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Food Safety and Processing Perspective

Terrence O’Keefe, WATT’s content director, provides his perspective on everything from animal agriculture trends that impact our food chain to food-safety related issues affecting chicken and egg production. O’Keefe has covered the poultry industry as an editor for more than a decade and also brings his experience in plant management and poultry production to comment on today’s issues.
Poultry Processing & Slaughter / Broilers & Layers

Beef slaughter plant undercover prose turns out to be kind of boring

April 22, 2013

When I heard that a writer had taken a job as a U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service line inspector at a Cargill beef slaughter facility for two months and then written a lengthy expose about his experiences, I was intrigued. I looked up the May 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine online, and I hit the dreaded pay wall. Since I write a blog as part of my job, I figured the $19.97 one year subscription cost would qualify as a business expense, so I got out my credit card.

As a public service, I would like to recommend that you save the $19.97 and not bother subscribing to Harper’s to read, The Way of All Flesh: Undercover in an industrial slaughterhouse, by Ted Conover. This article isn’t very enlightening for anyone who knows anything about a slaughter plant. It also has some inaccurate information regarding liver abscesses and antibiotic use in cattle production.

Conover misinterprets information that he overhears on the production line and seems to believe that antibiotic use actually causes liver abscesses. He quotes a person who he identifies as a drug company rep visiting the plant as saying, “The more antibiotics, the more abscesses.”

Conover complains about the smell of the abattoir at the plant and equates urinating cattle with fear rather than with a natural bodily function. He also seemed concerned about the use of cameras in and around the facility and transmission of the video to corporate offices. I am aware of a number of uses for this video for employee safety training as well as for food safety auditing. I guess the thought that big brother is watching you in the workplace is supposed to be bad, but this video is a quick easy way to audit things like hand washing after break and other activities when the supervisor or QC aren’t around.

If you are interested in reading what seems to be a fairly honest description of the initial impression of a city guy in a slaughter plant or the account of a middle aged desk jockey adapting to working on the production line, this is a good read.

I have never worked in a beef plant, but I have worked in turkey and broiler slaughter facilities. I first went to work in a plant when I was 31 years old and had spent the four years prior riding a desk. I have small hands and very narrow wrists and had problems with numbness in my hands from working construction during college. I would not have passed a pre-employment physical to work on the line. Fortunately for me, my online work experience lasted for six weeks going department to department, and then I was a supervisor.

Conover accurately describes some of the physical issues that workers, including apparently USDA inspectors, can experience performing tasks in processing plants. Not everyone is cut out for this type of work; body shape and size as well as prior injuries can make the work difficult or impossible for some people to perform over an extended period of time. Just as not everyone can be a seamstress, roofer or carpenter.

After reading the article, I got the impression that Conover couldn't really find anything to knock the USDA or Cargill about about after his two months on the job. Death is never a pleasant thing, and people who live in the city can sometimes spend a good part of their lives avoiding first-hand knowledge of it. Any reasonable person who has no experience either with hunting or with butchering has a reaction on their first visit to a slaughter plant. I know that I did, but I also looked at the equipment and marveled at how everything worked in unison. I went on to be day shift slaughter manager at one plant and and plant manager at another. Animals die to make T-bone steaks, boneless breast and luncheon meat. I'm certainly not ashamed that I helped to humanely raise and slaughter animals that became part of the food chain that sustains us all. I'm just glad that man is an apex predator. 

If you still want to read the article, I would recommend waiting until the magazine is available in your local library. Just remember, I warned you; it is long and unremarkable. I would like to know how he was able to get some long direct quotations in the article without using a recording device. I could sure use help in that areaI need my digital recorder. 

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