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The USDA Goes Hog Wild

A new proposal could take American slaughter factories back to the days of "The Jungle."

Adam Berry/Getty Images

A new USDA proposal for hog slaughter factories will damage worker and food safety, experts say. The proposal, which is open for public comment until May 2, would expand a pilot program that allows factories to speed up line processing while removing some federal food safety inspectors from the premises. Factories would have to opt into the expanded scheme, and the ones that choose to do so would have significant freedom to adjust workplace policies as they see fit. Inspection would then be turned over to private company employees, though the USDA’s proposal includes no funding to subsidize the new expense and they may not be trained to the level of federal inspectors. The volume of hogs processed in these factories would increase, meanwhile, and nothing requires those factories to hire more workers to handle the growth.

The USDA claims that the rule wouldn’t harm food safety at all—and as proof, it has provided a risk assessment that hasn’t even undergone peer review. “You have a little bit of the fox guarding the henhouse here, in that the very agency whose tasked with the promotion of American agricultural products is also tasked with regulating the food safety of the meat and poultry industry,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a senior fellow for worker safety and health at the National Employment Law Center. It’s part of the USDA’s remit to set line speeds in factories, a responsibility it must balance with its need to promote American goods. Its proposal would largely benefit large processors, fulfilling one of its goals, but the consequences for workers could be severe.

Meatpacking is already one of the most dangerous professions in America. While a 2016 GAO report found that injuries in the industry declined from 2004 to 2014, workers also under-reported injuries. Overall, meatpacking’s injury rate remained higher than that of manufacturing. Within the meatpacking industry, meat workers—a category that includes workers in hog slaughter factories—also reported higher rates of injury than workers in poultry processing plants. Common injuries include repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel, and injuries from exposure to chemicals and pathogens. “They also have high numbers of amputations and knife cuts just because they’re working with knives and scissors and it’s very dangerous and it’s slippery and it’s noisy and it’s fast,” Berkowitz explained.

The specific requirements of line processing—the “disassembly line,” Berkowitz termed it—means there isn’t much room for workers to maneuver. “Let’s take gutsnatchers, for example,” said Mark Lauritsen, director of the packing and food processing division of United Food and Commercial Workers. “If a plant has four gutsnatchers, and it increases line speeds so that it needs five gutsnatchers, is there enough room to have five gutsnatchers in that plant doing that job?” If a plant has no room, and speeds up processing anyway, workers could run into trouble.

“The speed is going to be such where injury rates will increase in these facilities,” Lauritsen said. “When you’re working faster generally, that means that you try to take shortcuts and try to make the work easier. That’s when you can stumble into lacerations. ‘Buddy cuts,’ as we would call them.”

Processing speed isn’t a new problem for meatpacking plants. Upton Sinclair documented it in his 1906 novel The Jungle, which he based on his time embedded in Packingtown, Chicago’s packing yards. “Little by little he gathered that the main thing the men wanted was to put a stop to the habit of ‘speeding-up’; they were trying their best to force a lessening of the pace, for there were some, they said, who could not keep up with it, whom it was killing,” Sinclair’s working-class hero ruminated.

Not long after Sinclair published The Jungle, he complained that his newfound readers had missed the point. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he said. As taught in history classrooms across the nation, the novel’s legacy is often reduced to a regulatory one. Americans read about children being eaten alive by rats and concluded that the real horror sat inside their own stomachs, poisoning their bodies with tubercular meat and mystery pork innards. But Sinclair, a committed socialist, meant to teach a broader lesson. An industry that prioritizes profit over consumer safety is an industry that prioritizes profit over worker safety. The two problems are related.

Unionization—a subplot in Sinclair’s novel—provided some leverage for workers, and eased the hellish working conditions that he so vividly described. Today, Lauritsen’s union, the UFCW, says its members are responsible for 60 percent of hogs processed every year. But despite the union’s endurance, the industry has actively made it more difficult for workers to organize. Meatpacking, including hog processing, is now principally the domain of rural America.

“These plants are located in rural areas by design,” said Ted Genoways, who covered the meatpacking industry’s abuses in his book The Chain. “All these plants, of course, used to be in urban areas around the junctions of major railroads. What that did was allow the labor force to unionize, and the companies were not big fans of that. They turned what had been a railroad based system into a trucking based system so they could move the plants into rural areas where they are removed from unions and organizing efforts.” On average, Packingtown is no longer a suburb of Chicago, but a rural town in Nebraska.

Wherever it happens to be, Packingtown is a company town. As a result, the USDA’s proposal has troubling ramifications both for local economies and for vulnerable workforces. Sinclair’s immigrant laborers were primarily of Irish and Eastern European stock, but today’s hog processing is often performed by undocumented immigrants and refugees. If the USDA implements its new rule, they will bear a disproportionate share of the burden. Furthermore, it will be particularly difficult for these workers to access medical treatment for their inevitable injuries. “The Department of Labor’s numbers indicate that if you do the job for five years you have about a 50 percent chance of sustaining a serious injury,” Genoways explained.

What’s good for the industry is likely bad for workers, and the small towns propped up by the industry’s tax revenue likely won’t survive unscathed either. Increasing the volume of hogs killed increases strain on a facility’s cooler, where hog carcasses must chill to certain temperatures. More carcasses means less room in the cooler overall, and Lauritsen fears that could shorten worker shifts and lighten worker wallets. “The biggest winner would be large pork processors. Having the capacity to kill more hogs is going to lower prices for farmers,” he said. “It’s bad for the workers and I can’t see a benefit for the consumer either.”

In theory, the USDA’s rule would put more pork on the market, which would make it cheaper to purchase. But speeding up lines and removing some USDA inspectors from facilities without comparatively-trained replacements would inevitably affect food safety, Berkowitz warned. Some elected officials agree. On Monday, 63 members of Congress sent a letter to the USDA warning it to drop the proposal. Among their concerns: The USDA still hasn’t completed the peer review process for its risk assessment. The absence of peer review means that it’s impossible to know if the USDA’s claims are accurate. Berkowitz said that’s unusual. “I don’t recall a risk assessment ever going out without being peer reviewed,” she asserted.

And the results of the USDA’s pilot privatization scheme don’t give consumers much reason to trust its food safety claims. A Food and Water Watch analysis compared the five plants piloting the New Swine Inspection System against five similarly sized plants operating under the current inspection regime, and found that the pilot plants suffered from grotesque safety violations. The pilots generated “73 percent of the reports filed for carcass contamination with feces, bile, hair or dirt; 65 percent of the reports filed for general carcass contamination; and 61 percent of the reports filed for equipment sanitation,” the organization concluded.

A similar USDA proposal to speed up lines in poultry-processing plants disappeared after public outcry last year, a victory advocates hope to re-create now. They have until May 2 to sway the agency. After that, it’s up to the USDA decide if it’ll protect food safety, or if it will take the country back to Packingtown.