The social impact of the meat industry

One of the aspects of the meat industry that we don’t think about so much is the impact on humans – in particular, the social impact of slaughterhouses. We talk about the impact on the planet (climate change, land use, deforestation, pollution) and on the animals themselves, of course, but there’s also a very real and tragic impact on the human race. I’ve been meaning to write a post on this but waited until I was in the right frame of mind to tackle it, one of our darkest subjects. As Covid-19 has shut down many meat processing plants in the US (and Trump has ordered them to keep going) it seemed like a good time to bite the bullet.

This post deals with an awful subject and although I try to avoid disturbing language and images, the nature of the topic is unavoidably upsetting. Some of the links – the stories and articles that I read to research this, which made me want to forget – do contain descriptions of slaughterhouses and stories from workers.

Meat industry occupational injuries

It’s estimated that we kill 72 billion land animals for meat every year – that’s around 10 times the entire human population, and it equates to the slaughter of over 8 million animals every hour. Killing animals at this rate has required an increase in efficiency that comes from meat companies such as Tyson foods (the second largest meat company on the planet) pushing their employees more and more. Large outbreaks of Covid-19 have been shutting down meat processing plants in the US – 900 out of the 4300 workers at Tyson’s “beef-processing” plant in Iowa tested positive for the coronavirus. So, you guessed it – beef and pork are already becoming the new toilet paper. We should really call these “meat-processing” plants what they are – slaughterhouses, or abattoirs if you prefer – because part of the problem here is that we insulate ourselves from this truth when we go to the supermarket.

But even before the emergence of Covid-19, working in meat processing plants – slaughterhouses – has long been one of the most dangerous jobs.  I’ll spare you the details on why it’s a dangerous job, but you can imagine that “complications” arise when the killing does not go according to plan and/or when large animals react to what’s happening around them.

On average, there are at least 17 “severe” incidents a month in US meat plants. These injuries are classified as those involving “hospitalisations, amputations or loss of an eye”. Amputations happen on average twice a week, according to the data. – The Guardian, reporting on US OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) data.

A beef industry site reports “good news” that serious injury rate dropped from 4.3 to 3.6 serious injuries per 100 workers per year. So, around 4% of workers receive serious injuries (classified as DART, requiring “Days Away, Restricted, or Job Transfer”) per year. I work in a research institute with around 200 other people – if 8 of us had a serious injury every year we would be shut down for sure.

More information on how working conditions changed, starting in the 1960s with Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) can be found in this article “The Chain Never Stops,” by Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation. The article is titled after a well-known “golden rule” in the meat industry that, no matter what happens, the slaughter and butchering lines keeps going. It charts the erosion of workers’ rights and the extent that meat plants will go to avoid responsibility for workers’ injuries. IBP is now a subsidiary of Tyson Foods.

“The chain never stops,” Rita Beltran, a former IBP worker told me. “I’ve seen bleeders, and they’re gushing because they got hit right in the vein, and I mean they’re almost passing out, and here comes the supply guy again, with the bleach, to clean the blood off the floor, but the chain never stops. It never stops.” – Eric Schlosser.

And in the meat industry, Covid-19 and on-the-job injuries are really just the beginning…

Intimidation and poor working conditions in the poultry industry

Sanderson Farms, one of the four major controllers of the poultry industry in the US, allows workers to have a bathroom break of outside the authorized 12-minute break and 30-minute unpaid lunch break only at the supervisor’s discretion.

At Sanderson Farms, a current employee showed me a doctor’s note asking her supervisor to let her use the restroom as needed. “We would ask permission to use the restroom. They would ask us to wait. And then sometimes they would forget,” she said.  – The Guardian, 2018.

It sounds like being a child in school – but a classroom where your daily activity is killing animals or stripping carcasses. The speed at which they have to work during their almost uninterrupted shifts is also insane.

One worker tearfully recalled how, as a newly arrived untrained worker at Sanderson Farms, she was put under intolerable pressure by her supervisor to “pack 60 chicken drumsticks per minute”. She was later told by another supervisor that “the requirement was 45”.

Packing drumsticks at a rate of almost one per second for 8 hours, punctuated by only two short breaks – this sounds fairly close to forced labor and should certainly count as inhumane. Yet Sanderson Farms is a Fortune 1000 company.

Simmons Food, another major poultry company, literally used forced labor. People found guilty of drug-related offenses in Oklahoma and Arkansas were sent for drug rehab, which turned out to be a Simmons conveyor belt.

Oxfam reported that some poultry workers had taken to wearing diapers because bathroom breaks were so hard to come by.

A Tyson Foods worker says in the report that many workers at his North Carolina plant “have to urinate in their pants”.

Tyson Foods was ranked 80th in the 2018 Fortune 500 list of the largest United States corporations by total revenue.

Trauma and PTSD in the meat industry

This is really where we start to see how messed up the meat industry is and how broad the impacts on society. I haven’t read this book, and judging how I feel after researching this blog post, I’m not sure that I am up to it, but it has received a lot of acclaim:  Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry.  Here’s a quote from a Texas Observer article on the book:

It will come as no surprise that the consequences of such emotional dissonance include domestic violence, social withdrawal, drug and alcohol abuse, and severe anxiety. As slaughterhouse workers are increasingly being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, researchers are finally starting to systematically explore the results of killing sentient animals for a living.

Amy Fitzgerald, a criminology professor at the University of Windsor in Canada, has found a strong correlation between the presence of a large slaughterhouse and high crime rates in U.S. communities. One might object that a slaughterhouse town’s disproportionate population of poor, working-class males might be the real cause, but Fitzgerald controlled for that possibility by comparing her data to counties with comparable populations employed in factory-like operations. In her study released in 2007, the abattoir stood out as the factor most likely to spike crime statistics. Slaughterhouse workers, in essence, were “desensitized,” and their behavior outside of work reflected it.

A 2016 paper by psychology researchers at the University of South Africa looks at the psycho-social consequences of becoming a slaughterer. It reports on worker interviews, covering topics from the trauma of their first kill to recurring nightmares and feelings of shame, fear, emotional detachment, socially rejection, and violence.

The risk potential of employees suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome was evident throughout the stages of being a slaughterfloor employee.

A 2009 paper used rigorous statistical methods to look at the impact of slaughterhouses and local crime rates. The authors, from Michigan State University, reference Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle (which shone a light on the meat industry) and point out that almost no empirical investigations had been carried out to test the link between slaughterhouses and crime until now, 100 years later.  Their conclusion:

The findings indicate that slaughterhouse employment increases total arrest rates, arrests for violent crimes, arrests for rape, and arrests for other sex offenses in comparison with other industries.

Here’s how the Yale Global Health Review explains the kind of PTSD that slaughterhouse workers suffer from:

A type of post-traumatic stress disorder called perpetration-induced traumatic stress (PITS). Unlike many forms of traumatic stress disorders in which sufferers have been victims in a traumatic situation, sufferers of PITS are the “causal participant” in a traumatic situation. In other words, they are the direct reason for another being’s trauma. Living with the knowledge of their actions causes symptoms similar to those of individuals who are recipients of trauma: substance abuse, anxiety issues, depression, and dissociation from reality.

You can read more about Slaughterhouse workers’ personal experiences in these articles from the BBC and Mother Jones. Many of them are disturbing so I’ll spare you the mental images; here’s a milder one from the BBC article:

As I spent day after day in that large, windowless box, my chest felt increasingly heavy and a grey fog descended over me. At night, my mind would taunt me with nightmares, replaying some of the horrors I’d witnessed throughout the day.

The meat industry’s third impact

So, we are already aware of some of the animal welfare issues on modern intensive farms, although that stuff is not easy to read about, so most of us only know part of the story. Most are also aware of the impact of the meat industry on the planet – deforestation, food shortages and climate change. But I think fewer of us are aware of the impact of the meat industry on the human psyche. The industry that relies on the unceasing, high-throughput killing of 8 million animals per hour is impacting individuals and society as a whole in ways that I don’t think we fully appreciate or understand yet.

There actually used to be an abattoir in my hometown – really close to the center of town. It’s bizarre to think of that now and of course our society has segregated most of life’s nastier business from urban populations by now. I walked by it one day in my youth and the big red gates were open for a change. I’m not even sure what I saw, to be honest, as I involuntarily looked in – except for blood. I think I’ve suppressed that memory, but it’s quite likely that it was one of the factors that led to me becoming a vegetarian as a teenager. I don’t think many could witness such scenes (much less, take part in them) without being altered.

22 thoughts on “The social impact of the meat industry

  1. Someone wrote a great blog post about this around two years ago but I can’t find it – so if you wrote it or read it, please let me know!

  2. Been ostriching around this issue. A few years ago, my UK daughter and I drove from Ontario to BC via the US. Late in the night, she was napping and I took a wrong turn ending up in the ‘killing fields’ near Denver, Colorado at dawn. Enormous enclosures filled with animals standing hoof to hoof, young and old, on frozen barren ground. The bitter cold kept the smell at bay, but what haunts me still is the sound. Shattered me then – shatters me still. I can’t recall that horrific moment in time without the feelings – hopelessness, rage and confusion. During this time, a light is being shone onto slaughterhouses and the industry in general. Thank you for doing your part, J. I’ll now go back into the sand, however, as I can’t stand the pain of it all.

    1. Hey Frances,
      That sounds horrific. Thanks for sharing it though, even though it’s not an easy memory to recount.
      I hope you’re keeping well. Jim

  3. Hi Jim. I confess that I didn’t read the entire article here. This stuff just makes me sick inside and feels just too much to bear. I haven’t eaten meat since I was a student in my early twenties. Most of my friends and family eat meat and I have to deal with that but I steer clear of it as best as possible. Thank you for all your good work including and especially having the guts to tackle this subject. Wish I could have given it the attention it deserves but not today unfortunately. I did read the last section where you refer to the effect on the human psyche.I agree with you- the hidden realities that resonate with us on that subtle but powerful level cannot be underestimated.

    1. Thanks Amanda.
      I appreciate it and don’t blame you for skimming it – I wanted to skip parts of it when writing it too 😉
      Even still, the human impact of the industry is easier to research and write about than the impact on animals – but I think most of us have some idea of what the animal impact looks like, while the human psychological impact is less well known.
      Most of us are overburdened with news these days so I was reticent about tackling this subject now, but it seems like a good time to talk about it since there’s a lot of focus on the meat industry.

  4. Oh dear sorry Jim- the above is not the link that I meant to forward to you! Sent in haste. Sorry bout that. Had something else I wanted to send you and now I can’t find it 🙁

    1. Haha – no worried, Amanda! I was wondering, since the story on Bryan Adams wasn’t exactly “fun” 😉
      But I had seen it earlier yesterday and was thinking of taking a look at it, so your link reminded me.
      I wish the Guardian would do a bit more reporting on positive stories at the moment. Since the Corona outbreak they’ve really focused on outrage (most especially against Trump) and it’s wearing a bit thin…

      1. Yes the Guardian is pretty heavy going! To lighten the load a bit, I quite enjoyed a story they published this morning about Ghana’s singing, dancing pall bearers, titled “Why should you Cry?” Meantime, I see that BA has (humbly) apologised for his rant!

  5. I saw that article too 🙂
    Will check it out once I finish my attempt at remote work for today – I could do with a positive story 😀

  6. Have you seen Paul McCartney’s film on slaughter houses. It is what stopped from eating red meat years ago. I am ashamed to say we still eat fowl and fish but are leaning towards being pescatarians though fish are meat without feet. We’re getting there. PM’s film was brutal. What is done to cows and all other animals, heartbreaking. Thanks for posting your piece.🙏🏽

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Ellen!
      I haven’t watched PMC’s film but I might watch it for research when my stomach is feeling up to it.
      I’m a fan of some of the veggie food from Linda McCartney (his late wife) and pick some up whenever I’m home.
      Your approach makes total sense. Fish are generally free until caught (esp. line-caught fish) while ruminants (cows, sheep, goats, etc.) have the largest climate impact and ethical issues.

      Your book sounds very interesting and I look forward to more of your blog!
      Best wishes,

  7. I reread this. Never thought how horrifying it must be to be a human being doing these jobs. Only thought of the animals but it is traumatic for all concerned. Definitely take a look at McCartney video. Again, thanks for posting this!!

    1. Thank you, Ellen for giving it some time and thought – much appreciated.
      I’m going to wait until I’m in the right state of mind before attempting to watch the video 🙁
      In a couple of weeks I’m going to attempt a user-generated ethical guide – I’ll be asking for everyone to vote with their opinion on the most ethical chocolate brands. Hope you can join in!

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