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Transcript: #27-01 On the Kill Floor: U.S. Slaughterhouse Conditions
Stephanie Welch: This week on Making Contact...
Rosemary Mucklow: You have to remember, you're converting an animal that comes in from a field, with muck and filth on it, into something we're going to put in our mouths and eat.
Brad Miller: The safety of our meat that's out there, available to consumers, is directly related to the healthy and safe conditions for workers. And all of that is related to the speed at which they are asked to process these cattle.
Stephanie Welch: Some workers and inspectors at U.S. slaughterhouses have reported abysmal conditions and inhumane treatment of animals. Industry and government officials say they're doing their best to ensure safe and clean facilities. On this program, we take a look at slaughterhouse conditions in the United States.
I'm Stephanie Welch, your host this week on Making Contact: an international radio program, seeking to create connections between people, vital ideas and important information...
To feed America's craving for meat, every day in the United States, nearly 400,000 cattle, calves, hogs, bison, horses, goats and sheep are slaughtered for food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hogs make up the majority of that total: around 96 million were killed in the year 2000.
According to Brad Miller, with the Humane Farming Association, the meat industry is extremely competitive, and in order to increase profits, slaughterhouses will speed up production lines to process more heads per day. This often results in the violent mistreatment of animals. But, he says, slaughterhouse conditions have never been wholesome to begin with.
Brad Miller: It's only now that such thorough documentation is coming out to show that farm animals have been, and continue to be routinely tortured in these plants. And the humane slaughter act that was enacted some 40 years ago to ensure that animals be rendered insensitive to pain, is really paper-thin and has never been enforced to begin with. So, yes the situation is worse today in terms of the rate of speed that the animals are going through, but it's always been pretty fast and it's always been a disregard to the farm animals themselves.
Stephanie Welch: Tom Devine, with the Government Accountability Project in Washington, D.C., agrees. His group has represented industry whistleblowers on inhumane slaughtering practices.
Tom Devine: Contempt for federal law has been systematic at these plants as it extends to treatment of the animals, as well as trying to make money off of products which are contaminated with filth. It gets so extreme, that as one whistle-blower was telling me, in order to be more productive, not to lose time, that they were skinning the cows before they had died. Literally skinning them alive. It's absolutely revolting, inhumane treatment of animals at these plants.
Stephanie Welch: But Rosemary Mucklow, president of the National Meat Association, contends that inexperienced workers in a plant may mistake an animal's sudden movement as a sign of life, when in reality, it is an entirely normal reflex.
Rosemary Mucklow: When you have drained the blood out of the system of the animal, the animal is no longer pulsating, it is no longer alive. But the muscle reflexes, as it goes through rigor mortis, may indeed make its leg jerk. The stun and the hanging and the knife happens within less than about five seconds, it's a very, very quick process. An animal does not leave that station unless it has been bled.
Stephanie Welch: The Humane Farming Association investigated allegations by workers at a slaughterhouse in Wallula, Washington, run by IBP, the world's largest meatpacker. Workers said that because of the rapid line speed, they weren't able to properly stun animals before slaughtering them; many cows were still alive while being dismembered. Brad Miller, of HFA, says this is common across the country, and was happening routinely at IBP.
Brad Miller: One of the workers was willing to actually bring a hidden camera into the plant and for a period of time documented the atrocities that were happening at IBP. HFA then wound up with several hours of videotape that we turned over to the news media which broadcast it on television, and also turned over to the state of Washington, which prompted the governor to call for a full scale investigation of IBP. The videotape shows, as well as the sworn statement of over two dozen IBP workers, clearly shows that these animals were chained by the leg, hung upside down, and the butchering process was begun on them, while they were still fully conscious. One clear sign of consciousness in an animal is a blinking reflex, and as was shown in a recent front page story in the Washington Post, that actually used video stills from the undercover video, it clearly shows these animals are blinking, the workers are reporting that they're mooing, they're kicking, they're struggling. This is not simply a reflex, this is an animal that's undergoing torture. Intense pain, they're reacting to being cut, they're reacting to being hung upside down. They're reacting to having their skin peeled off them when they're still conscious.
Stephanie Welch: The lead prosecutor in the Washington state investigation concluded that although the videotape revealed criminal violations of the Humane Slaughter Act took place at the IBP plant, he would not prosecute the company itself because he didn't consider it liable for what individual workers were doing. But Miller says IBP should be held responsible.
Brad Miller: The point that we've been making all along is that the workers are not committing animal cruelty for their own sake, they are being told to process these animals at such a rate of speed that they cannot render them unconscious. So the company is legally culpable for these crimes because it's the supervisors that are instructing the workers to carry out this activity.
Stephanie Welch: IBP did not respond to our request for comment. The Humane Farming Assocation is pressing for a reopening of the investigation, and for charges to be brought against IBP itself. HFA's chief investigator, Gail Eisnitz, wrote a book called "Slaughterhouse," based on her undercover investigations into facilities throughout the United States. She spoke with hundreds of workers with a combined total of more than two and a half million hours on what is known as the "kill floor." She also spoke with federal and state meat inspectors. The USDA originally opposed passage of the Humane Slaughter Act, and is currently doing a poor job of enforcing it, says Eisnitz.
Gail Eisnitz: We've just come to uncover the fact that they've basically washed their hands of all Humane Slaughter Act responsibilities. They've gotten rid of the task codes that would direct the inspectors to actually monitor the slaughtering areas, and the handling as well, so basically, nobody's watching what's happening inside these operations. The USDA meat inspectors are completely powerless when it comes to enforcing their own regulations. They're virtually prohibited from doing so. But, you know, the types of violations that we've documented in terms of Humane Slaughter Act violations are egregious violations of the law. I mean beating and dragging and scalding and ripping pigs out of transport vehicles with chains because they've frozen solid to the sides of the truck, and dragging animals with meat hooks in their mouths, I mean, you know when you have line speeds that are so exorbitant, that have skyrocketed so, workers have to do literally anything they possibly can in order to keep that production line going, in order to keep their jobs.
Stephanie Welch: Regulation and enforcement of the Humane Slaughter Act and food safety laws in the meat industry are inextricably linked to worker safety concerns in slaughterhouses throughout the United States. In an industry little changed by technological advances over the years, individual workers using hand-carving methods are central to the slaughter process. Making Contact's Monica Lopez has more.
Monica Lopez: The uniform look of steaks, chops and ground beef in supermarkets, often allow us to forget what happens to the animal before its meat reaches our plates. Typically, we think less about the slaughterhouse worker than, say, the hog in our ham sandwich. In Eric Schlosser's recent book "Fast Food Nation", the author details working conditions on what's termed the "kill floor". Lacerations and stabbings, due to the rapid rate at which workers use their knives to carve up animals are not uncommon. Indeed, despite the increased mechanization of the animal slaughtering process over the years, human hands, knives and saws are the most active tools on the "kill floor". First, the animal is knocked unconscious and strung up by its hind legs onto a chain that pulls the carcass down the production line. Its throat is slit, it is bled to death and finally, the carcass is taken apart by individual workers with knives and saws. Meat industry watcher, Steve Berkeley, says few work sites are less palatable than a slaughterhouse "kill floor".
Steve Berkeley: They're hot, they're humid, they smell like manure, because of the emptying out of the stomachs of undigested grasses or whatever the animal has eaten, and you're dealing with really heavy equipment, some of which is incredibly dangerous. High-powered saws that split carcasses in half, and it takes only about a second to cut one of those things in half these saws are so powerful. The "kill floor" tends to be fairly crowded. Just a carcass moving along on a chain at a relatively slow speed, is so heavy and has, never-the-less, such momentum, that you can easily be knocked right over on your feet, if you're not looking all the time. And if you slip and fall, you fall and hit pavement that's wet with blood, and sometimes with feces and other things. This is not a job that people generally want to take.
Monica Lopez: Yet meat, and particularly beef, in the United States, is one of consumer's most frequent food choices. According to the National Cattleman's Beef Association, the U.S. beef industry produced well over 25 billion pounds of beef and consumers spent over 52 billion dollars on meat in 2000. This is the largest amount of U.S. beef production in history, over 3 billion dollars more than in 1999. But according to Milo Mumgaard, executive director of the Nebraska Appleseed Network, a public interest legal foundation, this level of output takes a serious toll on slaughterhouse workers, so much that many don't last long on the production line.
Milo Mumgaard: The turnover rates though in these plants run anywhere from 60 to 150 percent a year. So you're dealing with plants that literally turn over an entire workforce, in a literal sense, every 9 to 15 months, and with that kind of a turnover, there are plenty of jobs actually available for workers who want to take the jobs. But they're going to all be in the low-paying, highly dangerous, difficult situations, and so, in the sense that do we see patterns of people only being offered certain kinds of jobs? Well the industry would say these are the jobs that need to be filled. Meanwhile, the jobs that are safer, higher paying, and so on, within the industry, are of course, not the ones turning over and tend not to be the ones held by the new immigrant populations.
Monica Lopez: Throughout U.S. history, newly arrived immigrants have been a large sector in the slaughterhouse workforce. Chicago was the country's slaughterhouse capital, through the early part of the 20th century. Then, Eastern European immigrants mostly worked in the plants. Later, they were replaced by black workers, until the post-World War II era, when Mexicans and Mexican-Americans became the largest sector of the slaughterhouse workforce. Today, immigrants, documented and undocumented, mostly from Spanish-speaking countries, are under pressure to keep the production lines running as fast as they are able to. Alfonzo Rojo-Castro works on the kill floor at the Excel meat packing plant, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the multinational corporation, Cargill, in Schuyler City, Nebraska.
Alfonzo Rojo-Castro: [translation] Before, we used to do only 1800 cows, and they were happy. Now, it's 2500 and they're still not happy, they want more. And everyone goes along with backaches. I don't know how many they want us to get to. When we started there in the line, they started running more and more, they are looking for a way to do more and more and more, and they are still not happy. Now most people are hurt but they don't want to go to the infirmary, because the infirmary doesn't do anything except give them a handful of pills. They drug them up and say "go back to work, you don't have anything wrong". And the forepersons get mad at them and I feel bad and later they get upset and say "why do you feel bad when the work is so easy?" and that's not the way it is. Most of the people are illegal and they're scared and they're going to get yelled at.
Monica Lopez: Rojo-Castro has been living in the United States and working at Excel for well over six years. During that time, workers at the plant have accidently cut and stabbed themselves, resulting in the loss of fingers and hands, and in one woman's case, her uterus. Another lost his life.
Alfonzo Rojo-Castro: [translation] So he was filing, this is the problem we have, that some have one kind of file, and others have another kind and sometimes we sharpen our knives using a rock when we are in a hurry. I think he was bent over too much and he buried the knife into his heart. And the worst thing is that, his sister, who also works in the plant told me that everybody said waiting for the ambulance took something like two and a half hours and it was because of that he died. There was time to do something, he was there saying "help me" and no ambulance came. The time passed quickly waiting for the ambulance. I suppose sometimes you are sharpening and you take the knife over confidently. Now we have safety equipment, but this equipment has a lot of holes, like the screen for the houses that keeps the flies out. The holes in this equipment are very big and the knives we use are sharper than that, almost like a needle.
Monica Lopez: The two most often-cited causes of injury are dull knives and the speed of the line. The chain that carries cow carcasses down the processing line. In Europe, workers kill around 175 head of cattle an hour. In the United States, it's twice that amount. That means that one cow is killed and pushed through the line, every 12 to 15 seconds. Mark Klein, PR spokesperson for Cargill Foods, says it's the workers and not management, who drive the speed of the line. Additionally, Klein says that line speed and worker injuries are not related. In spite of the conditions on the kill floor, in a meat-packing town, many immigrant workers have few options beyond the slaughterhouse. According to Milo Mumgaard, it's important to remember who the employers are.
Milo Mumgaard: The meat packing industry, the beef industry in particular, is dominated by three multi-national corporations: Cargill, which owns and runs the Excel plants, Con-Agra, which now owns Montford, which is a name that some people might be familiar with, and of course, IBP, Iowa Beef Packers, which now just goes by IBP. These are very large, well-capitalized Fortune 500 corporations. So, you know, when you're looking at a situation where workers are having to urinate in their pants rather than being accorded the simple dignity of being able to leave the line to take care of their affairs when they're working for a Fortune 500 corporation, clearly, there is much that can be done to improve these conditions, and should be done, and that's really where the work is taking place at. For Making Contact, I'm Monica Lopez.
Stephanie Welch: You are listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. If you want more informstion about the subject of this week's program, or if you'd like to get in touch with any of our guests, we'll be giving out our toll-free number at the end of this broadcast...
In stockyards and feedlots throughout the United States, animals too sick to stand are being slaughtered and packaged as food. The meat industry refers to these as "downed" animals. Gene Bauston is co-founder and director of Farm Sanctuary, an organization that rescues, rehabilitates, and provides life-long care for downed animals at two farms, one in New York and one in California. He and his wife Lori established Farm Sanctuary in 1986.
Gene Bauston: These are usually old dairy cows who have been worn out. For dairy cows to produce milk at a profitable level, they have to have a calf every year. Oftentimes, those calves are male, and the dairy industry does not want them, so they're taken away from their mother immediately after birth and are often very weak and very frail and will often become downed animals. It's very difficult to move a downed animal humanely and so livestock handlers will generally move them in the quickest, most convenient, and most expedient way, which generally means putting a chain around their leg or a chain around their neck even and dragging them onto a truck. And then they're transported, and during this whole process also, these animals may be left to lay for hours, or days without getting food or water and they're never given veterinary care. These animals are unable to get up and walk to a water trough, so unless water is brought to them, they're not going to get it. So they may lay for days, sometimes they die of neglect because of that. But if the animal remains alive, rather than treating these animals or having them humanely euthanized, downed cows are typically dragged onto trucks and taken to slaughterhouses to be used for human food, and that is the common practice across the country and it is something we're trying to outlaw.
Stephanie Welch: Farm Sanctuary filed a petition with the USDA to bar downed animals from the nation's food supply. The agency denied the petition, stating that there is no conclusive evidence that a Mad-Cow-like disease exists in the United States. The USDA added that there may be animals with other diseases in the food supply, but they pose no threat to human health. The USDA has made it illegal for downed animals to be included in the federal school lunch program. The agency declined Making Contact's request for an interview.
USDA recall tape: RS Foods Company is voluntarily recalling approximately 14.5 million pounds of ready-to-eat meat and poultry products that may be contaminated with listeria. Products being recalled include: luncheon meats, whole hams, sausages, hotdogs, corn dogs and various others.
Stephanie Welch: The USDA routinely posts meat recalls on its hotline. Its Food Safety and Inspection service reported 34 recalls of contaminated food products in the first several months of 2001. All but two of them were meat products. Many of these contained microbes that can cause serious and sometimes deadly illnesses. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider food-borne illnesses in the United States an epidemic. Over 76 million cases are reported each year, with 5000 of those resulting in death. Nancy Donley is the president of "Safe Tables Our Priority" or STOP. Her son died of E. coli poisoning after eating a contaminated beef patty. She warns that doctors aren't very experienced in identifying the condition, and people aren't generally aware that there's a problem with food safety in the United States.
Nancy Donley: On the one hand, we have the industry and we have our own government saying "we have the safest food supply in the world." And the public is relying on the USDA's seal of approval of inspected and passed as meaning that they don't have to worry about it. So the public is assuming that everything that they buy is safe to eat, and unfortunately, you must assume the opposite, you must assume it's not safe.
Stephanie Welch: Cases of E. coli poisoning are estimated at more than 70,000 each year in the United States. By many accounts, ground beef is the worst villain. In the past it was considered 'the poor man's food', because it is made up mainly of trimmings from other cuts of meat. Those trimmings may contain dangerous microbes that get ground up and are extremely difficult to detect. High tech food safety programs that include microbiological testing of random samples of beef aren't sufficient, according to Michele Simon, with the Center for Informed Food Choices. She says the U.S. government is spending tremendous amounts of tax dollars on food safety in search of a scientific answer, rather than looking at the root causes of food contamination.
Michele Simon: We look at research and science and how can we go after these pesky microbes when all we need to do is take a big step back and look at the bigger picture, at what's causing these problems in the first place, and it really just kills me to see all these research dollars being poured into our universities, agricultural universities that are trying to find the solution to E. coli when the very simple solution is to have the meat packing industry clean up their act and not have animals, first of all housed under the conditions that create the disease process, and then slaughtered under the conditions that foster the spread of the diseases among the animals.
Stephanie Welch: But Rosemary Mucklow, with the National Meat Association, argues that it is very difficult to ensure completely clean meat.
Rosemary Mucklow: You have to remember, you're converting an animal that comes in from a field with muck and filth on it, into something we're going to put in our mouths and eat.
Stephanie Welch: To address the problem of E. coli and other potential food-borne illnesses, the USDA and industry encourage consumers to cook their meat thoroughly and to keep a clean kitchen. The government has also approved the irradiation of meat, contending that it is the surest way to kill deadly microbes. But many food safety advocates say the responsibility should lie with industry. Slowing down slaughterhouse lines, they say, would allow workers to be more careful and to avoid meat contamination.
Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, points also to the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points system, or HACCP, a program implemented in 1996 to help meat inspectors ensure food safety. Devine says the original legislation was gutted by Congress; its now an industry self-inspection program. His group conducted a survey of over 400 USDA meat inspectors and found that 85 percent said they are spending an average of five times as many hours looking at paperwork, and not enough examining live animals and carcasses since HACCP was implemented. Many inspectors also reported being harassed by their USDA employers and by industry officials for simply doing their job under HACCP.
Tom Devine: Its nickname is "Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray," because that's pretty much the role that inspectors have been reduced to under it. They are gagged from writing down findings of contamination, they're re-assigned to isolated areas where they would have to uproot their whole family if they make the wrong type of findings or don't back off when pressured by company officials. There's a very deep need for the management of this agency to start supporting its troops on the front line.
Stephanie Welch: Devine says that one of the main problems is that regulatory agencies such as the USDA are too close to industry, where the bottom line is more important than anything else. At Niman Ranch, which works with a slaughterhouse in Idaho, things are done differently. Owner Bill Niman, who started the business over twenty years ago, says when profit isn't the only motive -- especially in slaughterhouses -- you get a different result.
Bill Niman: Our slaughterhouse is small, and they want to be small, and they only want to process the very best beef which is either destined for export to Japan or part of custom programs... such as ours. So because they are a slaughterhouse for fee, as opposed to processing cattle that they're gonna market or sell themselves, they're not as concerned with the bottom line, because that fee and their cost of doing business is passed on to their client, which in this case is Niman Ranch. So they know exactly the economics of each animal's slaughter the minute they arrive at the plant so they don't have to speed up the chain to make more or less, they just, and this is sort of a kind of an unwritten agreement, part of it's written, but this is the understanding, that the people that come there, they're coming for the best possible and the cleanest slaughter, as opposed to the cheapest, and most, consequently, the most efficient.
Stephanie Welch: Most U.S. cattle are fed chicken manure, chicken feathers, and sawdust from poultry plants. They're also fed meat and bone meal made up of animals that are fed cattle waste, a practice that Niman says encourages the conditions for Mad Cow disease. Niman Ranch raises its cattle outdoors, where they eat a vegetarian diet of wild grasses until a few months before slaughter. Then they receive a special diet of grains, all fit for human consumption. The people who raise the animals treat them humanely and are with them until the moment they are slaughtered. Rob Hurlbut, of Niman Ranch, says safe and good tasting meat starts with good husbandry and traditional practices. He notes that people should know where their meat comes from.
Rob Hurlbut: Consumers need to be aware where their food is coming from, why it may be worth paying even more than 69 cents for a hamburger. How do you get a hamburger for 69 cents? I mean you start thinking about that and it sort of most people don't want to ask but I think they need to start asking.
Bill Niman: They should also ask the people that are charging eight and nine dollars where they get their hamburger, cause of lot of them are getting it the same place that the people are charging 69 cents, and so I'd want to know that.
Stephanie Welch: That's it for this edition of Making Contact: a look at U.S. slaughterhouses. Thanks for listening, and special thanks this week to Neva Reece and Josh Walsh for recorded portions. Thanks also to Justin Harrison for voice over assistance, and to Meredith Bell and Guadalupe Rodriguez for translation. Phillip Babich is our managing producer. Laura Livoti is managing director. Peggy Law, executive director. Associate producer Shereen Meraji. Senior advisor, Norman Solomon. National producer, David Barsamian. Women's desk director, Lisa Rudman. And, I'm your host and associate producer Stephanie Welch.
If you want more information about the subject of this week's program, or if you would like to get in touch with any of our guests, call the National Radio Project at 800-529-5736. Call that same phone number for tapes and transcripts. That's 800-529-5736. You can also go to our website at radioproject.org (repeat).
Making Contact is an independent production. We're committed to providing a forum for voices and opinions not often heard in the mass media. If you have suggestions for future programs, we'd like to hear from you. Our theme music is by the Charlie Hunter trio. Bye for now.