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Trump Turns Back the Clock in America’s Meat Plants

More than a century after Upton Sinclair's gruesome "The Jungle," the president is loosening rules that protect workers and consumers alike.

A worker at a Tyson plant in Emporia, Kansas, in 2007. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

It was more than a century ago that Upton Sinclair went undercover in Chicago’s stockyards, resulting in his reported novel The Jungle. A blood-splattered portrait of the American meatpacking industry, it documented the misery and filth of the city’s slaughterhouses, where miserable workers churned out cuts of rotten meat in treacherous, rat-infested conditions. “The air would be full of steam, from the hot water and the hot blood, so that you could not see five feet before you,” Sinclair wrote. “And then, with men rushing about at the speed they kept up on the killing-beds, and all with butcher-knives, like razors, in their hands well, it was to be counted as a wonder that there were not more men slaughtered than cattle…”

We have The Jungle to thank for certain food-safety regulations today. Protections for meat-industry workers, though, would come later—and President Trump has been trying to undo even that modest progress. His administration last year authorized faster “line speeds” (the number of animals killed per minute) for poultry plants, and began looking into doing the same for beef. New U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations that take effect in December will allow the same at pork plants, while also cutting 40 percent of government inspectors and delegating inspections to employees, who may not have undergone any kind of training in food safety.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and an advocacy group, Public Citizen, last week sued the administration over the new rules, saying that faster line speeds will increase worker injuries. That’s a certainty. As The Guardian noted in 2018, “US meatpacking workers are already three times more likely to suffer serious injury than the average American worker,” with pork and beef workers almost seven times more likely to sustain repetitive strain injuries from slicing and hauling. Bureau of Labor Statistics show the injury rate for meatpacking workers is 2.4 times higher than the national average for all industries. Trump is taking an already dangerous, dehumanizing job, and making it even more so.

But these changes also pose a risk to millions of Americans who will never set foot in a slaughterhouse, as the lack of proper oversight in identifying sick animals or hygiene issues increases the risk of foodborne illnesses for meat eaters. “With less government oversight over hog slaughter inspection, big meat companies will have the freedom to inspect themselves and push towards their goal of increasing line speeds,” the nonprofit Food & Water Watch told Newsweek. “There’s no doubt about it: faster line speeds + less inspection = more food contamination.”

If Trump gets his way, Sinclair’s book of horrors might not remain a thing of the past.

When The Jungle was first released in serial form in 1905, Chicago’s stockyards were largely free of food- or worker-safety regulations, save for the government inspectors tasked with checking the hogs for tuberculosis. Sinclair described how spoiled meat was doctored to appear fresh; sausages were plumped up with rat carcasses; an unlucky worker was accidentally rendered into lard. Sinclair’s protagonist, Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus, came to see the industry as “a monster devouring with a thousand mouths, trampling with a thousand hoofs; it was the Great Butcher—it was the spirit of Capitalism made flesh.”

But only the unsanitary food, not the workers’ living hell, raised a public outcry and spurred immediate reform. (As Sinclair, a socialist, once said ruefully, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”) The Meat Inspection Act was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt on June 30, 1906, a mere four months after The Jungle hit the shelves in book form. The law banned the sale of adulterated meat, set standard sanitary conditions, and required that the USDA inspect all livestock before and after they were killed and processed for human consumption. That same year, the Pure Food and Drug Act set regulations on labeling caffeinated drinks and patent medicines, and prevented “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs or medicines, and liquors.”

While the public was less concerned with the inhumane conditions borne by a largely immigrant workforce, the 1906 legislation did at least pay lip service to their plight by setting explicit sanitary standards for slaughterhouses, which at the very least must have helped curb the rodent infestations. Since then, though, there have been few updates, and some of the same problems that plagued slaughterhouse workers at the turn of the century remain. Meatpacking workers’ bodies are already being pushed to the limit by the physical nature of the job: Fractured fingers, second-degree burns, head trauma, amputations, lost eyes, and torn-off limbs, not to mention repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel and chronic back pain. The mental strain takes a toll as well; spending long hours surrounded by gore and raw animal suffering leaves many workers struggling with PTSD. They are often discouraged from reporting injuries, and their chances of winning workers’ compensation are low thanks to mounds of Byzantine company paperwork. Many slaughterhouses aren’t unionized, and sexual harassment and racist abuse remain a pervasive problem.

“On the killing beds you were apt to be covered with blood,” Sinclair wrote, “and it would freeze solid; if you leaned against a pillar, you would freeze to that, and if you put your hand upon the blade of your knife, you would run a chance of leaving your skin on it…” Bitter cold and extreme heat are still facts of life on “the chain,” a nickname for the disassembly line of carcasses that snakes through every big plant. A job posting at Mississippi’s Koch Foods chicken processing plant noted that “work environment temperatures range from 50 to 90 degrees”; Triumph Foods, a pork processing facility in Missouri, emphasized “the ability to work in temperatures ranging from cold and damp to hot and humid environments,” as well as to stand for ten hours per day.

The Trump administration is rushing out these new rules not merely as a bone to Big Meat, but to compensate for a problem of the president’s own making: a potential gap in the supply chain caused by his trade war with China. A deadly “pig ebola” virus has been laying waste to China’s hog supply since August, and pork prices are skyrocketing. The country is currently home to roughly half of the world’s pigs, and 22 percent of them have already died or been culled as a result of the outbreak. Now, American farmers are eyeing ways to capitalize on the increased market demand; Trump’s new speed-up rules are a gift to them.

This isn’t the first time the Trump administration has put vulnerable workers at risk in order to further the president’s priorities. In August, an ICE raid of a Koch Foods chicken plant (which last year had settled a $3.5 million lawsuit over widespread sexual harassment and abuse) and six other Mississippi facilities resulted in the arrest of over 680 undocumented workers. Communities were decimated. Ten percent of the population of Morton, Mississippi, was left jobless or incarcerated, and hundreds of victims of the raid are still in detention facilities in Mississippi and Louisiana.

The message that these raids and Trump’s new slaughterhouse rules are sending is clear: If you break an arm or lose a few fingers on the disassembly line, that’s just progress; but if you do it without the correct stack of papers and cause trouble for your boss, that’s a problem. Welcome back to The Jungle.