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Inside Big Ag: On the Dilemma of the Meat Industry

[clock] 13-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 2015

The Chain: Farm, Factory,  and the Fate of Our Food. By Ted Genoways.  HarperCollins, 2014.  320p. HB, $26.99.The worst thing about sausage is that it has to be made. We know this because a generation of journalists has infiltrated North America’s feedlots and slaughterhouses to expose the apparatus that churns out mass quantities of commodity meat. American agribusiness—wreaking havoc on animals, laborers, consumers, and planet Earth—is generally understood to be irredeemable. Today, enlightened consumers wouldn’t be caught dead near a Big Mac. For what it’s worth, that’s progress.

The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s  Food Business. By Christopher Leonard.  Simon & Schuster, 2014.  384p. HB, $28.00.The reformist lexicon that fuels the outrage resonates with the political right, left, and everyone in between. A libertarian Virginia farmer fumes over the “industrial agriculture complex.” An Oxford-educated activist vents that “globalized corporate agriculture” has left us “stuffed and starved.” A poet-farmer whose horse-drawn plow breaks up Kentucky soil laments how “the ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach.” Yikes (and yuck).

Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production. By Nicolette Hahn Niman. Chelsea Green, 2014. 288p. PB, 9.95.Such visceral disgust makes one wonder: Just who are these people monopolizing the world’s food supply? Indeed, the strangest thing about antiagribusiness angst is that it rages full tilt without a real understanding of the machinations that empower the corporate leviathan. We’re routinely hit with dramatic visuals: the slaughterhouses, endless corn and soy fields, obesity charts, deforestation photos, undercover animal-abuse films, and battery-caged birds. But we ignore the sterile office space where the sausage-making playbook is written.

Two books—Ted Genoways’s The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food and Christopher Leonard’s The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business—begin to fill this gap. Genoways, a contributing writer at Mother Jones (and former editor of this publication), and Leonard, an investigative reporter, offer respective portrayals of Hormel and Tyson Foods that show how the brutality of the abattoir reflects the sangfroid of the boardroom, where cuts of a more metaphorical sort enhance the wealth of salaried executives at the expense of disposable wage workers.

The central conceit of Genoways’s exposé of Hormel Foods is something called “line speed.” Actually, it’s more than a conceit. For Hormel, line speed is a lifeline. It’s the calibrated rate at which 30,000 hogs pass through two Midwestern slaughterhouses every day. That’s about 7.7 million hogs a year. When a company is handling that much pork, the smallest increase on the cut line immediately translates into a heap of profit.

But not everyone benefits. If the classic portrayal of increased line speed ends with a panicked Lucille Ball popping chocolates into her mouth, Hormel’s version results in lost fingers and repetitive-stress pain. “The speed of work,” one immigrant-worker advocate told Genoways, “is causing an epidemic of quietly crippling injuries.” At Quality Pork Processors (Hormel’s sole meatpacking supplier), faster line speed leads to more debilitating problems. The Chain’s most intriguing story line tracks the medical saga of slaughterhouse workers who suffered crushing headaches, numbness, and foot pain so severe they couldn’t walk.

This set of symptoms—which was eventually diagnosed as progressive inflammatory neuropathy (PIN)—appeared in workers who stood cheek by jowl on the plant’s “head table.” The head table is the section of the slaughterhouse where employees pressure-blast pig brains into sludge, leaving a “fine rosy mist” to hover in the air. Koreans buy the end product to thicken stir-fry meals.

Not only did sick workers share airspace polluted with aerosolized brain matter, but they also noticed that their symptoms appeared simultaneously as the pace of work quickened. “The line speed, the line speed,” recalled the Austin, Minnesota, neurologist who first encountered these patients. “That’s what we heard over and over again.” As Genoways came to learn, increased line speed required an automated nozzle to blow away porcine brains. The automated nozzle frequently misfired, sending more brain mist into the air to be breathed by a hapless workforce.

But PIN was the result of more than a shaky nozzle. Its etiology is rooted in complexities more corporate than medical. In essence, workers were breathing in brain matter because Hormel followed a managerial logic that insisted pressure from the top should boost efficiency at the bottom without incurring added costs—including health care and workers’ comp.

The top part was easy. Between 2004 and 2006, Hormel negotiated a loophole in Iowa’s anti–vertical integration law large enough to put an end to independent pig farming. Suddenly unable to compete, independent Iowa pig farmers bowed out, either selling their hog operations or signing short-term contracts with the giants. With the pork industry monopolized, faster production—rather than innovation—became the quickest way to increase profits.

The bottom part was something more sinister. Staffed by a largely Mexican immigrant workforce, many hired with forged documents, QPP was positioned to do something unusually cold-blooded: selectively investigate the documentation of workers diagnosed with PIN. Given the cost of health care and workers’ comp, sick workers were expensive workers. Did QPP stoop that low? Did it specifically target this vulnerable cohort for immigration review?

“Never, ever, ever,” one executive told Genoways. But the numbers tell a different story. Of the fourteen workers who tested positive for PIN and were approved for workers’ comp, six were investigated, busted, and fired. 

Genoways’s narrative—which lacks hope from beginning to end—is not as chain-like as the PIN scandal might suggest. Every plotline harbors a tangled subplot. Morality-tale simplicity routinely yields to more conflicted realities. Unions tacitly encourage line speed because a faster pace justifies hiring more line workers. Subjects of managerial callousness don’t always play the role of angelic victim—“gotta do what you gotta do to push those fucking pigs,” one declares. Nothing, in short, is black and white. Fortunately, Genoways thrives in the gray area, masterfully capturing how power at the top induces pain at the bottom at the company that brought us Spam.

What Genoways does for Hormel and pigs, Christopher Leonard, in The Meat Racket, does for Tyson and chickens. The vertical integration that allowed Hormel to intensify line speed enabled Tyson to become the largest meat-processing company in the world. Leonard, like Genoways, brilliantly illuminates the managerial wizardry that orchestrated that transition. The upshot, again, is unpleasant: The Tyson empire not only ruins livelihoods but profits from that ruin.

Although Leonard also examines the beef and pork industries, he devotes most of the book to the trials of the chicken farmer, because it’s the chicken farmer who, like Hormel’s head-table grunts, absorbs the hardest hits so that Tyson can maximize profits of $780 million a year.

This relationship between Tyson’s farmers and Tyson’s bottom line is carefully structured. A history of purchasing chicken company after chicken company—at least thirty-three of them between 1967 and 1992—eventually enabled Tyson to dominate the chicken business from a chicken’s “conception until its consumption.” This vertically integrated arrangement, according to Leonard, authorized the company to collect “every penny of profit to be made along the way” because every stage of production—every hatchery, feed supplier, trucker, and slaughterhouse used by Tyson—became an in-house operation. Every stage, that is, except farming.

Odd as it seems, the only sector that the world’s largest chicken supplier does not own is chicken farming. The risks are too high. Chickens, despite having their genetics hammered into homogeneity, refuse to fatten at the same rate, stay healthy for the same six-week grow period, or metabolize feed the way a machine metabolizes oil. Industry has aggressively reengineered the chicken, including reducing growing time from seventy-three to fifty-two days. But for all the fine-tuning, a chicken remains a chicken and, as such, a stubbornly mercurial critter.

So Tyson fobs off the risk onto contract growers. Sometimes things go relatively well for the farmers. Tyson drops off feed and chicks, the chicks fatten into chickens, Tyson hauls them away, and the grower gets a modest six-week fee, much of which covers the mortgage payment on the grow-out barns.

But just as often something goes wrong. Birds sicken and die for no obvious reason. A cold snap sends propane costs through the roof. The electricity bill is too high. Under such circumstances, farmers either take the hit or bow out. If growers stay in the game, Leonard suggests they’ll earn between five and ten dollars an hour. At the end of the day, these aren’t farmers at all. They’re industrial agriculture’s version of the sharecropper.

It’s obviously a rotten system for those on the other end of a Tyson contract. But those who dare complain—or worse, threaten to unionize—are summarily punished. Tyson’s vertical integration enables the company to dictate contracts that enfeeble growers in insidious ways. This happens because the chicken farmer, as Leonard explains, “has no control over the health of his birds or the quality of his feed.” As a result, an unruly contract grower will quickly become the unknowing recipient of inferior food and sick hatchlings—in essence, the season’s dregs. Contractually, he can do nothing about the hand Tyson deals him. His numbers will drop and, after a few lackluster growing periods, the manager, citing the low figures, will fire the farmer, leaving him to default on his bank loan. What Tyson gets out of the move is both the removal of a troublesome farmer and space for a new farmer to get a new loan to build a new set of barns. In Leonard’s story, those new farmers come from Laos.

At this point, one might wonder why lenders would bankroll this game of canceled contracts and subsequent foreclosures. The answer comes from the Farm Service Agency, a USDA program that, according to Leonard, “spends hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to make sure that there will always be cheap loans for a new chicken farm when an older one is put out of business.” Translation: You, taxpayer, are paying for Tyson to screw over its farmers.

With the FSA program, Tyson Foods is fully exposed as a scandalous operation that has enriched executives while leaving the American taxpayers on the hook whenever chickens and those who fatten them don’t behave as they should. Meat racket, indeed. 

Such dark portrayals pose a problem for concerned consumers who want nothing more to do with the Tysons and Hormels of the world but have no intention of giving up meat. In doing so, these books demand that ethically minded meat consumers find a viable alternative to the industrial model and endorse that alternative as an act of political resistance to business as usual. To a large extent, this is what the “food movement” is all about.

Ideally, this alternative would aim high. It would enrich the lives of animals, reverse global warming, feed the world, improve our personal health, treat workers with dignity, and even strengthen the fabric of our communities. It would belie the conventional wisdom that eating meat harms the planet, human health, and the men and women who process everything except the squeal. It would insist, in other words, that we eat the right kind of animals, the kind that never enters into a Tyson contract.

In Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, Nicolette Hahn Niman tells us how to do this. Niman is a rancher-lawyer who has long supported eating non-factory-farmed animals as a way to counter the dominance of Big Agriculture. As her glitzy blurbs (Alice Waters, Dan Barber, Barry Estabrook) suggest, her fan base comprises staunch foodie founders who obviously endorse Niman as a movement spokesperson.

Niman’s message, which comes off as a celebratory antidote to the increasingly common vilification of meat, aims to please. Who doesn’t want to be told that it’s possible to eat beef and save the world? Eat beef and improve your health? Eat beef and help cows? Eat beef and support noble farmers such as Niman? I suspect most readers of this book open it up ready to be convinced.

Unfortunately, even a cursory look into Defending Beef reveals that conscientious consumers put off by the Tyson-Hormel model will finish the book still facing a dilemma. Niman, perhaps the most outspoken advocate of nonindustrial meat at work today, has cobbled together a wobbly account of the “right kind” of beef.

“I come armed with data,” she begins. And she does. But it’s strategically selected and poorly interpreted. For example, when discussing the greenhouse-gas emissions caused by grass-fed beef (the kind that Niman raises) she fails to note that methane, which grass-fed cows emit more of than factory-farmed cows, is twenty-one times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Likewise, when she mentions nitrous oxide emissions from cows, she fails to note that this gas is more than 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. But these numbers are essential to note in any discussion of climate change. Niman, certainly aware of the figures, ignores them.

In another case, Niman quotes the press release for a study blaming beef-related nitrous oxide emissions on synthetic fertilizers, which are exclusively linked to industrial agriculture. Niman then uses this finding to promote grass-fed over industrial beef. What she doesn’t disclose is that the study’s authors conclude that what is needed is more efficient use of fertilizers within preexisting agricultural systems. “We are not vilifying fertilizer,” the lead author notes. Contrary to what Niman implies, the document she cites says nothing about the findings supporting grass-fed systems.

Finally, Niman’s treatment of Allan Savory—a guru of holistic grazing—is even more suspect. Against all conventional wisdom, Savory claims that quadrupling the world’s population of cattle would reverse global warming. Not mitigate. Not combat. Reverse. His work has been roundly criticized by rangeland-management experts and wildlife biologists alike.

After favorably summarizing Savory’s thesis, Niman references three studies supporting several of Savory’s peripheral ecological claims. But she excludes considerable peer-reviewed research showing that, as one comprehensive study recently concluded, “the vast majority of experimental evidence does not support” Savory’s arguments for holistic grazing. Without so much as an obligatory nod to Savory’s detractors, she steers clear of an entire body of research purportedly proving Savory’s work to be, as the Guardian’s George Monbiot puts it, “too good to be true.”

Such sleight-of-hand maneuvers occur throughout the book, turning what might have been a fair assessment of “the data” into a polemic that varies between sounding like a utopian panacea and a denialist screed. Whatever it is, Niman’s defense, when viewed with the skepticism it warrants, does little to assuage concerned consumers that a genuine non-industrial alternative exists to supplant the commodity meat produced by the likes of Tyson Foods and Hormel.

Culturally speaking, we are not in a good place with our food. Indeed, if there’s a collective takeaway in these volumes, it might be that humans, who have only been practicing agriculture for a small fraction of history, made a fateful error when we chose to domesticate animals. Today, the distinction between the industrial model and the nonindustrial alternative represented by Niman might seem fundamental. However, when they are stripped of their defining rhetoric and juxtaposed, what inevitably emerges is the commonality of abuse—whether it be of people, animals, or the environment. It’s an abuse trenchant enough to compel us to radically reinterpret the way we eat. 


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Jesse's picture
Jesse · 1 year ago

Thanks to VQR for publishing this piece, and thanks to James McWilliams for his excellent analysis. For those who want to learn more, I strongly recommend his latest book, The Modern Savage.

Peter 's picture
Peter · 1 year ago

Thank you for writing this. I really enjoyed it

Jane's picture
Jane · 1 year ago

Sharing...hoping that those who still eat animals blissfully thinking that they're supporting "humanely raised meat," will think a little more deeply.

John T. Maher's picture
John T. Maher · 1 year ago

I believe Max Weber, following Marx, commented on the reproduction of the sociologucal conditions of capitalism's relentess drive to extract capital at the base level of the worker and the sociopathy this produces as workers literalty become objectified machines and then turn on each other and their families. Many have written on this. I must read the two books cited. To my reading so far there is no finer book on the broader topic of extraction than Nicole Shukin's Animal Capital.

On a meta level I ask, why should anyone care about the immiseration of slaughterhouse workers? Or McDonald's worker's asking for $15/hour? Why shouln't the entire unsustainable House of Cards come tumbling down as workers reject underpaying and crippling injuries? Well the answer is that neoliberalism exists to structure the economy in an effort to drive down working conditions and the cost of labor and perpetuate animal comodification in its variant upon relentless extraction. Only when profits decrease and the model loses money management will switch to Mc Boca Burgers. How to crash McD & Co?

Savory and Niman are not worth discoursing upon. They are enablers in much the same league as climate deniers. Better to focus on the problem of an agriculture of flesh than two warped individuals.

Cool new James pic which looks like he is experiencing the Rapture. Resembles baroque religious art, specifically the expressions in Bernini's 'Ecstasy of St. Theresa'. Is anyone dangling a piece of bacon off-camera [joke]? I do not recall a similar view in of Manhattan in Austin. 



robyn's picture
robyn · 1 year ago

I am always appreciative of your writing, your perspective and your contribution to our earth. Thank You!

Adam's picture
Adam · 1 year ago

I am about a third of the way into Niman's book. I am reading it to get what I had hoped would be a sound defense. Even a layperson in the ways of agriculture can see what she is doing. She is rebutting research results that sheds an unfavorable light on her position by providing research results that sheds favorable light on her position. I find the whole thing very subjective. I am looking forward to seeing if and how she handles the ethical issues. 

Kevin Schneider's picture
Kevin Schneider · 1 year ago

As always, McWilliams hits the nail on the head. I'm a plant-based food policy advocate-attorney, and here's my attempt at imagining parts of a new food system: CONCENTRATING ON HEALTHY FEEDING OPERATIONS: THE NATIONAL SCHOOL LUNCH PROGRAM, “CULTURED MEAT,” AND THE PATH TO A SUSTAINABLE FOOD FUTURE 

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous · 1 year ago

I choose to be vegan cause animals are just too much like us.They feel pain just like we do.That`s why people can`t bare to see an animal being slaughtered,we can empathize with their pain.I don`t see anyone showing us how to mass murder animals in a kind way.Why don`t you share a humane slaughter house video with us?Your message is so hypocritical.On one hand you pretend it`s a healthier and less cruel practice then on the other hand you pretend that 7 billion people can kill billions of animals for food without mistreating them.
So why don`t you share an article  on how we can mass murder animals in a kind healthy way?


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