Undercover In An Industrial Slaughterhouse – Part 2

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Conover believes we have
Upton Sinclair to thank for the federal meat inspection effort, adding that his book “The Jungle” frightened the nation so thoroughly in 1906 that Congress passed legislation mandating inspection the same year.

Upton Sinclair’s novel describes the life and violence of a family of Lithuanian immigrants working in Chicago’s packing houses at the end of the 19th century.

Amy J. Fitzgerald documented the connection between animal violence and domestic abuse in her sociology dissertation.

Conover points out that today, the USDA is responsible for overseeing slaughter operations, employing 7,500 inspectors throughout the country.

He says that a century ago, packinghouses were located in big cities like Chicago, where the livestock arrived by rail. But by the 1950s, the packinghouses began moving to small-town America, where the livestock could arrive by truck.

Conover claims a consensus has grown (he doesn’t mention with who) that the USDA’s regimen of visual, carcass-by-carcass inspection places too much manpower on the kill floor and not enough in labs and meat-grinding plants to test beef for E.coli, poultry for Campylobacter, and pork for Toxoplasma.

In beef plants, inspectors remain in full force. And by law, the chain cannot move without them. On the line, inspectors check the cattle’s tonsils, small intestine, teeth, lymph nodes, and liver.

And Inspectors get a bonus if they find various diseases such as mad cow disease and tuberculosis.

In other words, beef or steak is probably one of the safest, most well-inspected meat on the U.S. market, in comparison to pork, poultry and ground beef.

Conover describes the inspection post that includes both Livers and Pluck (hearts & lungs) as the most disturbing, and the most interesting on the kill floor.

“Just upstream, the skinned carcasses have had their tails cut off. Now the chain carries them over a wide, flat,  stainless-steel conveyor belt— the table—moving at exactly the same speed they do. On this belt stand workers in white rubber boots, who use their knives to slice open the body cavity and “drop” the organs at their feet.”

He explains there’s a lot of steam because the inner organs are still hot. The workers nudge the big livers to one side of the table with their gloved hands and booted feet, and the pluck — the hearts still connected  to the lungs — to the other.

“A different worker, standing on the floor like us, flips and slides the massive livers so that they’re right side up and properly presented to us for inspection. It’s a lot to take in, the river of organs flowing slowly by.”

Cat Food

Conover claims that when a cow’s liver is partially diseased, the liver receives a “Inspected & Condemned” stamp signifying to the workers downstream that the liver is not suitable for human consumption but is still okay for things like cat food.


Conover describes “Fab” as the largest room in the plant, and the place where the hanging carcasses, having spent two or three days cooling down, are gradually disarticulated. The sides of beef are first halved into forequarter and hindquarter. Then there is a further subdivision into salable cuts of meat.

The workers in Fab are stationed in long rows along parallel moving belts, and although the process is automated, the main tool of production is the knife wielded by workers. “Unlike the workers on the kill floor, the ones here were packed closely together, practically elbow to elbow, as they engaged in their repetitive motions.”

Pink Slime

In one room, large stainless-steel machines attended by technicians churned out masses of pink pellets. Conover describes the pellets as looking like Tater Tots made out of meat. It was Pink Slime. “The meat industry calls it lean finely textured beef and boneless lean beef trimmings.”

The FSIS microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein wrote that the product was not beef but “salvage” and he added: “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”

USDA Worker Attitude on Organic Beef

Conover mentions how one USDA inspector, Tina, looked up from her magazine with a sigh of disgust. “Humanely treated, organic beef,” she groaned, reading from the page. “What’s that? And why would you think they go together? They’re not the same.”

Conover said everyone in the lunch room nodded and chuckled. Later, Conover claims he tried to tease out her objection.

“Well, ‘organic’ is only about what they’re fed,” she explained. “It has nothing to do with the conditions of their lives. So what does ‘humanely treated’ even mean? Do you take them into a barn every night? Do you brush them and sing them a song? No cattle are raised that way! It’s some city person’s fantasy!”

In an interview with Brooke Gladstone, Conover said, “They don’t have some of the romantic notions about humanely-raised beef that city people sometimes have, and which I have also heard them mock. But they know cruelty when they see it.”

Apparently small-minded Tina assumes only Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations inherent in massive factory farming, like those Cargill embraces, which includes feeding cattle GMO corn and needlessly pumping them full of antibiotics, are legitimate — all other approaches, like grass fed beef freely roaming around, are some silly city slicker’s romantic fantasy.

According to Conover, Tina was incredulous at how what she described as urban consumers with little knowledge of animal husbandry or the food industry, could influence the whole farming economy by “hopping on some politically correct bandwagon.”

Click here for part 1.

You can read Conover’s full article in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine behind a pay wall here.

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Spence Cooper
Inquisitive foodie with a professional investigative background and strong belief in the organic farm to table movement. Author of Bad Seeds: A FriendsEAT Guide to GMO's. Buy Now!
Spence Cooper


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