By Ted Genoways, author of the forthcoming book The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of our Food.
In this op-ed piece journalist Ted Genoways uncovers some of the hidden costs of the industrial meat system, and urges us all to advocate for change.
In meatpacking plants, the speed of processing is set by a chain conveyor system, and the industry is governed by a simple philosophy: faster is better. Often the defense of faster chain speeds is couched in seemingly altruistic explanations. Faster production lines keep prices down. Affordable meat feeds the world. In truth, increased line speeds mean only one thing: greater profits. And the industry will do anything to improve its bottom line.
For the better part of a century, line speeds in pork processing plants were kept in check by the demands of federal meat inspection. The chain could go only as fast as inspectors could carry out their work. But then, over a decade ago, the USDA piloted a special program to test the effects of reduced inspection on food safety. Five pork processing facilities nationwide are now allowed to set their own line speeds, including three owned or operated by Hormel Foods.
The effects, by any measure, have been disastrous. The USDA’s own Inspector General recently reported that three of the five pilot plants are now among the ten worst food safety violators in America. That’s out of 616 plants nationwide. The report cited repeated instances of carcasses tainted by fecal matter, as well as cases where inspectors found animals with cancerous tumors, lesions from tuberculosis, enlarged glands and swelling from bacterial infection, even septic arthritis so severe that bloody fluid was noted discharging from its joints.
But food safety is only half the story. In the course of four years spent researching the effects of increased line speeds in Hormel’s plants, I encountered an unprecedented outbreak of a new neurological disorder, as well as higher rates of cuts and amputations among packinghouse workers. I found that high-density hog farming increasingly threatens safety of drinking water and air quality around concentrated animal feeding operations, and the hogs inside are often subjected to mishandling and abuse. And I discovered that the misuse of antibiotics as growth-enhancers have reduced the effectiveness of critical medications in human populations.
The drive for increased output has pushed the American meatpacking industry to its breaking point. It is a system that is easy to condemn – but hard to reform. Even if we buy only organic, welfare-approved pork and eat it sparingly, it’s not enough to solve the larger problem. As we have reduced our meat intake, the amount of pork eaten abroad – especially among the booming middle class in China – is climbing steeply. Big producers like Hormel are scrambling for their share of that market, so the larger problems persist. And, just as importantly, when the whole system is built around producing cheap meat, it means that fewer and fewer low-income Americans can afford good meat.
We have to insist that our leaders create a system that incentivizes the production of quality, healthful meat. We must press the president and Congress to conduct an independent study of meat inspection and act meaningfully on the findings.
Photo: Jay Moore, environmental manager of New Fashion Pork, outside a company-owner hog confinement barn near Estherville, Iowa.