Working Conditions in American Slaughterhouses: Worse than You Thought

Author finds new meat 'Jungle' in High Plains

By Timothy Gardner
Jurgis Rudkus has walked off the pages of Upton Sinclair's classic 1906 novel "The Jungle" and re-emerged as a Mexican migrant laborer drifting from factory to factory in rural Nebraska and Colorado.

Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant meatpacker toiling in Chicago stockyards, was the hero of Sinclair's novel. The writer's portrayal of him sweeping up guts from the kill room floor and shoveling pulverized bone for fertilizer so disturbed President Theodore Roosevelt that he ordered an independent investigation, which led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

In the 1930s, unionization swept through the meatpacking industry, and for decades meat jobs were well paid, came with health insurance and led to stable communities. But that has all changed, according to Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation," published by Houghton Mifflin.

The industry has consolidated and moved its factories from the city to the U.S. High Plains. In the late 1970s, the top four beef companies controlled about 20 percent of the market; now they control more than 80 percent, Schlosser said. A return to poor working conditions in this period is not only bad for laborers but ultimately dangerous to consumers, he added.

In 1995, Schlosser, an Atlantic Monthly correspondent, wrote a story about Latin American migrant strawberry laborers in California. Rolling Stone magazine editors read it and asked him to write about fast food in the United States, leading to his new book, which spent six week under review in Houghton Mifflin's legal department before publication.

On arriving in meatpacking towns, Schlosser would meet with migrant workers from Mexico and Guatemala. Many of them were illiterate in English or Spanish, which made it hard for them to work together or organize to make conditions better, he said.

"In Lexington, Nebraska, this Norman Rockwell-esque town, I met Guatemalan Indians who barely spoke Spanish," he said.

Many meatworkers are lured to the United States from Mexico by Spanish radio advertisements paid for by U.S. meat companies, which bus the workers to factories in the rural United States.


"I'm not going to say they deliberately recruit illegal immigrant labor, but they recruit immigrant labor," Schlosser said. In one instance documented by local media, a beef company bused workers from the Mexican border to a Minneapolis homeless shelter.

Meatpacking now employs just under 150,000 people, and the Immigration and Naturalization Services estimates one quarter of the workers in Nebraska and Iowa are illegal immigrants.

Since migrant workers, legal or not, rarely spend more than a year in one factory, most slaughterhouse workers are without health insurance. They also accept lower wages.

"We've gone backward," Schlosser said. "The wages in one Greeley, Colorado, plant now are 30 to 40 percent lower than when the plant opened in 1961. That's not supposed to happen."

He read trade journals and federal hearings to investigate insurance practices. In a 1994 article praising beef companies for minimizing insurance costs, one executive confirmed his firm's slaughterhouses had a 100 percent annual turnover.

Schlosser interviewed workers, former supervisors and nurses, and physicians who treated worker's injuries. They told him workers were pressured to hide injuries, which cut their companies' insurance burdens.

"If the injury seems more serious, a Mexican worker is often given the opportunity to return home for a while, to recuperate there, then come back to his or her slaughterhouse job in the United States," he wrote.

Court documents show several of the largest companies kept two sets of injury records, one for themselves and one for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.


Meatpacking is the most dangerous job in America. In 1998, the latest available statistics, at least 29.3 percent of meatworkers suffered injury or illness, compared to 9.7 percent for the rest of manufacturing, the Labor Department reported.

Unlike the chicken processing industry, automation in beef packing plants is limited because cattle come in all shapes and sizes and the knife remains the most important tool.

Companies are under enormous pressure to speed up their lines, which can lead to injuries and dangerous food, Schlosser wrote. "The three meat packing giants -- ConAgra, IBP and Excel (the meat division of Cargill Inc.) -- try to increase their earnings by maximizing the volume of production at each plant."

A former meat factory nurse told Schlosser: "I could always tell the line speed by the number of people with lacerations coming into my office."

Speeding up lines can also mean workers have no time to clean or sharpen their knives, which can lead to repetitive stress injuries and, ultimately, dirty food. These conditions have already led to health risks, particularly in eating hamburger, Schlosser writes, because ground beef is more exposed to dirty working environments than meat chops are.

Since fast food chains, a $110 billion business, buy most of the country's beef, people who eat fast food are most at risk, said Schlosser, who ate at fast food chains during his travels while writing the book and still eats beef, but not hamburgers.

"I'm not coming at this as a radical vegetarian," he said.

Cattle intestines often carry dangerous pathogens such as E. coli and are supposed to be kept away from meat, but faster lines can lead to more intestinal spillage onto meat, he said. Slaughterhouse workers told him they looked forward to packing beef bound for the European Union, because companies slowed the lines then so the meat would pass stricter EU inspections.

chlosser sees stronger meatpacking unions as one possible solution. "There's no question that in some industries unions have become corrupted and a source of inefficiency and operate more like organized crime than a workers' rights group," he said. "But if there was ever an industry in this country that needed more unions, it's this one."

Last summer, McDonald's fast food chain announced a strict policy on how its suppliers treat live chickens in a campaign called "Be Kind to Hens" -- a response to protests from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"McDonald's has instituted some strict rules for its suppliers on how livestock should be treated," Schlosser said, "but what they really need to do is institute strict rules for their suppliers on how human beings should be treated."