In the last issue of the Prairie Progressive, Back to the jungle (Fall – 2019 p.4), and in a previous Fawkes-Lee & Ryan post, Back to the Jungle, I wrote about the effect of increased line speeds on slaughterhouse workers. This is the sequel. Briefly, prior to October, 2019, a pork slaughterhouse employee had a little over 18 hogs per minute pass by. There was a federal rule that prevented packinghouses from running a line faster than 1106 hogs per hour. That’s about one hog ever 3.2 minutes. If you don’t think that’s very much, try doing the same task every 3.5 minutes for an hour. You’ll get the picture.
Now, because of a federal regulation change, The New Swine Inspection System (NSIS), the sky’s the limit. Hogs can go past an employee at the rate of . . . well, pigs are now going so fast it appears as though they are flying. Moreover, you can’t just squeeze another employee into that line; they’re pretty much too close to each other as it is – and they work with knives – sharp knives.
But let’s look into the consumption end of the controversial rule. You may not eat pork liver, lung, heart, and other internal organs and parts, but a visual inspection by a trained and qualified meat inspector can lead to a decision that something might be wrong with the carcass (ham, bacon, pork chop) by closely examining the offal. When an internal organ shows a defect, foreign material, or an abnormality, the corresponding carcass is likely to have a related problem.
The new federal rule removes up to 40% of meat inspectors at a slaughterhouse. Those are good union jobs where meat inspectors check every single liver, heart, stomach, and carcass, ensuring that the pork we eat is safe and clean. The government, with a nod from the packers, believes that employees of the company can do those jobs while meat inspectors focus on sanitary conditions. Does it seem as though having a loyal employee doing the work rather than an independent government employee result in any sort of a conflict of interest? That work includes looking for signs of enteric pathogens, defined as “gram-negative bacteria, such as Escherichia coli (better known as E-coli), Salmonella, and Campylobacter jejuni,” the latter found more often in poultry.
There are three major companies in the United States that slaughter and process 57% of the nation’s hogs (compared to 32% in 1985). You’ve heard of Big Oil and Big Pharma; now there is Big Pork.
Smithfield Foods, which owns the Farmland Foods label as well as John Morrell, is owned by WH Group out of Hong Kong and slaughters 30 million hogs per year; JBS USA (formerly Swift) is a wholly owned subsidiary of JBS, a Brazilian company that also owns Pilgrim’s Pride chicken; and the third Big Pork is Tyson Foods, an American company known mostly for chicken, but slaughters hogs at their IBP locations.
All three of these companies are vertical integration food companies, meaning they own the operation from piglet to sow, and in some cases, own the entire farm, the packing and processing facilities, as well as the trucking and marketing companies to transport and sell their products. Often, these Big Pork companies contract with farmers to produce pigs, selling the pigs solely to the packer. Those farrowing houses you smell in the countryside are most likely owned by the multinational companies who employ their own personnel to manage them, and pay the farmer who owns the land rent each year or month for use of the land containing the hog raising facilities and waste lagoons. A farmer may also benefit from the manure produced by these operations.
JBS, with a plant in Worthington, MN, has been the recipient of $62 million in bailout money intended to supplement farmers hurt by the trade war. JBS owners Joesley and Wesley Batista, Brazilian owners of JBS, have admitted “to bribing hundreds of top officials in [Brazil] and have spent time in jail over the corruption scandal.”
National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) President David Herring, a pork producer from Lillington, N.C. said: “We applaud the USDA for introducing a new inspection system that incentivizes investment in new technologies while ensuring a safe supply of wholesome American pork,”
Safe? Not for slaughterhouse workers. Not for the child who eats a hot dog that was tainted with meat that got past the company employee. Not for the employee assigned to recognize an enteric pathogen and who stops the line to ensure that “gram-negative bacteria, such as E-coli and Salmonella” do not get into the food supply. Too many stops and that employee’s job will be like skating on thin ice.
I am going to continue to eat what little pork I have in the past. I like my bacon and my barbequed back ribs. I also like to support those union families who rely upon those packinghouse jobs. However, the next time you sit down to enjoy your favorite breakfast meat (sausage, ham, bacon), or dine on an Iowa Chop, or build a large lunch meat sandwich, or go after the year’s best pork tenderloin sandwich in Iowa, be sure to say grace. It may be your last prayer.