Singer Paul McCartney said that if meat processing plants had glass walls, we would all be vegetarians. Local activist Taylor Radig captured images of animal abuse from inside a cattle holding facility that prompted charges against employees and a touchy debate since Radig was also subsequently charged for animal abuse since she didn’t report the issue sooner. What Radig filmed is said to be typical behavior in meat processing facilities, say many animal activists.
McCartney made his statement many years ago, but as time has progressed, the walls of meat plants have become more like those of fortresses. Undercover filming inside plants seems to be the only way nowadays to get a glimpse of what goes on inside. FDA lacks the people power to inspect most food plants on a regular basis. Various publications say the agency only has enough agents to inspect each food plant every five years, and almost no one else but authorized agents with badges will likely ever see the inside of a meat plant.
Since 9-11, security of the nation’s food supply has become a greater concern. Shortly after the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, FDA agents began sweeping inspections of food production plants. At a meeting of the Northeast Bottled Water Association in 2004 in Saratoga, NY, managers form area beverage plants in the New England region discussed how the agents even arrived incognito and attempted to enter trailer trucks and sneak into facilities through back doors an a way to test the security of each facility.
The increased scrutiny over food safety was not to be sustained, however. As more money went overseas to fund the war efforts, FDA’s reach did not expand, and the agency became ever more intertwined with political complexities that weakened the checks and balances of food safety inspection. Food plants were left largely alone to police themselves, and meat companies were able to manipulate laws designed to protect the food supply to keep outsiders away from their plants.
In 2010, the book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows was published by University of Massachusetts professor Melanie Joy, PhD. Joy’s book exposed the largely-undiscussed fact that the meat processors were invoking the Homeland Security Act as a legal means to prevent journalists from entering meat packing plants. The tactic proved effective at intimidating authorities who may have had interests in entering the facilities but who may not have had direct jurisdictional authority to inspect them, such as local police officers or other government officials.
The meat industry has been a powerful force in the US since the end of the nineteenth century, when it was consolidated into a trust, a business tactic that because illegal in the early twentieth century as other industries followed suit. Its own success at creating a massive supply of cheap meat is part of the root cause of such cruelty to the animals being slaughtered. The kicking and dragging of animals filmed by Radig is just the beginning. In order to meet today’s production quotas, the pace of slaughter is so fast that the animals often aren’t even dead before their legs are sawed off and bodies are sliced open.
In the few instances where meat plant employees have spoken on the record about their work, the testimony has been consistently horrific. Meat plant worker Ramon Moreno told the Washington Post in 2001 about cows looking around and mooing as he cut off their legs with a chain saw because the electric stunner didn’t shock the animal into brain death at the beginning of the killing line. Others plant workers talk of being driven to act with even more cruelty simply because they are seeing and partaking in killing and cutting all day and every day.
Kill rates at meat plants have increased since the late 1970s, thus the workload of the meat plant workers, and the amount of time they have to complete each task, has fallen dramatically. So have their wages. Most meat plants of the late 1970s were unionized. Meat industry jobs were dirty and gruesome, but at least they paid well. At that time, an uneducated immigrant could make it into the middle class and send his or her kids to college on a meat packer’s salary. Those days are long gone.
Meat plants aren’t just hiding cruelty to animals at their facilities, they are hiding socially-intimidated people as well. Many are illegal aliens who face the threat of deportation even by showing their faces anywhere else, which allows the meat packers to freely work the intimidation factor to their favor. Coloradoans are still buzzing about the 2006 I.C.E. raid on a Swift meat plant in Greeley, CO in that resulted in the apprehension of 250 workers, some of whom were deported. Six Swift plants were raided in all and 600 workers were initially detained. Labor advocates argue that meat plant workers are among the most exploited in America, and illegal workers who can’t seek jobs elsewhere are far more exploitable. So are legal immigrants who can’t speak English.
Meat plant work, like any factory-type work, has inherent dangers to life and limb-large, sharp cutting tools, slippery floors and fast-moving conveyors that can carry an animal much heavier than a human at high speeds are just a few examples. The disappearance of unions and educated workers from meat plants didn’t just cause wages to decline, it also permitted safety standards to plummet as well. While OSHA jurisdiction over those facilities, that agency is also strapped for time and must also deal with issues of conflicting interests with other agencies in the same plants, such as immigration, FDA and USDA.
Consolidation of corporate meat producers has given so much political strength to the industry that regulations have become dangerously weak and that threatens the quality of the product. This concern is shared by politicians whose constituencies have huge stakes in the meat industry, showing that the concern is shared by meat advocates as well as advocates of animals and veganism. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) was one of these critics who brought the issue to light in 2002, saying that the very foundational regulations designed to protect product quality and thus protect meat eaters themselves, was “on life support” when he introduced the Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction Act of 2002.
The bill was also supported by then Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Senator Dick Durban (D-Illinois). It to pass and subsequent versions failed after being reintroduced as “Kevin’s law”, named after 2-year-old Kevin Kowalcyk of Colorado who died from eating contaminated meat in 2001. Had it passed, USDA agents would have been given immediate authority to shut down packing lines of plants that produced contaminated meat.
USDA, not FDA, is the primary agency that oversees meat production, and even as inspectors are on hand at meat plants every day, their authority remains limited. Food Safety News reports that USDA inspectors are not authorized to shut meat plants down even when contamination is found. A recent recall of chicken that made its way to California Costco stores after salmonella was detected did not result in a shut down and the plant where contamination was found largely addressed the issue on its own without much oversight. Production is typically allowed to continue while tests to find links to product contamination are sought.