Published with permission from the Winter 2020 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter. The PP is funded entirely by reader subscription, available only in hard copy for $12/yr. Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244.
Back to The Jungle Part II
by Marty Ryan
In the Fall 2019 Prairie Progressive, I wrote about the effect of increased line speeds on slaughterhouse workers. Briefly, prior to October, 2019, a pork slaughterhouse employee had a little over 18 hogs per house pass by. There was a federal rule that prevented packinghouses from running a line faster than 1106 hogs per hour. That’s about one hog every 3.2 minutes. If you don’t think that’s very much, try doing the same task every 3.5 minutes for an hour. You’ll get the picture.
Now, due to a federal regulation change called The New Swine Inspection System, the sky’s the limit. Hogs can go past an employee at the rate of… well, pigs are now going so fast it appears as though they are flying. Moreover, you can’t just squeeze another employee into that line. They’re too close to each other as it is, and they work with knives—sharp knives.
Let’s look into the consumption end of the controversial rule. You may not eat pork liver, lung, heart, or other internal organs, but a visual inspection by a trained and qualified meat inspector can lead to a decision that something might be wrong with the carcass (ham, bacon, pork chop) by closely examining the offal. When an internal organ shows a defect, foreign material, or an abnormality, the corresponding carcass is likely to have a related problem.
The new federal rule removes up to 40% of meat inspectors at a slaughterhouse. Those are good union jobs where meat inspectors check every single liver, heart, stomach, and carcass, ensuring that the pork we eat is safe and clean. The government, with a nod from the packers, believes that company employees can do those jobs, while meat inspectors focus on sanitary conditions. Does it seem as though having a loyal employee doing the work, rather than an independent government employee, results in any sort of a conflict of interest? That work includes looking for signs of enteric pathogens, defined as “gramnegative bacteria, such as Escherichia coli (better known as E-coli), Salmonella, and Campylobacter jejuni,” the latter found more often in poultry.
There are three major companies in the United States that slaughter and process 57% of the nation’s hogs (compared to 32% in 1985). You’ve heard of Big Oil and Big Pharma; now there is Big Pork.
Smithfield Foods, owner of the Farmland Foods label as well as John Morrell, is owned by WH Group out of Hong Kong. It slaughters 30 million hogs per year. JBS USA (formerly Swift) is a wholly owned subsidiary of JBS, a Brazilian company that also owns Pilgrim’s Pride chicken. The third Big Pork is Tyson Foods, an American company known mostly for chicken, but slaughters hogs at its IBP locations.
All three of these companies are vertical integration food companies, meaning they own the operation from piglet to sow, and in some cases own the entire farm, the packing and processing facilities, as well as the trucking and marketing companies that transport and sell their products. Often, these Big Pork companies contract with farmers to produce pigs, selling the pigs solely to the packer. Those farrowing houses you smell in the countryside are most likely owned by the multinational companies who employ their own personnel to manage them, and pay the farmer who owns the land rent each year or month for use of the land containing the hog raising facilities and waste lagoons. A farmer may also benefit from the manure produced by these operations.
JBS, with a plant in Worthington, MN, has been the recipient of $62 million in bailout money intended to supplement farmers hurt by the trade war. JBS owners have admitted “to bribing hundreds of top officials in [Brazil] and have spent time in jail over the corruption scandal.”
National Pork Producers Council President David Herring, a pork producer from Lillington, N.C. said: “We applaud the USDA for introducing a new inspection system that incentivizes investment in new technologies while ensuring a safe supply of wholesome American pork.”
Safe? Not for slaughterhouse workers. Not for the child who eats a hot dog that was tainted with meat that got past the company employee. Not for the employee assigned to recognize an enteric pathogen and who stops the line to ensure that gram-negative bacteria, such as E-coli and Salmonella do not get into the food supply. Too many stops and that employee’s job will be like skating on thin ice.
I am going to continue to eat what little pork I have in the past. I like my bacon and my barbequed back ribs. I also like to support the union families who rely upon those packinghouse jobs. However, the next time you sit down to enjoy an Iowa Chop, be sure to say grace. It may be your last prayer.
—Marty Ryan is a former United Food & Commercial Workers business agent who blogs for Iowa Public Policy Advocates at iowappa.com