Like Bacon? This Is the Factory It Comes from and Who Works There
When we go to the grocery store, we rarely think about exactly where the food comes from—it’s simply there for us to buy. That’s especially true for meat, neatly cut and wrapped, ready for the skillet or grill.
Take pork—all that bacon and ham. Americans eat more than 40 pounds per year, on average. Almost all of it—96 percent—is produced at huge production facilities, which are more like industrial sites than farms, mostly in isolated rural areas in the Midwest, Great Plains, and the South. The workforce is almost entirely made up of migrants from abroad, from Guatemala to Myanmar to Sudan.
Alex Blanchette, an associate professor of anthropology, grew up in a farming community in Ontario, and saw the growing role of industrialization in farming there. He wanted to understand those changes, and so he did what anthropologists do: he went to one of the industrial animal communities and immersed himself in it.
In his recent book Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life & the Factory Farm, he describes how he lived for two-and-a-half years in a small town of 15,000 residents that he calls Dixon, made friends with the people, talked with workers at all levels of production, shadowed managers, worked as an entry-level laborer in the artificial insemination and birthing department of a pork company, and helped teach English to Burmese refugees working the midnight sanitation shift at the slaughterhouse.
Dixon is a company town in the old-fashioned sense: everything is tied in one way or another to the business, which is by far the biggest employer in town. In a single facility, 5.6 million pigs are killed each year. Each day the entire company—with its many facilities—ships 2.8 million pounds of hog muscle as pork; 793,300 pounds of bones to be made into gelatin, bone glue, or soup stock for ramen; and more than 730,000 pounds of organs for pet food.
What’s it like to work there? We got a hint early in the pandemic, when slaughterhouses became epicenters for COVID-19 infections. Workers are tightly packed in, the conveyor belts of pig parts moving so fast that it is often impossible for them to even have time to raise a hand to cover their mouths when coughing.
What Blanchette found speaks volumes about the hidden side of our food supply, the harsh realities of industrialized slaughterhouses where workers make a single motion, such as chopping a single joint, up to 10,000 times a day, six days a week. It’s a vast and smelly operation; one company alone generates more excrement in a year than the entire human population of California, he says.
“I expected to find a system that was well worked out after 20 years of operation. But instead the company was under continuous pressure to grow, to create more pigs with fewer breeding animals and less space, to continually increase the scale of their production to keep pace with dwindling prices and too much competition,” he said.
Tufts Now spoke to Blanchette to learn more about the people working at these industrial animal plants, the constant drive to lower prices by speeding up production, and what it means for the workers and the pigs—and us.
Tufts Now: What’s the difference between family farms and these agribusiness enterprises?
Alex Blanchette: I’m not convinced that family versus corporate is the real dividing line, because many so-called family farms operate on the scale of the farms that I studied. The number of hog farms in the United States has decreased greatly since the 1970s, but their sizes have grown hugely—the top 20 firms annually generate at least 500,000 pigs each, and many of those involve family-run operations contracted to a large integrator or a large corporation.
On the other hand, it is also true that some companies are trying to cut out family farmers entirely. The firms that I studied had virtually no contracted farmers. These corporations own all of the buildings and land, and operate entirely through hourly or salary wage labor.
It’s almost like they are producing widgets rather than animals for food.
They are working within a model where animals are statistics, animals are numbers. You could say, organizationally-speaking, they aren’t raising animals—they are raising quantities of material, quantities of fats, quantities of muscle or flesh, quantities of bone and so forth.
At least, that’s how the senior managers who do not work every day with actual pigs might look at it. But it appears very different if you are an entry-level worker who tends to thousands of living animals.
One of the things that I never would have expected to find in these large-scale agribusinesses is the degree to which the workers really cared for pigs. They sometimes labored to the point of exhaustion to try to heal pigs’ injuries, to try to give them a modicum of better health in these conditions. And they arguably had to care because of the fragile genetics of the animals.
Who are the people doing the work?
These rural communities are incredibly diverse. There are 26 different languages spoken in the elementary school, with migrants from northern Mexico, Guatemala, refugees from Myanmar, Ethiopia, or South Sudan. By and large, communities have migrated together and have attempted to work together. I would say probably 80 percent of people who worked in the farms and the slaughterhouses were born outside of the United States.
And at the same time, we are talking about a community whose population soared—it has more than doubled in the 20 years since these operations went in. The vast majority of people are migrants to the community—even the managers migrated from other parts of the U.S.
Many of the workers are quite experienced in industrial animal production; many of them had been working for years up and down the Midwest and the Great Plains across a circuit of slaughterhouses and barns. They were incredibly knowledgeable about animal life, even though that knowledge was often not acknowledged or properly remunerated by the companies.
You talk in the book about how repetitive the work is, and how damaging that is to the workers. Why is that?
It’s like an assembly line. This is a labor process that has gotten larger, faster, and more conveyor belt driven over time. These firms have taken much of the skill in terms of butchery and carcass handling out of the process—and, in the slaughterhouse at least, have reduced people to doing one motion for upwards to 10,000 times in a shift, six days a week.
One of the major issues of today’s slaughterhouse is repetitive motion injuries. It’s not the early 20th-century slaughterhouse that we might imagine from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, with daily maimings, if not deaths—it’s a slower form of industrial violence that eventually changes one’s body and can scar workers for life.
I met vanishingly few people who didn’t wish they were doing something else. Some people work there because it is a reliable paycheck. But dissatisfaction is legible in the numbers: the annual turnover in many meatpacking operations verges on 100 percent per year, and the workforce is disproportionately quite young. It’s a job that can keep people afloat for a while, but the speed and repetition make it hard to build a livelihood over a lifetime.
The industry broke meatpacking unions in the 1970s and 1980s, which has depressed wages by more than a third. Yet the margins in the business are still very thin—why is that?
In large part, it boils down to competition and overproduction. This intensified industrialization was never about meeting domestic demand—there was no shortage of pork in the United States. These companies saw the opportunity to take advantage of economies of scale, but that resulted in a massive increase in the amount of meat produced in the United States—and a concurrent drop in the price.
We’ve seen a race to cheapness, an intensified emphasis on exports, and a renewed focus on trying to make profit by finding value in all of the non-meat parts of the pig—hog fat converted into biodiesel, using organs for new biomedical drugs and pet foods, and so forth.
Is this whole way of doing things sustainable?
I do not think it is sustainable. I expected to find a system that was really well worked out after 20 years of operation, but instead the company was under continuous pressure to grow, to create more pigs with fewer breeding animals and less space, to continually increase the scale of their production to keep pace with dwindling prices and too much competition. They are running from crisis to crisis, as they feel they are confronting the limits of economic growth and a dwindling ability to find new profit in pigs.
Not only are the economics challenging, there are, of course, many environmental consequences. If you confine millions of uniform animals in tight spaces, it increases pressure to use antibiotics. If you produce an extra million hogs per year, that’s a great deal of more corn and soy fields being drawn upon.
Early in the pandemic, we saw these meat producing plants become hotspots of COVID-19 infection and spread. Why was that?
A major cause is something that in the United States is very rarely critiqued, which is efficiency. One of the disproportionate factors that makes American slaughterhouses such hotspots for the COVID-19 virus is that they waste no space, no time, and no motion.
In these refrigerated slaughter warehouses, everyone is packed together, every single motion is planned out before, the line speed moves so quickly that in the early days of the pandemic, some workers were complaining that they didn’t even have time to cover their mouths while coughing on the line.
I think we have to understand these operations as places where efficiency itself is out of control, pushing workers beyond the limits of the human body. We have to stop seeing efficiency as a neutral thing without limits, as it has simply gone way too far in these plants.
What is the culpability of consumers in all this?
Aside from becoming accustomed to cheap meat, I’m not sure that consumers are very culpable for this at all. I don’t think the original move to increase industrialization of these operations in the 1980s in the U.S. was driven by American consumer demand. Meat used to be a relatively expensive luxury. Now it’s just absolutely ubiquitous—underlying all fast food.
Part of the reason that I don’t think of today’s consumers as culpable is that I don’t think they really have much of an option at this point: 99 percent of chickens are raised in industrial conditions, and 96 percent of pork comes from conditions of industrial indoor confinement.
At one high-end grocery chain, they talk about measures of animal welfare, but I think that these differences are in fact quite quibbling and tiny. There is a very small amount of relatively expensive outdoor raised pork, but it’s not very accessible unless you are deliberately going to a farmer’s market; at the level of a grocery store, it’s rarely obtainable.
Do you still eat pork?
I do not. I did not get into this project from an animal welfare or vegan orientation. When I began the research, that just wasn’t my thing. This started as a labor project—I was interested in the conditions, views, beliefs, and hopes of workers who populate these operations.
But I came to see that we can’t easily separate the wellbeing of workers and the wellbeing of animals. They’re conjoined. Low wages and limited power for workers allow the operations to grow in scale and speed, concentrating more pigs in a geography.
Working all day with very weak and fragile animals can be mentally grueling for people. At the end of the day, I ultimately ran out of reasons to continue eating meat, especially given the connected conditions of human life and animal life that underlies the American system of meat-making today.
Taylor McNeil can be reached at email@example.com.
Photographer Sean Sprague can be reached at https://seanjsprague.com.