Meatpacking Work has Become Less Safe. Now it Threatens Our Meat SupplyRoundup
tags: agriculture, public health, labor, regulation, Meat
Chris Deutsch is currently a visiting assistant professor at the University of Missouri, whose dissertation, "Forging a National Diet: Beef and the Political Economy of Plenty in Postwar America," explores federal beef politics and policy.
On Tuesday, President Trump signed an executive order compelling meat production facilities to remain open. The order appears designed to prevent anticipated shortages of meat given the spate of covid-19 outbreaks afflicting workers in the meat processing industry. “The food supply chain is breaking” Tyson Foods chairman of the board John H. Tyson had warned.
But the history of meatpacking work over the past 40 years shows that Trump’s executive order won’t address the underlying issues. The modern food system rests on a thin reed of worker abuse and poor sanitation that covid-19 has finally broken. The history of how we got here reveals that strengthening the food supply chain requires prioritizing safer working conditions.
For the first 80 years of the 20th century, workers and consumers gained substantial power to push meat producers to improve worker conditions and make meat safer through modern and sanitary production techniques. Doing so made the meat industry resilient. During this fight, notable successes included the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 (the less famous sibling of the Food and Drug Act of that same year), the expansion of inspection to include poultry and federal regulations limiting line speeds and other worker protections.
For example, in 1951, when a slaughterhouse owner in Kansas City, Mo. wanted to speed the conveyor belt that transported cattle carcasses through the facility, the Meat Inspection Division of the Department of Agriculture prevented the packing plant from doing so, judging the increase in speed too fast for workers. As one inspector’s supervisor explained, “it is wholly within your province to regulate the rate of slaughter and operations which assures the sanitary handling of product.” Consumers benefited from such oversight, too. The Inspection Division played a key role in reducing the incidents of trichinosis by requiring pork be processed at temperatures hot enough to kill the roundworms that caused the disease.
Despite the grueling work, gains by their unions by 1975 allowed meatpacking workers to make 14 percent more than the average for industrial work — earning about $28 per hour adjusted for inflation.
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