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Raw Meat: A Modern Look at the American Meat Industry
July 6, 2007, 6:57 pm
Filed under: Non-Fiction

Raw Meat:

A modern look at The American Meat industry

Lauren Tamraz Judson

ABSTRACT

The past century has been filled with vast alterations in the human diet, and perhaps no food has undergone more drastic changes than meat. This paper examines the transformation of the meat industry from family to factory farm and takes a close look at how that change has affected workers, products, consumers, and the surrounding environment. Strong notice is taken of the meat industry’s hand in shaping U.S. and world culture and consumption, as well as its contribution to many of the most pressing crises mounting in this global nation. Meat has graduated from table commodity to international factor, and it is essential today to recognize its influence and consequence.

INTRODUCTION

If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian. ~Paul McCartney

All normal people love meat. If I went to a barbeque and there was no meat, I would say, “Yo Goober! Where’s the meat?” I’m trying to impress people here, Lisa. You don’t win friends with salad. ~ Homer Simpson to his vegetarian daughter, Lisa

This paper will explore the transformation of the American meat industry from small, family farms to vast, anonymous factory operations. This leap has dramatically increased over the past 50 years, since Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson first began telling farmers to “Get big or get out”. This has led to monocropping, dependency on fossil fuels to transport food over long distances, unethical treatment of animals, workers, and neighboring communities, and severe environmental degradation due to this profit, rather than people-centered business. Meat has become a personal, community, and global issue—it is not simply about being a vegetarian or non-vegetarian any longer. The modern meat industry now affects air quality, immigration reform, world hunger, and so many other vital concerns that touch and taint us all.

Revolving around the transformation’s current reaches, research will also be conducted to determine actual industrial conditions versus the public’s perception of it based on slick advertising and government intervention, as well as an investigation into the role illegal immigration plays in the meat business. This paper will answer the following questions: What were the historical and social factors that prompted the move from family to factory farming? How has that change affected US and world culture, hunger, and health? How does the factory farm differ from the smaller-scale family farm, and what is the impact on the environment? What are the impacts on animal and human health from these conditions? Who owns and runs factory farms and how does this relate to immigration as well as to the neighboring communities? And finally, what has the industry done to create such a contradictory and pleasant picture of itself?

LITERATURE REVIEW

HISTORICAL AND SOCIAL FACTORS PROMPTING THE MOVE FROM FAMILY TO FACTORY FARMING

Farms over the decades

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), at the turn of the twentieth century, just fewer than thirty thousand Americans lived on farms, and farmers constituted 38% of the labor force. Within a few decades, that percentage dropped to 18, and the average farmer was supplying food to 10 people. By the end of the twentieth century, less than 2 percent of the labor force was filled by farmers, yet each farmer was supplying food to more than 100 hungry people. Although the number of farmers decreased, the number of acres per farm and heads per ranch increased substantially. From an average farm size of 147 acres in 1900, to nearly 500 acres at the end of the century, the American farm has grown by about 300% (USDA, 1998).

Meat on ice

That growth explosion did not come out of nowhere, but there was one aspect of farming that did change dramatically with one alteration. As Roger Horowitz (2006) explains it in his Putting Meat on the American Table, livestock ranches varied from produce farms because the product needed to be kept fresher. In the days before refrigeration, animals needed to be slaughtered as geographically close to the consumer as possible if the consumer were to purchase uncured meat. This necessitated many stockyards and slaughterhouses all across the nation until 1875 when Gustavus Swift shipped the first refrigerated meat from his packinghouse in Chicago, and a new era of long-distance meat was born. In fact, his Swift & Company remains the second largest beef and pork processor and distributor in the world (Swift & Company, 2005). Up until about 60 years ago, when Ezra Taft Benson introduced the idea of “get big or get out”, a typical ranch had only as many as a few hundred heads of livestock. Now thanks in part to the Laissez-faire attitude of many government officials eager to overthrow the antitrust legislation of the early 20th century, and to vertical integration—the process of controlling all the steps in a production process, such as raising, transporting, slaughtering, and packaging animals for meat—the top companies house up to hundreds of thousands of animals at various locations.

Technology and getting big

Like many transformations in America, the conversion of agriculture to agribusiness was due, in large part, to technological advancements. As Kneidel and Kneidel (2005) explain in Veggie Revolution, after World War II, ‘advancements’, such as DDT and chemical fertilizers were introduced to help farmers rid their crops of pests while simultaneously increasing production. Antibiotics were also made readily available for animals, and not just those that were already sick; many were given antibiotics as a preventative measure and weight gainer, though countries in Europe have now outlawed such practices because of the trickle-down effect they can have on the people who consume the animals’ products. Automated feeding machines, high-speed irrigation pumps, debeaking and plucking machines all became part of an increasingly mechanized way of raising livestock. To eliminate multiple steps and people, corporations began to form that handled all the processes necessary in managing an animal from pig-to-plate, cow-to-chow. These corporations pushed small farmers to the periphery, and made it more difficult for them to own and sell their own animals to slaughterhouses. Many corporations simply owned the animals for their full life cycle, and did not need the small farmers’ work any longer. In the 1970’s, the top four corporations slaughtered only 21% of the cattle in the US; those same four companies slaughter over 84% today (Schlosser, 2005).

“You work for us now, know what I mean?”

Though the smaller farmers have been ousted by corporations, they have not been set to pasture entirely. Many small farmers chased out of the true game have been pulled back in as contract growers. Corporations hire these growers, who must supply their own land and buildings that are designed to the corporation’s standards, and are then given animals with feed and medication, to be raised for the company. The growers are like surrogate bellies for a short time to the animals, until they are taken back and slaughtered by the corporation. Unless organic or truly a small operation, that is the fate many ‘small’ livestock farmers have met. The corporations create contracts, written expressly to benefit them, and the small grower can take it, or find a new business (Stull & Broadway, 2004).

HOW THE FACTORY FARM DIFFERS FROM SMALLER FARMS AND ITS IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT

With so many modifications thrust on the farmer behind the meat products, it is no surprise the animals, as well as the surrounding environment, have had large revisions forced upon them also. It has long been understood that big groups of people, such as those in metropolitan areas, create a larger amount of waste and waste management issues than a smaller group, such as a rural community. This same calculation applies to farm animals. Most animals raised on small farms are allowed to graze outdoors in pastures, but life on a factory farm is far from the picture many Americans would like to believe in, based on children’s books and nursery rhymes.

Eggs-on-legs & big-breasted chickens

Nierenberg (2005) explains in Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry, how many animals, in particular chickens, need sunlight to metabolize nutrients, such as calcium. Animals also hunt for insects, move their bodies, and construct order among themselves. Factory farms hold most animals, including poultry birds, indoors. In order to transition sunlight-requiring animals to indoor commodities, many changes must be made. The addition of cod liver oil and vitamin D to feed allows chickens to metabolize calcium and survive to become a good meal. They are debeaked to prevent injury as they attempt to establish their inherent pecking order in such confinement, and fed antibiotics to instigate weight gain.

There are three types of chickens kept on factory farms: layers who produce ‘table’ eggs for human consumption, breeders that lay fertilized eggs to be raised as the third type, broilers, which become dinner. Generally, a contract farmer will not raise all three types. They each require varying housing and maintenance. Kneidel & Kneidel (2006) visited many types of contract chicken farms, and found they had many consistent traits, such as crowding, filth, and an eerie desolateness reminiscent of concentration camps. Most sheds (as chicken coops are now known, because there is nothing small or “coop”-like about these modern dwellings) require little human intervention; no one collects eggs into their apron each morning or scatters feed in the wind. Eggs roll down conveyer belts untouched by human hands as they leave cages stacked five high; the hens inside do not leave for the two years they are kept alive. Many of the contract workers act as if there is nothing unpleasant or unethical about the ways the chickens are treated. Each animal is a small factory themselves, cages and cages of eggs-on-legs.

In contrast to the caged layers, breeders and broilers are ‘free’—that is, they technically are allowed to roam the shed they inhabit, regardless of the fact that they can barely hop around one another for the crowded conditions. Breeders are fed once in the morning by a mechanized system, yet broilers, who are judged by their weight, are fed a continuous stream of ‘nutrient’-laced feed supplied by their respective corporation. Every farmer interviewed by Kneidel & Kneidel (2005) professed they did not know what was in the chickens’ feed, besides corn. One did remark, however, that the antibiotics that were typically present were eliminated approximately one week before slaughtering time, so that there would be no detectable level in the flesh during inspection. Broilers arrive at their shed at one day old and remain for approximately eight weeks. During that period, they increase to sixty-five times their original weight—that is the equivalent of the average human child weighing over 450 pounds by two months old (Kneidel & Kneidel, 2005). Early in the development of farm corporations came the genetic meddling that produced new strains of animals, including bigger-breasted broiler chickens. As Tyson Foods Inc.’s—“the largest chicken processor in the world” (Kneidel & Kneidel, 2005 p.7) website sees it, “the American craving for breast meat and further-processed products has had an effect on the shape of the bird. Breeders have been able to choose traits that fit our customers’ needs better” (Tyson Foods Inc., 2006). Apparently, our American vision of big breasts translates across species.

“I’m so hungry I could eat a…chicken feather?”

The vast differences between farm animals of the past and present do not end with chickens. Cows on small farms and farms of decades past were kept alive longer than they are now. The average cow destined for dinner is alive for roughly 14 months before being slaughtered, as opposed to the two years calves were afforded at pasture with their mothers at smaller or defunct family farms (Kneidel & Kneidel, 2005). Their bovine bodies are created to process their mother’s milk and grass, and not much else. Yet as Midkiff (2004) explains it, grass-fed steers do not develop the marbled fat in their muscles that grain-fed animals do; therefore, cows are fed antibiotics with their mostly corn diet to attempt to balance their delicate digestive system that was not made for such consumption. In fact, tests have been conducted to determine exactly what many corporations put in their feed, and the results have shown ingredients ranging from corn and brewery wastes to cardboard, chocolate, chicken feathers, and cattle manure (Midkiff, 2004).

Milk machine mothers

Kneidel & Kneidel (2005) explain, “a dairy cow that eats fresh grass at pasture and has pregnancies at reasonable intervals can produce milk for ten to twelve years” (p. 93). That would seem like a decent length of time to expect a ‘worker’ to create a good product for a company. However, because conventional dairy cows are no longer left to pasture to enjoy a relatively low-stress life, that life span has dropped to three years on the average corporate farm. 85 to 95 percent of modern dairy cows are made to stand on concrete floors indoors, (Kneidel & Kneidel, 2005), and endure the milking carousel (Midkiff, 2004). While on the carousel that can hold up to several hundred cows at a time, their udders are cleaned of manure and urine, and they then have suction ducts attached to relieve them of their hormone-laced white serum. There is a periodic water flush around the animals’ legs that cleans accumulated wastes as they rotate like carnival rides. Milk is pumped into holding and cooling tanks for later pasteurization to kill bacteria. The poor gals who suffer this twice per day, producing an average of 260 pounds of milk per cow, per week, are thinned from the dairy herd when their production levels drop. They become ground beef about 9 years before their ancestors of only a few generations ago. It seems this is not at all unusual today, as 65 percent of Idaho’s ground beef in 2002 was from dairy cows whose production had waned (Midkiff, 2004).

To combat dropping levels, the genetic-meddlers Monsanto developed rBGH or recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. The ‘r’ indicates the BGH has been altered from is natural form and has been ‘recombined’ with other “genes from other organisms…in this case, E. coli” (Midkiff, 2004 p. 117). Though this hormone does increase milk production, it causes health complications such as udder infections, therefore shortening the life of the ‘producer’. Cows with complications are sent to the slaughterhouse because it is easier than treating them or stopping their rBGH dosage and likely, their immense milk outpouring (Midkiff, 2004).

Haste makes waste

All of the excess and fast-paced production of factory farms has led to incredible changes in the way agriculture now interacts with the environment. According to Andrew Kimbrell (2002), animal factories create 1.3 billion tons of animal manure per year. That amount, accumulated together, would be unfathomable. Though the degree of agribusiness pollution has been kept somewhat quiet until recent years, it could be surmised that people simply believe wastes associated with livestock production are simply an inherent unpleasant fact that must be dealt with in order to maintain the current global diet. Yet Time magazine decided to address precisely that misnomer in its April 9, 2007 issue when it asked the question “Which is responsible for more global warming: your BMW or your Big Mac?” (Walsh, 2007). It went on to note that the international meat industry was responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, which is more than the transportation industry generates.

Don’t drink the water

One of the biggest environmental threats from agribusiness is water contamination from ‘nutrification’. Long Island, NY residents should be familiar with this type of pollution, because the same problem has been afflicting the Sound for a century. Excess wastes from animals, fertilizer runoff from fields, and raw sewage from incidents such as heavy rainfall create a cocktail of nitrogen and other materials sluicing towards the nearest waterway. As Midkiff (2004) reports, McDonald County, Missouri, one of hundreds of areas in which Tyson Chicken conducts its business, is “home…to 13 million broiler chickens and a few hundred thousand turkeys” (p. 91). Their waste has contributed to the pollution of every stream in the area, so much so that they are listed as “impaired waterways”—meaning that dissolved oxygen is virtually nonexistent as algae formed from the wastes sucks away all the oxygen, leaving fish asphyxiated.

Unfortunately, McDonald County is more the rule than the exception when it comes to agribusiness water pollution. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that pig factory farms have contributed to polluting over 150 miles worth of Missouri’s streams. In their 2001 release “Cesspools of Shame”, they outline the extent of damage factory farms have caused from their waste lagoons. These open-air lagoons are essentially pits, many larger than football fields, which hold feces and urine. Heavy rainfall can cause them to overflow and run down to the nearest water source, also polluting everything in its path. The USDA & EPA (1998) assert that agricultural animal waste has polluted 35,000 miles of river in 22 states. The farms where animals live prior to slaughter are not the only offenders. Actual slaughterhouses and processing plants also create extreme wastes. At the Dumas, Texas plant of Seaboard, Inc., over 4 million gallons of water are used each day to clean slaughter equipment and carcasses ensconced in dirt and manure. Approximately 250 gallons are used per animal to ensure it is safe for human consumption. All of the water used at the slaughterhouse comes from the Ogallala aquifer (Midkiff, 2004).

Aside from the staggering water usage itself, the Ogallala Aquifer, shallow yet spanning haphazardly throughout eight western states including Texas, is in serious threat of depletion. According to a 1999 report by the United States Geological Survey in Nebraska, many parts of that area in Texas saw an aquifer decline of more than 5 feet merely from 1998-1999 (McGuire, 1999, see Appendix A). Ron Nielsen (2006) explained in The Little Green Handbook that while most areas of the aquifer declined an average of almost ten feet between 1940 and 1980, in many parts of Texas it declined by 100 feet. Beyond depleting this vital resource, lagoons can leak, contaminating groundwater, such as aquifers and other sources of the water table. These natural indicators are all sending a message to the agricultural industry; the problem is whether corporate giants are listening.

Pave paradise and put a feeding lot

Water quality may be one of the most visible signs of environmental degradation in the United States as a result of agribusiness, but as Nierenberg (2005) points out, a 2005 Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations report certifies that “cattle ranching is the main cause of forest destruction in Latin America…and it is predicted that by 2010, more than 1.2 million hectacres of forest will be lost in Central America, while in South America 18 million…will disappear” (p. 58). The export of beef as a cash crop is mounting, as well as soybean production for use as animal feed. From 2003 to 2004 alone, a 6 percent increase in rainforest destruction for the creation of soybean farms occurred (Nierenberg, 2005). A decreased demand in meat could lead to a decrease in global destruction.

HUMAN AND ANIMALS’ HEALTH IMPACTS

It takes little imagination to suspect the crowded accommodations, antibiotic and hormone cocktails, and filthy conditions can wreak havoc on the physical and mental health of animals destined for consumption. There is also some evidence—including the transfers of mad cow disease and avian flu, that these conditions may metamorphose into human health risks for those who enjoy their exploited flesh— and even for some of those who don’t.

Cannibal animals and sponge-brain squarepants

The use of animal manure and body parts as food was addressed earlier in this work. Livestock are being forced to eat other animals as a protein booster regardless of the fact that they simply were not designed to utilize such materials. Cows fed the meat of other animals, including other cows, run the risk of developing some form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), scientifically known as prion diseases, but commonly referred to as ‘cannibal diseases’, because that is the most basic link they can be traced to. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke describes spongiform conditions as degenerative brain disorders associated with spongy, pinpricked brain tissue. There are many types of TSEs animals can acquire, including scrapie in sheep and goats, chronic wasting disease (CWD) in elk and deer, and the hysteria-inducing bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease. It is crucial that more is learned about BSE as it is linked to the development of variant Creutzfeld Jacobs Disease (vCJD). Regular, or non-variant CJD typically occurs in older people, but vCJD is linked to the consumption of BSE-infected meat. Both CJD and vCJD are shaped by psychiatric traits similar to Alzheimer’s Disease, such as dementia and schizophrenia. In Dying for a hamburger: Modern meat processing and the epidemic of Alzheimer’s Disease, Waldman and Lamb (2004) chronicle the prevalence of CJD as often as TSEs in animals—about one per million observed. They also note that many of the victims ate”wild meat”—that is, meat they caught themselves, that might have been infected with a TSE. At least one victim was a hunter only 30 years old—far younger than the typical case, indicating a possible meat connection. The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that CJD is similar to Kuru, a rare Papua New Guinean condition associated with cannibalism and funerary ingestion of brain tissue. It also claims that there are extremely convincing studies linking BSE and vCJD based on time and place of infection, transmission characteristics, and prevalence of vCJD in BSE-infested areas.

Would you like a side of penicillin?

Though a troubling situation, TSEs would hardly be the call for alarm they have become if animals were not being fed to each other. The spongy brain tissues most affected by TSEs are some of the many parts that eventually become protein “concentrates” devoured in daily feed to fatten and raise prices. Even more common than TSE transmission, the disturbing overuse of antibiotics and their subsequent mutation of resistant pathogens has become a mainstream concern. Many of the drugs prescribed to treat common conditions are routinely fed to livestock, causing their predators—humans, to develop resistance to them because a low dose has been so consistently present in their bodies. Though antibiotics can lessen the combined effects of stress, overcrowding, and filth, they also make treatment of food-borne illnesses more difficult, as common antibiotics are rendered useless against resistant strains. The EPA estimates that between 60 and 80 percent of livestock are regularly fed antibiotics in their food and water, and that this constitutes 70 percent of the antibiotic use in the United States (as cited in Kneidel & Kneidel, 2005). In a move that indicates just how much power consumer demand holds, Tyson announced in June 2007 that it has eliminated the use of antibiotics in its fresh chicken products. Although birds destined for the deep-freeze and institutional kitchens remain medicated, this is certainly a step in the right direction.

HOW THIS CHANGE HAS AFFECTED THE US AND WORLD CULTURE, HUNGER, AND HEALTH

Among the many ways the modern meat industry has impacted society, one of the most significant and broad reaching has been by increasing meat consumption by making their product readily available and cheap. The Americanization of foreign lands with trendy fast food restaurants spanning the globe has been another way. These two aspects work together to give their products exposure, while also increasing their demand, thus making a bigger profit. Yet by padding corporate farm owners’ and fast food giants’ wallets, the meat industry is also changing the diet of billions of people when they pressure the world into believing this is the modern and preferable way to eat. ‘Eating out’ denotes affluence and status. These changes are not just about having ‘it your way’, whose ‘lovin’ it’, or doing ‘what tastes right’. This industry has spread American health problems to nations such as Japan and China where heart disease, osteoporosis, and obesity were never issues before. Schlosser (2005) lists Great Britain, Italy, and Spain as nations whose fast food spending directly correlates with how obese its people are—high spending, higher obesity; low spending, healthier weights. The obesity rates in the UK and Japan have doubled at the same time as their fast food sales have done the same. Traditionally vegetarian nations, such as many places in Asia, are experiencing widespread diabetes, colon cancer, and other ‘diseases of affluence’ now that meat has

been introduced into their diets.

All of these new meat eaters have raised the global meat consumption and production rates dramatically. A conservative estimate of the increase in global meat production from Nielsen (2006) between 1961 and 2000 states that there has been 41 and 267 percent increases in the global production of cattle and chickens, respectively. Nierenberg (2005) claims meat production increased from 2003 to 2004 by 2 percent to a staggering 258 million tons worldwide. To produce this much meat, an enormous amount of land must be dedicated to keeping livestock, regardless of how space-starved the animals are. However, in many areas of the world, much space is already dedicated to grain and vegetable crops. This dilemma is further complicated when grain is fed to livestock instead of directly to people. According to Net Aid (2005) over one billion—or roughly 1 in 6 people—lives in poverty across the globe. By using lands that could feed people to pasture livestock and grow grain for them, valuable land and resources are being squandered. American excess is being peddled universally as over 5,000 gallons of water are used to produce each pound of beef processed worldwide. In a world where droughts leave people and animals dying, wildfires burn arable land, and over 350,000 people needing to be fed are born every day, it is senseless to perpetuate an unsustainable diet that truly serves no one but the meat industry itself.

THE FACE BEHIND FACTORY FARMS AND PACKING PLANTS

 

It should be apparent by now that factory farms and their subsequent slaughterhouses and packing plants require a large workforce due to the tremendous amounts of animals they ‘process’ daily. Some operations run twenty-four hours each day, 365 days per year. Many of those use the nighttime hours to clean the enormous facilities, a treacherous undertaking to say the least. The graveyard shift is not an easy one to fill with native bodies. Therefore, with the lure of wages and arranged housing, many illegal immigrants are recruited from Mexico and other Latin American countries to fill this gap in the carnivorous puzzle (Griffith, 1995).

A changing face in the mid-west

Hector Tobar (2005) details this Latin migration towards meat-based rural agribusiness in his Translation nation: Defining a new American identity in the Spanish-speaking United States. In places like Liberal, Kansas, home to National Beef Processors, and neighbor to another Seaboard Foods plant, Hispanic students now constitute anywhere from 39 to 89 percent of the elementary population, and are the dominant ethnic group in 6 out the 7 of the district’s schools. Due to the younger men drawn to the meat industry’s positions, the median age for a Liberal citizen is a mere 28.9 years old (2002 census). Their local oldies radio station has switched to regional Mexican broadcasting. Tobar visited there after learning about the town while spending time masquerading as a worker in Ashland, Alabama, a ‘Tyson town’ with similar circumstances and new citizens. Many workers are offered housing in trailers owned by the companies to share with several other employees, as Tobar was. He witnessed employee injuries, unsanitary conditions, and drug and alcohol abuse by the hard-luck workers.

One of Tobar’s most notable experiences, however, occurred after his tenure as a factory worker when he learned that his recruiter, who believed Tobar to be a poor Latino, was involved in a scandal bringing undocumented Mexican workers to meat plants. Tyson is among many of the companies accused of such practices, including the notable 2002 lawsuit from former employees accusing them that such methods detract from legal workers’ pay, and 2003 conspiracy charges that Tyson hired U.S. border patrol agents posing as immigrants. Tyson also had the privilege of making Corporate Crime Reporter’s Top Ten Worst Corporations of 1999 list due to safety negligence and mistreatment of workers (UFCW).

Schlosser (2005) mentions incidents of supervisors explaining away employees symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome—from repeated cutting and packing—by saying they must be experiencing menopause. However inappropriate that might be at any age, many of the employees with similar symptoms were not even 30 years old, well below menopause’s reaches. The 2006 film based on Schlosser’s book, Fast Food Nation, depicts the life of workers in factories like these, from border crossing to cow cutting. Workers are shown being injured due to lack of instruction, and seduced into rape-like bargaining sex for a less dangerous and gruesome position in the plant. People are drawn into the deadly world of crystal meth, often taken to accelerate the body to match the over-cranked production lines. The meth enables people to work at a faster pace and thus avoid reprimands, docked pay, even termination. The other side of that, however, is that many injuries and problems are then blamed on the drug, and employees that are sucked in as victims, are then seen as irresponsible and predatory.

Treating the wife like a cow

Slaughterhouse and packing plant employees are not all drug-addicted immigrants. There are still many ‘typical’ Midwesterners employed in the industry, as they have been for decades. Employee Bill Buck tells his story based on those increasingly torturous decades in Midkiff’s (2004) tale:

You start out on the kill floor, it kind of gets to you. All those living animals, stunned, stuck, and skinned…they just keep coming, you get to where they aren’t even living things anymore. They’re just things. One after another. They keep coming and coming and coming. On my line, we kill four hundred an hour. If any of them puts up any kind of resistance…the guys take it out on the animals…with crowbars even though those aren’t even supposed to be in the plant, they stick the stun gun in their eyes, or they don’t even bother stunning them, they just hang ‘em on the chain squirming and struggling. After a while, you don’t even think about it…but it gets to you in ways you don’t even know…almost everybody on the kill floor goes down to the bar after the shift. Some of them don’t go home until they’re so drunk they can hardly stand up. Then they beat up their wife or their kids. They go home and treat their family like they’re on the kill floor…after you’ve worked on the kill floor covered in blood and gore, it’s like being in combat. It gets to you. (p. 130-131)

Employees interviewed by Eisnitz (1997) for her Slaughterhouse: The

shocking story of greed, neglect, and inhumane treatment inside the U.S. meat industry convey a similar sentiment. They detail injuries they have received from having conscious animals sent to their work area because other employees fail to properly stun or kill them. These animals are understandably anxious and agitated, often necessitating capture by weary workers who have had enough. Among their many complaints, was that stun gun currents had been minimized because industry officials felt the animals were becoming “too dead” (p.122), and not draining of blood properly. Eisnitz’s investigating revealed that “too dead” theories are an industry myth, and in fact, all reducing the stun does is put workers at risk of animal-induced injury, and require them to find other, arguably less-humane ways to restrain them.

GOOD FENCES MAKE GOOD NEIGHBORS?

Though most people would figure meat industry employment to be a regrettable experience, can the same be said for being a neighbor to such places? The combination of rising community immigration, environmental degradation, and smells, sounds, and sights less than desirable is opening up agribusiness neighbors’ eyes to exactly that fact.

Sweet smell of success

Though bad smells from farms may sound trivial at first, imagine the effect of constant foul odor. Midkiff (2004) describes people who cannot have open windows in their home, and who have people turn down rides for the unbearable stench in their cars. As Bill Buck described working the slaughter line, life as a farm neighbor also seems to affect people in ways they do not even notice at first until they become an inherent fact of their life. Kneidel & Kneidel (2005) report that about 70 percent of pigs are stricken with pneumonia at slaughter time because of overexposure to ammonia from excessive manure, and another 70 percent of workers suffer from respiratory irritation as well. If the smell is enough to cause illness inside, it is no trivial matter how bad it must be for the neighbors outside. Another couple Midkiff (2004) interviewed told of a time when, for weeks, the smell around their house was so unbearable authorities had to be called to investigate. It took months for a decision to be made as to who was responsible for what was found: thousands of carcasses of egg-laying hens that had been abandoned. Try comparing that to the dead skunk on your road.

Other benefits of rural life

The smell may be the first thing to hit you in a farm community, but it won’t be the only thing. A 1997 Wall Street Journal article detailed an egg farm being opposed in Highgate, VT due to the hordes of flies it attracted. Lynn, one of the women Midkiff (2004) interviewed had plenty to say about the sounds from her neighboring farm. Even though she herself had raised hogs and was familiar with their habits, nothing had prepared her for the brutal noises she heard of overcrowded animals. She explained how they crawl over and bite and scar each other for lack of room. As she puts it, “this is not the sound of a hungry hog—I know that sound. That’s the sound of a hurting hog, and it hurts me” (p.45). Between flies, smells so bad people avoid you, and incessant auditory pollution, being neighbor to a modern farm seems enough to drive you crazy.

Now, let’s find you a place to stay…

As if all the noise and smells of living near a factory farm weren’t bad enough, many communities are angered by the large influx of people that come with mass production. Corporations have even been known to exploit local charities and resources to reduce costs of caring for employees. In one such case outlined by Schlosser (2005), GFI America, Inc. recruited employees from a small Texas town near the Mexican border, promising them housing and jobs once they reached Minneapolis. They bussed back 39 people and then dropped them off in front of a homeless shelter. The shelter housed the people but refused the company’s offer to pay $17 per employee plus throw in some hamburgers—after all, GFI makes hamburgers for Dairy Queen, Cracker Barrel, and the federal school lunch program. Nevertheless, the shelter and local residents were outraged that the corporation could have such audacity, and the workers felt embarrassed and cheated. This is just another example of how large corporations believe money and profit are the motivation for everything.

MEAT INDUSTRY ADVERTISING MYTHS

Got lies?

Perhaps more damaging than any of the industry’s practices or oversights is their deliberate manipulation of the truth for the sake of profit. The Milk Advisory Board’s ‘Got Milk?’ campaign has been informing people since 1993 that its beverage is the best thing for a healthy body, and that the calcium from milk is essential to prevent osteoporosis and other ailments. However, a 2001 report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Dr. Deborah Sellmeyer explains milk is not the best way to maintain health, and in fact, can be detrimental to bones, arteries, and other body parts. As Sellmeyer (2001) details, “diets that are rich in animal foods and low in vegetable foods, typical of industrialized countries, lead to a dietary net acid load that has a negative effect on calcium balance…the magnitude of this detrimental effect increases with age” (p. 118). Essentially, animal-derived calcium contains materials that make its absorption difficult, and causes bones to lose minerals in order to metabolize the milk. In reality, milk could be accused of perpetuating the very ailments it is advertised to minimize.

Another bogus animal advertising campaign boasts that happy cows come from California. In December of 2002 People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sued the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB) for its false depictions of an idyllic life in lush green pastures, when in reality, California’s 1.78 million dairy cows spend their abbreviated lives ankle-deep in feces and mud. PETA claimed such advertisements gave the public an unfounded acceptance of and good feeling towards dairy practices, and that the California milk industry made financial gains off this deception. In an ironic twist, the soymilk company Silk began featuring ads with anthropomorphic cow families drinking soymilk for their health in 2006. They were also the 2003 recipient of the PETA Progress Award for Best Company. Maybe if all those dairy cows were treated a little nicer, their companies might have won it instead.

On top of deceitful dairy ads, are the ubiquitous and confusing ‘free-range’, ‘pasture raised, ‘raised without antibiotics’, and ‘natural’ labels amongst others, that pepper the products in the meat case. Though it is up to the consumer to research their choices and understand the meaning of such terms, the industry does not help much by having so many terms sound pleasant enough to imply safer conditions and thus, a better product. For example, meat labeled ‘natural’ may have many undesirable things added to it, yet nothing is synthetic. Antibiotic labeling gets tricky because if an animal is truly sick, there are ethical concerns about using the best treatments to alleviate their conditions. It continues to be debated whether such animals’ meat may still be labeled ‘organic’ or ‘raised without antibiotics’. Arguably, the most ambiguous and worst offender of the labels is ‘free range’. The USDA mandates that animals whose products bear this label receive a minimum of 5 minutes per day of free space, and it need not be outdoors. This label also has no connection to what the animal itself eats, drinks, or is medicated with. It is not uncommon to even see this term used as a fancy add-on on restaurant menus. Referring to your dish as free range chicken substantiates a raised price and reassures the customer that their bird spent at least 5 minutes flapping about—sunlight optional.

CONCLUSION

The modern meat industry has evolved from personal family farms and neighborhood butchers to a dizzying machine fed by human, animal, and environmental hunger, sorrow, and degradation. The industry has done much to maintain pace with the times as technology and trends accelerated and transformed life; but it has also brainwashed and duped the world into conforming their very health and the health of the planet for the sake of corporate giants’ wallets. Ezra Taft Benson could not have predicted what the meat industry would become when he gave his notorious advice half a century ago, but the world has changed in so many ways, and meat in particular seems to have succeeded in his plans of enormity by many accounts. However, if world health, environmental crises, and human and animal rights were used as evidence, the best advice for farmer and friend alike in the twenty-first century might be “Get Veg, or Get Out”.

REFERENCES

Eisnitz, G. A. (1997). Slaughterhouse: The shocking story of greed, neglect, and

Inhumane treatment inside the U.S. meat industry. Amherst, NY:

Prometheus Books.

Griffith, D. (1995). Hay trabajo: Poultry processing, rural industrialization, and the

latinization of low-wage labor. In Stull, D., Broadway, M., & Griffith, D. (Eds.),

Any way you cut it: Meat processing and small-town America (pp.129-151).

Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Horowitz, R. (2006). Putting meat on the American table. Baltimore: The Johns

Hopkins University Press.

Kimbrell, A. (Ed.). (2002). Fatal harvest: The tragedy of industrial agriculture.

Washington: Island Press.

Kneidel, S. & Kneidel, S.K. (2005). Veggie revolution: Smart choices for a healthy body and a healthy planet. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.

McGuire, V. (1999).U.S. Geological Survey. Water-level changes in the high plains

aquifer, 1980 to 1999. Lincoln, Nebraska.

Midkiff, K. (2004). The meat you eat: How corporate farming has endangered America’s food supply. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Nielsen, R. (2006). The little green handbook: Seven trends shaping the future of our

planet. New York: Picador.

Nierenberg, D. (2005). Happier meals: Rethinking the global meat industry. Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute.

Rampton, S. & Stauber, J. (1997). Mad cow U.S.A.: Could the nightmare happen here?

Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.

Schlosser, E. (2001/2005). Fast food nation: The dark side of the all-American meal. New York: Harper Perennial.

Sellmeyer, D. et al. (2001). A high ratio of dietary animal to vegetable protein increases

the rate of bone loss and the risk of fracture in postmenopausal women. The

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 73 (1), 188-122.

Stull, D. & Broadway, M. (2004) Slaughterhouse blues: The meat and poultry

Industry in North America. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning.

Swift & Company. (2005). Swift celebrates 150 years of meat industry excellence.

Retrieved June 1, 2007, from http://www.swiftbrands.com/media/releases/

Swift_History_6-05.pdf

Tobar, H. (2005). Translation nation: Defining a new American identity in the Spanish-

speaking United States. New York: Riverhead Books.

Tyson Foods Inc. (2006). Live production chicken. Retrieved June 1, 2007, from

http://www.tyson.com/Corporate/AboutTyson/LiveProduction/Chicken.aspx

U.S. Department of Agriculture & the Environmental Protection Agency. ( 1998). Draft

unified national strategy for animal feeding operations. Retrieved June 30, 2007

from http://water.usgs.gov/owq/cleanwater/afo/.

Waldman, M. & Lamb, M. (2004). Dying for a hamburger: Modern meat processing and the epidemic of Alzheimer’s disease. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

Walsh, B. (2007) 51 things we can do to save the environment: The global warming

survival guide [Electronic version]. Time, v.169, n.13.

 

 

Appendix A

<!–[if !vml]–><!–[endif]–>

Map indicates generalized water-level changes in the High Plains Aquifer, part of the Ogallala Aquifer during 1998-1999.

 

McGuire, V. (1999).U.S. Geological Survey. Water-Level Changes in the High Plains Aquifer, 1980 to 1999. Lincoln, Nebraska.



The Ex-Boyfriend List
July 2, 2007, 10:09 am
Filed under: Non-Fiction

 

My newest idea was born from a dream in my best friend’s bed. She poured herself, drunken and clammy-skinned, into the sheets beside me. I had been facing the wall, my hair wrapped around her sepia-in-the-ridges corduroy pillow; I always used it when I slept there.

                                                                                  

“He told me he sees only my face when he’s fucking her, when he’s fucking anyone.”

 

I thought for a minute before responding. The newest guy didn’t know of her love, and the last significant other was a woman. This meant we had to be talking of someone either very old, or incredibly new. I asked her who.

 

“John. Because I always think about how he’ll always be that one. John told me that this morning.” She repeated his name, so unadorned and ubiquitous, as if repetition could signify him from the crowd.

 

            And so, I too conjured a past love that night. It had been years since we had even crossed paths, except just a few days before we chanced to attend the same going away fete; we argued Bob Dylan lyrics, and his eyes glinted with a familiar fever. In sleep he returned again, years now bridged into days. We rode Hudson waves in canary kayaks, that blended at times with outrigger-style canoes; the water was as unnaturally warm as his gaze.

            It seemed that fateful meeting had dredged him up- PCBs of the heart. Without thinking of him, he did little damage in the low, sandy bottom; now he had renewed strength as he stirred, and I feared him knowing that. This time he did not seem out to fool me, and there were no red-carpeted hippie houses or Looking Glass albums with which to seduce me. He had always been like that—acting all Brandy in the dark, but sounding like the rest of the material once the morning came, and so-called friends surrounded us. I drifted downriver cautiously.

            I realize then we have no paddles, and that the water is getting rougher. He grabs my hand and pulls my fingers to his lips, a gesture I had never seen before. This is a boy who once pushed me out of bed for being turned on by his armpit smell; he was scared of himself. Still clasping tightly, he drags the hands underwater and waves begin to flow over our prows. I feel giddy and exhilarated by the tropicality of my usually dirty, cool river. We crest another swell and suddenly, are on shore.

            Still entangled in fingers, we’re facing each other now. He must have dropped my hands, because suddenly his are all over my face, publicly admitting as he never would have then. Index fingers stencil imaginary tears down my cheekbones. I ask him if he knows I am married. Holding my face still now, he says,

 

“Lauren, I don’t care.”

           

I do not curse him or ache to change reality; all I remember before I wake is thinking “but, I do”.

 

* * *

Driving home a few hours later, I decide to put this odd fantasy to paper, in hopes it may pay its way somehow. It feels guilty-good, and throughout the day, I wonder if any other paramours will visit. I contemplate who I’d wish for, and who ought to stay in the past, when the idea takes shape to bring them back myself. I decide to compile a census of all the men I have taken to heart, and then attempt to invoke concrete memories of my experiences with them. I imagine turning men into poems to entertain and enlighten me, to be evidence of a life that, right then, seems a little far away.

With notes in the margins indicating depth of relationship, kisses, and name coincidences, the list totaled 52 men over two and a half decades—equaling roughly two per year of my life. I ate yellow cake with chocolate frosting to fuel my memory, and could not bring myself to stop; I ate more bites than kissed men. With the Pyrex pan scraped clean across all but one corner, I begin to draw lines denoting parallels: There are five first names each shared by two men, and one name shared by three. The last name of my first kiss is also the surname of the boy I dropped out of college and ran to Portland to be with—and that name is engraved on the street sign where I almost bought my first house. Then there are the fun, popular culture name-matches: one motorcycle, a set of tires, a pirate, and a rooster. There are no brothers by blood. A supermarket chain, line of Buicks, a state capital, and a metal band all have boy-foils who have made me weak.

I count off the kisses with green hi-liter, and grimace when there are some that leave me unsure. So much time has passed, and the lines between wishing and tasting blur with volume. An occasional oldie floats out of place, remembered after their era and spontaneously added to the mix. I notice who never reached their full potential, and whose body I would now have traded for another that might have made a better memory.

Impatient, swollen tongues and rogue, Catholic hands dominate the earliest check-offs. I see one marked, then crossed out, after recalling we had never actually kissed. He was quite possibly one of the nicest loves of my life, sharing the middle name of a fabled United States president and permanently walking Montauk beach roads of my mind. He had a watch that beeped at 3 am—sneak out time. We met while I stayed in a cottage on a road named after my boyfriend.

 I tried to break up with that boyfriend once I was back home, on the track at dusk. I ran 400s to escape him. His Irish face did not make up poems on the spot that night, as it had steeping in the Van Cortland Park breeze a few months before. Instead, in the heavy twilight that last night, all I breathed were gnats.

Some lovers brought back the sweetest of memories, real-life clichés that I cannot erase: hand-holding in new snow under lampposts, that first chance meeting and classic opening lines, iconic times playing house. I begin to see these names as a tangible part of me—a history of my phases and development. They calcify and create my ribs; I am not born of theirs. Instead, they enable who I have become, steer who I now choose to love.

 

***

            Several days pass, but the list remains paramount in my mind. Suddenly every old song on the radio has me in love with another flame; we dance, we whisper, we forget what made us fall out of love. Somewhere, driving west on route 347, an unlisted name flashes through Motown thoughts and I am so glad he has returned. With him comes three more names—how did they ever escape my meticulous cataloging? They weigh heavily on the table, shifting the mode from ‘Brian’ to ‘Steve’. They double the co-worker total and include one person blocked out with Freudian typicality. I know I am not on his list, because, not only is it too lengthy for recitation, our actual encounter would perhaps not qualify for his brand of recognition. Nevertheless, few have burned the things left undone on my soul as he has.

            In all this, I think suddenly of my husband. In the days since my experiment, he has been relegated to my cerebral background. For all the emotive significance I have bestowed on these many ancient loves, it may imply his banality or misunderstanding of me. You might think us disconnected or hastily wed. We are none of those. He is the best and worst of this list. Though he could never be the first name, unspoken rules dictate he ought to be the last. He is not. But he is the only one I still make sense, love, and tacos with.  And that I still want him, when he lets me conjure every old incarnation of myself in sentimental samsara, is why he is the only one on the list who has evolved from past to future.