Food processing plants or rather the meat packing industries have initiated hand in hand with the growing development of railways and roads. The early 20th century saw the steep rise of such industries, as with rail roads, it was possible to transport cattle and products to long distances, and methods of refrigeration ensured that the products could be preserved for a longer span of time. That being said, overworked yet underpaid workers have been the norm since the initiation of the market. In 1906, Upton Sinclair published his book “Jungle”, which threw light on the poor working conditions, failure of the companies to provide adequate safety measures and lastly the unsanitary practices in meat packing plants in the United States.
Though the book did cause uproar among the public, sadly, a century has passed and not much has changed, except the use of heavy machinery. Now workers are forced to keep up to the speed of conveyor machines, increasing the risk of injury and reducing the precision of inspection. One such case was of Maria Lopez. Ms. Lopez worked for Hormel foods, Nebraska, a meat packing plant. The year was 2004 and she was in the middle of an ordinary shift when something happened that she will not forget for the rest of her life. The pace of work and the factory had always been steady but the speed of the conveyor had been increased to meet the demand of the market. From 1000 pigs per hour, it was increased to 1,100, a task she found a little too daunting to match. While her co-worker fed the spinning saw with pork shoulders, she had to gather and bag the trimmed fat that fell from the blades that would go into “Spam”. As the process continued that same shift, Lopez rushed to clear the cutting area and her finger slipped onto the cutting blade, she did pull it back but a tad too late. Her index finger had been sliced through the bone and dangled only by a flap of skin. She did return to work two months later but what shocked her was hearing that while she was rushed to the hospital, apart from her blood being wiped away by some of her co-workers, work resumed like any other working hour without interruption.
The produce industry has forever banked on seasonal, low paid workers who are primarily immigrants. Most of the workers in the meat packing industry are undocumented, either from Mexico or Latin America. These workers endure harsh working conditions, don’t ask for breaks or raises, and are unlikely to unionize against the industry for their rights. One unnamed worker even described himself as feeling like a “piece of trash”.
The duty of these underpaid workers included slicing off the ears, clipping the snouts, and chiseling the cheek meat. They even scooped out the eyes, carved out the tongues, and scraped the palate meat from the roofs of mouths before they were placed on the conveyor belt. Some workers even harvested the brains by inserting the metal nozzle of a 90lb-per-square-inch compressed-air hose into the opening at the back of each skull, tripping a trigger that blasted the pig’s brains into pink slurry. This was sent to Asia, which is then used as a thickener for stir-fry. While these workers did this particular duty they were unknowingly inhaling aerosolized amounts of porcine brain tissue. The immune system of the body fights against foreign bodies but since the porcine and human neurological cells are so similar, it affected the workers without the body’s recognition. This began to deteriorate the neural tissues of the workers creating permanent damage of the brain, spine and neck. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified it as an “epidemic of neuropathy”, but most workers were fired after this for not having legal immigration status and only some were compensated.
Apart from the poor treatment meted out to the workers, another eye raising factor is that of the unsanitary practices these industries turn a blind eye to. Inspectors have discovered pig carcasses on the conveyor belts with lesions from tuberculosis, septic arthritis (blood pouring from joints), fecal matter and intestinal contents. Most of this goes unnoticed because of the speed of the processing and inspectors have bluntly blamed the ignorance of this contamination on “the speed of the belt”.
In fact in 2012, one Canadian packing house was involved in one of the largest meat recall ever with more that 12 million pounds of meat sent back after 18 people suffered from E Coli, as a result of the presence of facial and intestinal matter. In New Zealand, in November 2013, an expose’ found that company inspectors hardly ever reported such problems and even threatened the Government inspectors if they attempted to stop or slow down production.
In order to cope with the inflation and the populations demand for cheap meat, companies are now shelving “cheap meat”, which is “spam”, made out of the leftovers of this process. This is served as processed meat or sausages that are a little lighter on the pocket of the common man but have dire consequences with regard to health.
Human Rights Watch has termed the job of these workers as “the most dangerous factory job” with the rate of injury in the meat packing industry three times that of the private industry overall. This comes as no surprise since the production thrives on the “speed of the belt”. The only way this problem can be solved, that would be beneficial to the workers as well the customers, is that if a law is imposed on the rate of production on each company. Having said that, considering that everyone apart from the workers gets an extra buck with how things are functioning, it is unlikely to happen. Although, the ‘Rights’, for worker’s pay coinciding with the effort put in, is one worth fighting for.