The great writer, Upton Sinclair, went to Chicago in 1904 to write about the conditions of meat-packing workers there. What he found was terrible, appalling: meat-packing in America was a dangerous job, the sanitary conditions were terrible, and the slaughter houses were routinely selling meat that was soiled and mixed with fresh meat. They would sell meat that contained dangerous chemicals, they were selling meat that was contaminated by rats and rat feces, and they were selling meat in which rats had been ground up. The workers were suffering unbelievably, and when Upton Sinclair wrote a novel called The Jungle that described the working conditions of these Chicago meat-packing houses and the poor handling of the meat, it had a huge impact on food safety But it had very little impact on the treatment of the workers in these plants!
The reason I’m bringing this up is that, when you look at the meat industry today, you see an example of things getting better, of progress, but also of how progress can be eliminated in a second.
After The Jungle was published, new laws were founded to improve food safety, but nothing was done for the workers. It took decades of slow, union-organized action across the United States before any improvements were made to the working conditions in American slaughterhouses. By the 1950s—50 years after The Jungle was published—meat-packing had finally become a good job in the United States. It was a unionized job, and it became one of the highest paid industrial jobs in the States. To be a meat-packing worker in the late 50s and 60s was much like being an autoworker. If you got this job, you wanted it for the rest of your life; you earned a good income, your spouse need not go to work, but your children might want to eventually go to work with you! It was a job that paid dividends to Americans. This took decades to achieve. Around 1970 was when the meat-packing industry began to change profoundly, and one of the major influences was the fast food industry. McDonald’s in 1968, for example, did not have very much impact on the meat-packing industry. In 1968, there were around 1,000 McDonald’s outlets; they purchased fresh meat from about 175 small local producers and they didn’t really affect the economy. But, as McDonald’s began to expand, as they developed their ideology of ‘sameness’—wanting their food to taste the same everywhere—they couldn’t buy from these small regional producers, and they couldn’t buy from the small abattoirs anymore.
So, in the early seventies, McDonalds sought to buy from only five companies; they stopped buying fresh meat and began buying frozen ground meat. This had a huge impact on the concentration and industrialization of meat production in the United States, because McDonald’s then went on to emerge as the biggest single purchaser of beef in the United States. These companies, these meat-packing companies, were re-configured to produce a standard, homogenized, frozen product for McDonald’s. When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, there existed a monopoly that controlled 50-60% of the beef produced in America. Then, for decades afterwards, the government cracked down on monopolies so that, in the 1970s, just as McDonald’s was switching to industrialized meat, four big countries in America controlled about 20% of the market. Today in the US, these top four control about 80-85% of the meat produced in the US. Where there used to be hundreds and hundreds of regionally-based slaughterhouses, today just 13 slaughterhouses produce most of the beef that 280 million people eat.
There has never been in the history of the world, a centralized, industrialized meat system like the one in the United States.
For example, there is take one very important company, called IBP, which I believe is the largest supplier of meat to McDonald’s. IBP recently joined with Tyson, (the largest supplier of poultry in the US, and the largest supplier to the fast food industry), Tyson/IPB is now the biggest meat-packing company in the world.
To effect these changes, the slaughterhouses slowly moved their plants away from cities, like Chicago, that had strong union cultures. They moved them to rural areas and imported immigrants and they broke the unions and they cut wages. So this industrialized system turned meat-packing into one of the lowest paid jobs in industrial America with one of the highest turnover rates (on average, a meat-packing plant in America will have a whole new set of workers every year because they quit or are fired). And this has a huge, huge impact on the quality of the meat and also the number and severity of injuries—terrible—that occur in these plants.
Eric Schlosser, an award-winning journalist and writer is the author of Fast Food Nation, an investigation of the fast-food industry in America