Credit: Oxfam America

During the explosion of industrialization in America, rapid changes altered the process of meat production in deleterious ways. As described in Upton Sinclair’s notorious work The Jungle, the industry’s deplorable conditions included rotting meat, carcasses covered with feces, overcrowding, and maltreatment of workers. Set in the 20th century in Chicago, Sinclair’s book was far from fiction, and it was all too visceral a depiction of the status of meat production in the United States. As a result, the work affected not just the readers’ hearts, but also their stomachs. It even prompted President Roosevelt’s decision to enact safety laws as a result of the immortal work.

While the emergence of government oversight and creation of food safety laws helped transform meatpacking into a respectable industry, today we are witness to a return to unsanitary and unethical conditions. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the meat processing and animal slaughtering industry has the highest rate of workplace illness in the United States. The industry’s rate of workplace fatalities rivals that of mining and surpasses that of industries like firefighting, police service, and correctional facilities. These facts do more than reflect alarming sanitation and safety concerns for consumers of U.S. poultry or meat products; these statistics also paint a troubling picture of labor conditions in the US—especially for undocumented immigrants and people of ethnic minorities, who comprise a majority of the industry’s workers.

Statistics addressing workplace injuries in the meat processing industry reveal that industry workers face considerable safety risks that are largely due to the unnecessarily dangerous circumstances of their job: because of high speed conveyor belts and no time to break or sharpen instruments, injury or even death by machinery appear all too preventable. Meat processing workers are required to do monotonous, repetitive tasks while standing shoulder-to-shoulder; the protective wear and suiting workers are required to use drastically diminishes their dexterity and their ability to effectively manipulate the dull knives and scissors used to make lacerations and to skin and debone meat. Cue the music: non-stop conveyor belts rumble loudly to carry thousands of chickens for slaughtering and processing, providing each worker with an average of 40 chickens per minute to be handled. Unsurprisingly, this rapid mechanization and production cycle has incredibly dangerous ramifications for workers. Four in every ten workers experienced work related injuries, and have forgone treatment due to fear of receiving disciplinary points for missed shifts. Further, a study of immigrant and Latino poultry processing workers found that poultry processing workers were almost twice as likely as other manual workers to develop carpal tunnel syndrome. Unfortunately, the problems in meatpacking and meat processing are not limited to excessively high speed labor: particularly unsanitary working conditions also plague the industry.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor (OSHA), meat and poultry processing workers are exposed to tremendous amounts of toxins as a result of slaughtering ill animals. In an effort to cut down on workplace illnesses, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) passed new inspection standards in 2014 that placed the onus of monitoring salmonella and campylobacter bacteria in the hands of poultry companies rather than inspectors in order to free up more food inspectors in tasks like monitoring evisceration lines. Most recent reports show that the changes were incredibly ineffective: in 2015 US Department of Labor (USDL) statistics proved that the rate of workplace illness in the poultry processing industry increased after USDA’s inspection changes. Further, USDA’s inspection modernization efforts now require poultry companies themselves to oversee and comply with regulations, which brings into question whether poultry companies have the incentive to report violations. Surveys from poultry processors shows that the poultry industry has not attended to chemical spills and safety hazards effectively: in a report following a study by the Greater Minnesota Worker Center, 81% of survey respondents from the poultry processing industry expressed “occupational health and safety concerns emanating either from chemical spills, injuries or pain, dangerous machines, line speed or wet, freezing, and slippery floors”. Failure to address these issues has seriously negative ramifications for meatpacking and poultry processing workers including increased susceptibility to skin infections, influenza, gastrointestinal infections, pneumonia, meningitis, sepsis; complications like resistance to antibiotics; and increased risk of developing lung cancer. Further, misuse or overuse of chemicals can cause skin rashes, eye, nose, and throat irritation, chemical burns, and upper respiratory issues.

Troubling reports and testimonials from poultry processing workers have also pointed to a companies’ failure to uphold basic rights of their labor force. While bathroom breaks are a right guaranteed by the US Department of Labor, and therefore must be available to all workers, a shocking 80% of workers in poultry processing reported that they were not given bathroom breaks when needed. Many workers are forced to urinate and/or defecate while doing line work, or to resort to wearing diapers to their job to avoid the painful humiliation that the industry demands. In Oxfam’s report “No Relief: Denial of Bathroom Breaks in the Poultry Industry,” testimonials from several Tyson Foods meat processing workers (amongst other companies) across various states demonstrated that most of these workers were not given access to sufficient breaks. Tyson Foods responded by saying the company was saddened by the claims and suggested workers could contact human resources. However, meat processing workers are in a very difficult predicament. If they decide to speak out about their mistreatment, they may easily be fired: the poultry processing industry is characterized by a worker turnover rate of 100% annually. Such high turnover rates and other workplace violations in meat processing may be perpetuated by the absence of unions. To drive down the cost of meat for consumers, some leaders in the meat and poultry industry use questionable hiring practices. By aggressively recruiting undocumented workers from Mexico and Southeast Asia, industry leaders are able to pay workers at rates as low as $7/hour, which arguably impedes unionization in the industry. In the absence of unions, companies have no economic imperative to establish benefits or provide treatments for work-related injuries: workers who agitate for fair treatment are simply replaced. So how can issues related to worker mistreatment, unsanitary standards, and excessively dangerous conditions in meat and poultry processing be resolved?

Policy recommendations

Workforce testimonials and US Department of Labor Statistics prove that the meat and poultry processing industry exemplifies tremendously troubling occupational safety standards and disregard for labor rights. Advocacy groups and investigative journalism have already prompted the process for change by uncovering the unethical, unsanitary, and unsafe nature of the meat processing industry. Now it is time for policy-makers to consider the role of private sector firms, consumers, and government oversight in this problem.

Tasking meat and poultry processing firms with enacting corporate changes appears increasingly unfeasible, perhaps due to the profit-seeking nature of these private sector companies. The meat processing industry is a very profitable business: this year, Tyson Foods, a multi-million-dollar company which, as the largest U.S. producer of beef and pork and the nation’s second-largest poultry producer, represents 25% of total meat processing market, recorded record-high profits. As strong market powers, firms like Tyson Foods have the capacity to uphold their social-corporate responsibilities, but they fundamentally fail to address the basic human rights of their workers. As previously mentioned, the USDA’s decision to allow poultry companies to self-administer its oversight of bacteria, use of chemicals, and assessment of violations only worsened workplace illness rates. With little incentive for meat processing firms to change hiring, management, and oversight habits for betterment of workers, the onus shifts to consumers, government regulation, and advocacy.

Ethical consumer behavior, activism, and insight all have a role in addressing mistreatment of poultry processing workers and meat packagers. However, as a requisite to influencing private sector behavior, consumers must possess both the ethical will and the financial power to purchase products at prices which reflect the products’ true cost. Consumer ethics is not an immediate solution to supporting rights of these workers, nor does it address the root cause of the problem. The repeated failure to ameliorate the safety and ethical standards in meat processing underscores the importance of increased government regulation to actualize changes.

An examination of USDA’s inspection modernization efforts should be enacted immediately, and should be tasked by oversight bodies like OSHA, as well as third-party investigators for quality control. In the short term, appropriate government bodies including the Department of Labor need to develop extensions to increase oversight, analyze malpractices, and indicate the most pressing issues in the meat processing industry as a whole. This process could be complemented by research on best practices or by recommending corporate strategies to mitigate these issues. Following analysis, law and policy-makers must develop mechanisms to hold meat and poultry processing firms responsible for health, safety, and labor violations. Examples of enforcement mechanisms include: requiring firms to develop codes of workplace ethics; obliging third-party oversight in hiring and onboarding to investigate workplace discrimination of minority groups; creating institutional roles like ombudsmen to investigate complaints of workers; and necessitating operation oversight to return to the jurisdiction of public sector investigators rather than the meat and poultry processing firms themselves. Igniting change in the meat processing industry will set an important precedent for labor relations, economic equality, and social justice in the United States. In an increasingly multicultural landscape, supporting the rights of minorities and immigrant communities is as important for ensuring a productive labor force and competitive economy as it is for upholding the core democratic values of our political institutions.

Elizabeth Sweitzer

Written by Elizabeth Sweitzer

Elizabeth Sweitzer is a Masters of Public Administration Candidate (’18) at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA), concentrating in International Development. At CIPA, she aspires to address global food insecurity using data-driven insights to influence evidence based policy decisions. Prior to joining CIPA, Elizabeth completed a Fulbright Fellowship in...
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