The "jungle" is still dangerous - and demeaning
February 22, 2021 2:03 PM   Subscribe

John Oliver's recent segment on the disgusting working conditions in the meatpacking industry (YouTube, USA only) is shocking -- or it might be to anyone who hasn't been paying attention. But eighteen years ago, anthropologist Steve Striffler worked undercover at Tyson Foods in Arkansas and found a racially segregated workforce already pushed to the breaking point by downsizing management (free essay).

Coronavirus has just added to the risks of this work - especially as the conditions in a meat packing facility, even a well-run one, are conducive to the spread of the virus.

Striffler's full 2002 article in Labour History is also available online.
posted by jb (32 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
Eric Schlosser's 2012 'America’s Slaughterhouses Aren’t Just Killing Animals' is cited.
posted by box at 3:03 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]


This is really important work. Forgive me for needing to say--

Steve! I know Steve. He's a super sweet guy. I'm so glad his work is being read.
posted by umbú at 3:14 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]




For how inhumane, and inhuman, slaughterhouses have become, there’s the story from the fall over managers at Tyson placing bets on how many workers on the floor of the plant would catch corona.

Well paid, white workers, overseeing a workforce of underpaid, often undocumented workers in high stress, low safety conditions, gambling on how many workers their own lax policies and failure to protect their staff would endanger. In a follow up, supposedly the managers were fired, but the real question, to me, is when an industry bases itself on exploiting undocumented workers, why is it only the workers that ever face consequences? I don’t know of a clearer demonstration that shows more clearly that rules and laws are only for the poor than factory owners being allowed to not only continue the practice, but have done it so openly and for so long that it’s a part of their business plan.

I’m not, in any way, against immigration, and I welcome changes in policy that make it easier for people to move to wherever makes their life better (I did it, it shouldn’t be closed to others), but goddamn, you have a whole segment of society screaming about immigrants and undocumented workers, usually big fans of “lawnorder” yet the factory owners and managers who are also breaking the law never seem to feel any form of punishment.

I’m not asking a question. I know the answer. I just think it’s ridiculous that, given The Jungle, as an expose of the meat packing industry in Chicago, caused such uproar that it lead to changes in how things are done, yet, here we are, back again, with the same, and worse happening, and there is no nationwide response. We’re watching a sequel to the book, and it’s just as shitty as most sequels are. I guess the only lesson the meat packing industry learned is keep the food clean, because the only time the average American will give a shit about what happens on the kill floor is when the food gets tainted, and it directly, personally affects them. Not injuries, not maimings, not the exploitation of migrant labor.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:14 PM on February 22 [46 favorites]


when an industry bases itself on exploiting undocumented workers, why is it only the workers that ever face consequences?

There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.
posted by flabdablet at 4:44 PM on February 22 [24 favorites]


(YouTube, USA only)
8b2ae3e344331eb45923e68bab7f7720b202e208, planet wide
posted by flabdablet at 4:59 PM on February 22 [7 favorites]


In line with inhumane human conditions, consider that many slaughterhouses are horrible places for animals to die. There are labels to inspect for animal cruelty in slaughter such as AMI Meat Institute (Temple Grandin) guidelines along with Certified Humane inspections. I wonder if the slaughterhouses having these certifications/inspections treat their workers any better. Just curious as this would be a good way to truly buy humane. Note: much of the country does not have access to special types of certified meat, but it would be a good start to looking at how inspections and certifications could help shoppers know the difference and push supermarkets to make change from production to sales.
posted by ichimunki at 5:40 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]


In a follow up, supposedly the managers were fired, but the real question, to me, is when an industry bases itself on exploiting undocumented workers, why is it only the workers that ever face consequences?

Exactly. Getting rid of individual wrongdoers while leaving in place the system that allowed - encouraged - them to so easily do wrong in the first place, is pretty much meaningless.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:52 PM on February 22 [8 favorites]


Meatpacking had unions, now it mostly doesn't. Meatpacking is horribly polluting, especially pork, with blooms of animal waste into the ocean that are visible from space. I don't know why all that waste isn't made into fertilizer; I guess using fossil fuels to produce fertilizer is cheaper, esp. when meat producers are not held accountable for the pollution. In the US, meats, poultry & eggs are often contaminated with e.coli and salmonella. De-regulation probably plays a part. Inhumane for workers, cruel to animals, filthy products, industry that pollutes a lot and contributes to Climate Change. Yep. I don't see a lot of enthusiasm for addressing this at all.

flabdablet, the youtube comments is ??
posted by theora55 at 6:17 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]


It's often possible to test the hypothesis that what appears to be a SHA1 checksum was probably derived from geoblocked content you might be interested in by pasting it into a reliable BitTorrent client.

I've recently applied this test to mefi's own 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a but results so far remain inconclusive.
posted by flabdablet at 7:10 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]


Well paid, white workers, overseeing a workforce of underpaid, often undocumented workers in high stress, low safety conditions

Not that long ago, Tyson was either encouraging or directly supporting (depending on who you ask) unlawful entry from Mexico because they couldn't get enough people to work in their plants even when paying a decent amount above minimum wage at the time.

More recently, people were blaming various disease outbreaks on the very people Tyson had been encouraging to migrate. Some of those people actually worked at Tyson's fucking corporate office and all of them benefited mightily from the economic activity those immigrants brought with them and the cheap meat their labor enabled.
posted by wierdo at 7:13 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]


individual wrongdoers

Not to take the focus from the main topic of the thread -- but this is not a great way to refer to people whose only "wrongdoing" is crossing an imaginary line without the approved paperwork.
posted by Not A Thing at 7:24 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


They were talking about the fired managers
posted by thelonius at 8:02 PM on February 22 [12 favorites]


In pretty much every state with a lot of meatpacking plants, and Latino agricultural workers, COVID numbers are huge. The Yakima area counties have the highest COVID numbers per population here in Washington. So awful.

Capitalism with little regulations and Unions...
posted by Windopaene at 9:07 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


Not to take the focus from the main topic of the thread -- but this is not a great way to refer to people whose only "wrongdoing" is crossing an imaginary line without the approved paperwork.
—————-
They were talking about the fired managers.


Just confirming that yes, I was using “wrongdoers” to refer to the managers. I apologize for not making that clearer!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:13 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


My young teens read a fictional account of these troubling conditions with Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel “Zombie Baseball Beatdown” and are glad for the news coverage.
posted by childofTethys at 10:16 PM on February 22


childofTethys, not being familiar with that book, just reading a couple blurbs about it, and I think I might have just found a book for my students who are all very mixed level, with varying degrees of having lived overseas and having near, but not there yet, native English ability. Thank you for that. The next question, does my school give me the okay?

I was also going to suggest, if your kids were into that book, that they might find The Jungle (which the thread title references) interesting, if stunningly depressing, if they haven't gotten to it yet. I read it was an early teen, and it blew me away.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:40 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


The basic question is whether we, as a society, are willing to stop demanding cheap meat. A whole chicken, ethically raised and slaughtered, should cost between 20 and 30 dollars, whereas a grocery store whole chicken is about 5 bucks.

As long as a chicken must cost about 5 bucks, the existing meat industry will continue.
posted by rockindata at 3:02 AM on February 23 [22 favorites]


you have a whole segment of society screaming about immigrants and undocumented workers, usually big fans of “lawnorder” yet the factory owners and managers who are also breaking the law never seem to feel any form of punishment.

I have a friend like this. She will rant and rave about "illegals", her vitriolic rage tinged with more than a little racism. But when I ask her about the white collar scumbags who knowingly hire these people who are simply trying to make a better life for themselves and their families she clams up and then issues platitudes about how the "lib'ruls" have made it impossible for these hellholes to stay in operation without relying on undocumented laborers. Then she'll weave it into a grand conspiracy where these laborers vote illegally for Democrats, etc.

Thanks to COVID I haven't seen her in over a year, which is not a small blessing.
posted by drstrangelove at 3:49 AM on February 23 [13 favorites]


eggs are often contaminated with e.coli and salmonella

Sorry as this is tangential, but in almost all the world we do not refrigerate eggs. My understanding is we do not use the same factory processes that strip off the natural outer egg coating, thus they are relatively safe from contamination.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:19 AM on February 23


Sorry as this is tangential, but in almost all the world we do not refrigerate eggs. My understanding is we do not use the same factory processes that strip off the natural outer egg coating, thus they are relatively safe from contamination.

It's more than that - the US process works on the assumption that eggs will be contaminated with faeces given the prevalence of battery cage farming, so eggs are washed with hot water and sprayed with sanitiser and dried by machine. This in itself has a risk of a wet shell becoming a breeding ground for bacteria, and it's hot so that the egg doesn't contract and draw dirty water inside the shell. As you say, it also damages the cuticle, which increases the risk of contamination getting inside the shell. As a result, the eggs need to be refrigerated immediately and kept cold.

EU standards are that the focus is on keeping the egg clean in the first place by giving hens more space, though "free-range" doesn't mean as much as people think it does. The eggs are not washed at all (as it's thought to *increase* the risk of pushing bacteria inside the shell), keeping the cuticle intact, and they're stored at room temperature. It's still recommended to keep them in the fridge if the ambient is likely to rise above 20 degC. Vaccinating the hens themselves against salmonella is also standard - this lead to a dramatic drop in salmonella cases in the UK in the 90s - but the FDA has decided it's too expensive to mandate.

Incidentally, food standards in the US are one of the reasons I was against Brexit. It's proponents saw a big trade deal with the US as one of the main prizes, and that will inevitably mean accepting US agriculture exports. US standards for safety, the animals, and of course the workers are far lower than the EU. So we'd end up with potentially cheaper food, but much more likely to give you food poisoning. And the UK would likely have to lower its own standards (and farmers too to cut costs) to compete with cheap imports in the domestic market, and lose any chance of exporting to the EU, which is still substantial. Brexit export costs alone is sending some agriculture to the wall; a trade deal with the US could finish off a lot more, and harm public health, worker pay and conditions and animal welfare to boot.

Direct comparisons of food poisoning rates are definitely tricky, with plenty of caveats, but in 2018:
"The US reports higher rates of illness from foodborne illness than in the UK. Annually, 14.7% (48m) of the US population suffer from an illness, versus 1.5% (1m) in the UK"

"The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report around 380 deaths in the US each year attributed to foodborne salmonella poisoning. The most recent epidemiological lab data from Public Health England, 2006 to 2015 shows no deaths in England and Wales from salmonella."
posted by Absolutely No You-Know-What at 5:37 AM on February 23 [21 favorites]


Sorry as this is tangential, but in almost all the world we do not refrigerate eggs. My understanding is we do not use the same factory processes that strip off the natural outer egg coating, thus they are relatively safe from contamination.

We have our own chickens which provide us with 100% of the eggs we consume. We do not wash these eggs until we're ready to use them and they can sit out for days or even a couple of weeks with no ill effect.
posted by drstrangelove at 5:38 AM on February 23


Meatbomb, you're correct that in the US, eggs are required to be washed, therefore must be refrigerated. Other countries are more stringent about clean food products. The 2 facts are both accurate and I don't think 1 is dependent on the other. I think salmonella is inside the egg, not on it. I should have a cite for the infection rates, sorry, I don't.
posted by theora55 at 6:24 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


they couldn't get enough people to work in their plants even when paying a decent amount above minimum wage at the time.
According to the "free market" that means wages are too fucking low and working conditions are too fucking shitty and dangerous. But, of course, hiring illegally (illegal for the company) is more profitable. Capitalism is flexible that way.
posted by theora55 at 6:26 AM on February 23 [11 favorites]


For folks who are interested in shopping humane or doing something to shift toward humane practices in farms and slaughterhouses, I encourage you to look at the ASPCA Shop with Your Heart campaign (https://www.aspca.org/shopwithyourheart). They had a petition against Tyson Farms which closed on June 14th and they are working on the legislative end to change animal practices and keep workers safe. As a disclaimer, I used to work at the ASPCA. I left the ASPCA and now work on shark conservation. There were real problems within the ASPCA (like many American workplaces) but I felt their farm program was one of the best programs they have to make real and needed change with achievable goals.

Some of the things I got out of the experience were how to identify humanely raised eggs and meat and what I could do to help change the system as a consumer and a citizen. Actions that made me feel like I was doing something: 1. Talking to the managers at my local supermarkets and asking for certified humane meat and eggs. Usually, supermarkets have certified humane eggs but not meat. 2. Calling my legislators to advocate for certain rules (especially if you are in a conservative district) 3. Buying humanely raised eggs and meat. Meat is hard to get but Bel Campo (https://belcampo.com/) is pretty amazing with great welfare practices.
posted by ichimunki at 6:41 AM on February 23 [5 favorites]


> I have a friend like this. She will rant and rave about "illegals", her vitriolic rage tinged with more than a little racism. But when I ask her about the white collar scumbags who knowingly hire these people who are simply trying to make a better life for themselves and their families she clams up and then issues platitudes about how the "lib'ruls" have made it impossible for these hellholes to stay in operation without relying on undocumented laborers.

People like this have generally made up their mind and are not going to change it, but when I've had similar conversations in the past about "illegal" immigration, the value of labour and how much jobs "should" pay I've had some success in at least throwing some sand into their gears by asking how much a job at a slaughterhouse or in sanitation, etc. would have to pay before they'd consider taking it.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:44 AM on February 23 [13 favorites]


Watching the local and state governments here bend over backwards to support obvious lies from the meatpacking plants about their central role in COVID outbreaks was some of the most naked corruption I've seen. And that came at a time that made it convenient to sweep this kind of thing under the rug.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:54 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Side note: the John Oliver segment may be geoblocked in various places, but it is not USA only. Watched it just fine here in Finland. If in doubt, click to find out, I guess.
posted by jklaiho at 10:41 AM on February 23


Thanks for clarifying on the region-locking; I just know it's not available (legitimately) in Canada.
posted by jb at 7:47 PM on February 23


The Card Cheat, don't know about where you are but in NYC, Sanitation is a highly coveted job, people wait for years to take the civil service exams and get on the hiring lists. Coincidentally, it also happens to be well-paid and unionized...
posted by yeahlikethat at 5:18 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


The basic question is whether we, as a society, are willing to stop demanding cheap meat. A whole chicken, ethically raised and slaughtered, should cost between 20 and 30 dollars, whereas a grocery store whole chicken is about 5 bucks.

As long as a chicken must cost about 5 bucks, the existing meat industry will continue.


I think this ties into a bigger issue, which is that as consumers, we are currently spending far less of our disposable income on groceries than we used to (see, for instance, this article from NPR). Which is not to say that the average person can afford to spend more on groceries, as we now spend considerably more of our income on housing (a brief overview of historical trends can be found in the table in this article).

In short, we should be paying much more for food based on what it actually costs - in terms of both the labour involved, and the environmental impact of producing it and transporting it. This is impossible, however, as long as we are forced to channel exorbitant amounts of money into housing to prop up billionaire rentiers and the entire overheated real estate system that exists to channel money into the pockets of the super wealthy.

(There's also a strong argument to be made that we eat far too much meat, in large part because it's become artificially cheap, and as an omnivore I'd be the first to admit that).
posted by Go Banana at 8:25 AM on February 24 [6 favorites]


I don't know why all that waste isn't made into fertilizer

Quite possibly because refining all the accumulated endocrine disruptors out of it would be really expensive.
posted by flabdablet at 10:36 PM on February 25


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