable sales place as supermarkets replaced the traditional small, independent, neighborhood butchers. What had generally happened in the earlier days of the meat industry was that less fine processing of animal carcasses took place in the plants, and these larger cuts of meat were delivered to small shops where skilled butchers would then use their training to reduce the meat to types of cuts and selections their customers desired. But the big companies found that selling directly to supermarkets also provided the opportunity to process the cuts in-house so that they arrived in the form shoppers wanted without an intermediary. Having big, regular customers also provided ongoing feedback about any changes in purchasing habits. This part of the industrialization of the meat industry also led to chopping off additional skilled workers, the butchers of the Ma and Pop shops, and less training required of those meat department workers within most supermarkets, meaning that here too labor costs were cut.

Today the big companies involved in meat packing are very large indeed. Tyson Foods, which began with chicken, now is the world’s second-largest largest supplier of beef and pork after purchasing the giant IBP. It controls a quarter of the U.S. meat market, has sales of $12.7 billion, and sells in 90 countries. Cargill is nearly as large and is the largest privately held company in the nation. It has multiple companies under its name and, even aside from its huge meatpacking arm, also has major interests in other sought after commodities as flour, soybeans, and cocoa. [4]  It is truly multi-national with employees in 66 countries. The well-known Swift Company and its subsidiary sales line were purchased in 2007 by the Brazilian giant JBS. JBS is the world’s largest beef and pork producer. Smithfield Foods is the biggest pork producer in the US, but is also now owned by a foreign concern, Shanghui. National Beef rounds out the Big Meat membership. According to a First Research profile of the meat industry, the economies of scale that Big Meat has gathered for itself means that the 50 largest slaughtering companies comprise 90% of the market. Nearly two-thirds of the processing portion of the industry is held by 50 companies. That number is even starker in the poultry processing sector, with the top 50 firms controlling more than 90% of the market. [5] 

The consolidation and labor force devolution in the meat industry has led to a situation where wages have declined, and many of those who prepare a staple item in the vast majority of American plates are not American citizens, or, increasingly, may be part of a supply chain outside of the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) job titles like “Production Occupations”, “Food Processing Workers”, “Butchers and Other Meat, Poultry, and Fish Processing Workers” and “Meat, Poultry, and Fish Cutters and Trimmers” all have median hourly wages below $11.50, and annual median wages barely above $26,000. [6]  These earnings are near the Federal government’s poverty guidelines level for a family of four. [7] This is a marked change from the time when wages in the meat industry were above average compared to manufacturing generally. Those wages are below average today.

In 2005 the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggested that more than a quarter of those working in meat processing plants were foreign-born non-citizens, which suggests that the increasingly unskilled nature of the work combined with the hard conditions keeps Americans from working in that sector, and that wages will continue to stagnate since the recruitment of workers by Big Meat will be from a pool of applicants willing to work for far less than the organized and skilled laborers from past decades. [8]

In February of 2008, the Charlotte Observer carried an investigative series called “The Cruelest Cuts” that exposed the state’s biggest industry, poultry, by highlighting the chronic injuries of workers, poor wages and working conditions, intimidation by management of employees who had complaints, and lax enforcement of health standards in plants. The common denominator in all of these shortcomings was that the plants being discussed had many employees who were illegal immigrants or others who were unaccustomed to whatever legal remedies or grievance processes they might have been able to avail themselves of if they were naturalized citizens or more familiar with American worker protections. The newspaper editorialized that eerily familiar to the South’s experience with slavery, followed by share-cropping, the development of a new Latino underclass of dubious citizenship was creating a system where safety violations and injuries were not reported or effectively treated and to complain meant to possibly lose one’s job and return to the specter of detection and deportation. [9]

The Observer’s expose followed on the heels of a devastating 2005 report from the international organization Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) titled "Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants" derived from a long series of interviews with hundreds of meat packing employees throughout the U.S. and a review of industry-provided documents. The report was the first time in HRW’s history that it felt compelled to criticize an American industry since it normally focuses on severe cases of oppression and abuse that are rarely found in industrialized nations. It does, however, show the gravity of the situation, and its horror show catalog of abuses and hardship could have been written as if Sinclair hadn’t ever picked up his pen a century earlier. Among the many reforms HRW called for included calling for the federal government’s Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) to reduce assembly line speed that has been deemed responsible for so many accidents and chronic injuries, ergonomic improvements in work stations, accurate reporting of worker injuries, fairer assessment of worker’s compensation claims, and protection of freedom of association for workers to organize their colleagues for union representation without intimidation. [10]  

The federal government may be part of the problem when it comes to issues like inspection of food. Although more foreign sourced meat and other foodstuffs (about 17% of the U.S. food supply) are coming to the U.S. as a result of globalization and industry consolidation, Food Safety News reported in 2012 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had reduced by three-fifths its inspection of foreign plants without much public notice. [11]  The USDA also inspects less of the American food supply than it did formerly. As much of a concern as deregulation has been in other sectors of the American economy, the USDA has increasingly relied on the food industry to police itself, with occasional catastrophes requiring food recalls. Many Americans are unaware that companies, and not the federal government, are responsible for announcing food recalls. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can report findings to a company and can take legal action for non-compliance, but generally must wait for a business to review the evidence and stop sales. Of course, companies worried about public safety, as well as their good reputation, act quickly to prevent dangerous products from staying on the market. But the specter that a business might be more willing to wait is still a worry, especially since there are approximately 600 recalls of varying seriousness per year. [12]

If the manner in which food recalls are handled is a surprise, then the USDA’s pilot program to further deregulate its role in the food industry will come as quite a shock. Under this plan the USDA would allow the meat and poultry industries to be responsible for more of its own inspections. The obvious potential for conflict-of-interest should be alarming, especially since the GAO and USDA inspector general has already criticized just such a plan. [13] The European Union has already decided to ban Australian meat imports after a similar privatization plan began there.

One benefit of the high volume mechanization of the meat processing industry is that it has made the product very inexpensive, unlike past eras when regular consumption of animals was beyond the means of most households. The former CEO of the industry trade group American Meat Institute, Patrick Boyle, agreed in an interview with PBS’ Frontline documentary “Modern Meat” “that the price of beef today is about half, in real dollar terms, what it was in the 1970s.” [14]  American ingenuity has resulted in a situation in which supermarket shoppers can often buy a pound of ground beef for no more than, or even less than, a pound of many types of fruits and vegetables. As we have seen, however, this relentless efficiency has been achieved through consolidation, supply chain integration, labor cuts, and growing deregulation.

There are also major environmental and health concerns that are mounting due to the increased diet of animal proteins. According to the United Nations’ Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), 75% of the world’s poultry, 50% of the pork, and about 67% of eggs come from industrialized meat production facilities. [15] Like many heavy industries of past decades, the footprint these operations leave on their local, regional, and even world environment can be devastating. FAO’s LEAD initiative has determined that the meat industry has had a big part in the growth of global warming. Livestock production accounts for 18% of world-wide greenhouse gas emissions, due to it being responsible for 9% of all carbon dioxide and 37% of all methane gas emissions.

LEAD is also concerned that nearly two-thirds of all the Earth’s agricultural land is now being devoted to developing food for livestock who will become part of the mechanized system, while only 8% is employed to grow foodstuffs for human consumption. If the developing world’s population increases their consumption of meat as they have economic gains more agricultural land and livestock will be required than even what is currently utilized. The hundreds and, increasingly, thousands of animals, in feedlots need constant sources of fresh water, and land that may have previously been forested or grasslands. This will result in soil erosion, pollution, fertilizer runoff into waterways, extremely unpleasant odors, and animal waste problems.

Animals being raised for food use about half of the world’s antibiotics, which may become an increased problem as some bacteria strains become resistant to them over time. Just as some human societies over the years have fallen victim to fast moving diseases and viruses assisted by population density, combining so many animals together at one feedlot or processing facility may increase the possibility of pathogens being transmitted from a few unhealthy livestock to others. Dr. Robert Tauxe, Deputy Director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, interviewed for the Frontline episode, shared his concerns about pathogens by saying that as the line speeds and the general efficiency of the slaughter plants increase there may also be a greater opportunity for contamination to spread from one carcass to another. The industrialization of our meat supply opens up a conduit for salmonella, for campylobacter, and for E. coli O157 infections to pass through to the consumer. Dr. Tauxe also pointed out that today’s outbreaks and food recalls are different from bygone eras because the fewer facilities have wider distribution than before. “Back in the 1950s, the usual food-borne outbreak was a church social or a wedding reception—something where a hundred people who all knew each other got ill. And most of them lived in the same town. Those folks would know immediately that there had been an outbreak. What we're seeing now [is] that there is another kind of food-borne outbreak, which is more subtle but has much wider ramifications. And this occurs when a food that is distributed in many different places at once gets contaminated back at the factory, or even back at the farm. People fall ill at about the same time, but all over the country; they don't know each other, and they don't know that anybody else is ill. They think they're just an isolated case. And the more centralized our food supply gets, the more there is an opportunity for a really large outbreak. In 1993, there was a very large outbreak of E. coli O157 affecting the western states of the United States. That was traced to ground beef. The ground beef came from one grinding plant, but was distributed to outlets of a Jack in the Box chain. And there were cases of E. coli all over the West Coast. At least 750 cases were culture-confirmed, but there were probably lots more that were never confirmed….”
How are we going to address the very real problems of the industrialized meat production system in a country where we enjoy our share of hamburgers, fried chicken, bacon, and hot dogs? There are several threads that must be pursued to bring back a more humane, healthier, and sustainable food supply future.
First, the USDA could work through its Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) system to determine whether the consolidation of the industry is leading to a situation where open and competitive markets are becoming more difficult to maintain. The U.S. Department of Justice fought the “Beef Trust” of the Gilded Age into the 1920s with anti-trust actions, and may be justified in engaging in them again. One of the biggest economic squeezes taking place in the meat industry is not just the laborers in the plants but the ranchers and farmers who had in decades past raised and sold to packers but increasingly have become modern tenant croppers. The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Reforming Industrial Animal Agriculture program, which recommends a more anti-trust posture, notes that, in 2004, 69% of all hogs purchased that year were by contractual obligation, as opposed to a mere 2% as recently as 1980. The pig raisers were relatively free compared to those under contract to poultry and beef houses, where the numbers were 88% and 80% respectively. [16]  

There is discontent among farmers, who are beginning to take action. Small and independent cattle ranchers have seen their bargaining power implode as they have fewer buyers. High Country News reported that between 1980 and 2009 the per pound (adjusted for inflation) amount a rancher received for its cattle plummeted by more than half from $1.97 to 93 cents. They believe that the Meatpackers are secretive about prices and are often avoiding small producers altogether. Not only have farmers supported efforts through GIPSA but they have begun to take legal action against corporate interests. [17]  There are grassroots efforts to create “beef value chains” by which participants can determine fair profits based on the value of each input and output along the chain of production. Montana’s Western Sustainability Exchange [18] is working along similar lines while working to keep traditional open spaces, habitats, and rural economies strong. Some ranchers are also considering building their own supply chains to do an end-run around the packers and sell directly to markets and wholesalers.

The situation among poultry raisers is more difficult. Christopher Leonard’s recent book, The Meat Racket, details, as the publisher’s description has it, "the hidden power structure that has quietly reshaped U.S. rural economies while gaining unprecedented control over the nation's meat supply." Most chicken farmers these days do not own the birds or even, unlike cattlemen, negotiate prices. They instead sign a contract with big outfits like Tyson, Perdue, or JBS which places them under a contractual obligation rather than in a more traditional seller’s position. The farmers are required to make the capital investment in housing and feeding systems under specifications set by the companies and whatever take-it-or-leave contracts are being offered. Many regions might only have one buyer. [19]  The poultry industry appears ripe for an anti-trust action.

Second, the growth of the local food movement can be a strong force in reducing the mechanization and nationalization of the food system. Small farmers may be able to work in hand with the similarly small independent slaughterhouses and processors that face closure due to being outside the consolidation efforts. [20]  With more consumers becoming concerned and educated about the food they eat, farmers can potentially work hand in hand with processors who are more likely to work slowly, butchering fewer animals, and with more care. As networks of farmer’s markets, farm stands, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) grow, a more traditional niche spot for meat might return instead of it supplanting other foods.

Third, although Americans still eat lots of meat overall (only the gourmands of Luxembourg and Hong Kong ate more per capita than Americans according to the FAO) there are signs that there may be some reconsideration due to the unhealthy outcomes of overindulgence. Americans ate on average a mesmerizing 279.1 lbs. of animal proteins per person in 2005. That figure is more than double the USDA’s recommended amount. [21]  But more Americans are incorporating elements of vegetarianism into their diets. No, Americans aren’t suddenly throwing meat out the door (only about 5% of Americans are vegetarians) but according to the magazine VegNews, a national poll indicated that about 1 in 6 people eat “flexitarian” half the time, or in other words, some meatless meals throughout the week. [22]  

Fourth, the consolidation and industrialization of the meat industry has hidden the true traditional costs of the expense of raising livestock for meat. [23] If the value chain of producers, processors, and workers received a fairer return on their efforts meat would frankly be more expensive and consumers would likely respond by purchasing it more sparingly. Surely, a fast-food “value meal” processed hundreds of miles away shouldn’t cost less than local fruits and vegetables raised by a local farmer, should it?

Ultimately, consumers must decide for themselves what they will prefer to buy and eat for themselves and loved ones. Those with a concern for the common good and care of Creation should consider the propriety of solutions that reinforce traditional economies, worker protections,  and a more humane and sustainable scale of the food distribution system.

Kirk G. Morrison

Kirk Morrison is chairman of the National Committee of the American Solidarity Party.