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Articles: Food Production

Industrial Meat

In recent decades, the beef industry has undergone a radical transformation -- the small cattle farmer has been all but replaced by beef processing companies that own huge feedlots and industrial meat-packing plants. One result of this concentration has been inexpensive and readily available meat; beef now costs half of what it did in 1970. Critics have charged, however, that the new system is inhumane to the animals and may have created new health risks. For a look at the pros and cons of the industrialization of the beef business, here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with Patrick Boyle, CEO of the American Meat Institute; Dan Glickman, former U.S. secretary of agriculture; Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control; Bill Haw, CEO of one of the nation's largest cattle feedlot operations; journalist Michael Pollan

Patrick Boyle -

CEO of the American Meat Institute

If you look over the last 30 years, one statistic that I read said that the price of beef today is about half, in real dollar terms, what it was in the 1970s. Does that ring true to you?

... Meat is a relative bargain today compared to where it was 10-20 years ago.

How'd you do it? Every other cost has gone up.

It has a lot to do with efficiencies -- doing what we do even better and more efficiently; ... squeezing costs out of the process; adding value to the product. America in general is a tremendous food success story. ... We pay the lowest percentage of our per capita income on food than any country in the world. In the mid-1980s, it was about 12 percent. Today it's below 9 percent. And meat, which is a large part of our diet in this country -- meat and poultry -- is less than 2 percent of our disposable income. That's a great success story. We have high quality, reliable, abundant, and low-cost food in the United States. We're very fortunate.

Historically, going back to the early part of the 20th century, we would raise our animals in the Midwest, ship the live animals to major metropolitan areas like Kansas City, Omaha, and Chicago -- all of whom still have remnants of their stockyards today. We would process the animals there; sell them in sides of beef, carcass form, sides of beef, to local butcher shops. We would cut them into steaks and roasts and sell them to consumers.

After World War II, two developments occurred. The local butcher shop began to expand into grocery stores and regional grocery chains. At the same time, we developed technology to ship refrigerated foods. And with the advent of grocery stores wanting to buy their meat from a single source, and with the ability to ship processed meat as opposed to live animals in rail cars, the packing houses moved out of the metropolitan areas and built new facilities in the heartland, close to where the animals were being raised. ...

The next significant development in the evolution of the beef industry in the United States involved the transformation and the transition from shipping carcasses of beef to shipping boxes of beef. The industry discovered that it was much more efficient to have the processing continue at the next step in the meatpacking plant, and reduce the side of beef to a piece of tenderloin, or a length of New York strip steak, and ship a whole box of tenderloins to a grocery store that only wanted tenderloins, as opposed to shipping that side of beef with some parts they may want for their customers, some parts of beef they may not want for their customers. It allowed us to be more responsive to the grocery store. It allowed them to be more responsive to their individual customers and their local markets. And it allowed us to do that at a lower cost. ...

Everyone talks about one of the most important things to understand about the meat industry is how highly concentrated it is -- 84 percent of the slaughter is controlled by only four companies in beef. Have we gotten back to the days of the "beef trust"?

... Most business sectors in the United States economy are fairly concentrated, comprised of three or four market leaders that in general have about a 60 percent, 70 percent, 80 percent market share. You see that happening in the banking business, and it's been a long-standing structure in the automobile industry. ...

So in that regard, in terms of the overall economy of the United States, the beef industry is not much different in its economic structure. But what is important to understand is that it is a dynamic, evolving, highly competitive sector of our nation's agricultural economy. Four companies account for more than 80 percent of the beef capacity in the United States. ... But 30 years ago, only one of those big four were actually in the beef industry. Within the last 30 years, three of the other big four have actually grown up as startup companies, or expanded as a result of acquisition, to the market share levels that they have today. It's a vibrant competitive industry. If you ask the CEOs of the four largest beef companies, one concern that they have is the upstart companies that are coming into the business, the small regional new entries that are coming into the beef industry, who one day may have the agility, the acumen, and the competitive instincts to achieve the market share levels that the larger companies have today.


Most Americans never see the inside of the factories where beef cattle are slaughtered and processed. FRONTLINE asked Bill Haw, CEO of one of the country's biggest cattle feedlot operations, and journalists Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser to describe what it's like -- for the cows and the people who butcher them -- inside the slaughterhouse.

Here are excerpts from their interviews.

His New York Times Magazine article "Power Steer" (March 31, 2002) traces the life of a cow destined for slaughter.

So when will your cow meet its end?

My cow has a date with the knocker, or the stunner, in June. One day in June, he will be judged sufficiently fat, because they really do get obese. And they move around at the end with that kind of the lugubrious awkwardness of the truly obese. And the owner of the feedlot, the manager, will say, "This pen is ready."

Then they will get on another truck and travel 100 miles to Liberal, Kansas, to a National Beef plant there. They will be put in a pen in a parking lot and wait their turn, and go up the ramp, and through a blue door. I was not allowed to go through the blue door. The kill floor is not something that journalists are allowed to see, even if you own the animal, I learned.

But I have reconstructed what happens on the other side of the blue door. What happens is that the animals go in single file. At a certain point, they pass over a bar, their legs on both sides, and the floor slowly drops away, and at that point they're being carried along sort of on that bar, which is a conveyor belt, and they then pass through a station where there's a man on the catwalk above. He's holding an object that looks like a power nailing gun or something. It's a pneumatic device called a stunner.

This essentially injects a metal bolt. It's about the size and length of a thick pencil into its brain, right between the eyes, and that should render the animal brain dead.

At that point, chains will be attached to his rear legs. He will be lifted up by the chains. The chains are attached to an overhead trolley, and then he will be bled. Another person in another station will stick a long knife in and cut his aorta and bleed the animal. And then he will be completely dead.

And from there he goes through a series of stations to clean him and to remove his hide. One of the real problems is that the animals have spent their [lives] lying in their manure, are smeared and caked with the stuff, and they're entering the food plant. And so many steps are taken to make sure that the manure doesn't infect the meat, which can happen very easily.

And this is really just the source of food-safety problems in the industry, in the beef industry, is microbes in the manure getting into the meat. So how do you stop that?

How do [slaughterhouses] contribute to the spreading of pathogens or the increased food safety risks?

... At a slaughterhouse, you have big animals entering at one end, and small cuts of meat leaving at the other end. In between are hundreds of workers, mainly using handheld knives, processing the meat. So during that whole production system, there are many opportunities for the meat to be contaminated. What we're really talking about is fecal contamination of the meat from the stomach contents or the hide of the animal.

... The slaughterhouses that the United States have are pretty unique in terms of the speed of production. We have slaughterhouses that will process 300, 400 cattle an hour, which is as much as twice as many as anywhere else in the world. And it's that speed of production that can lead to food-safety problems. When workers are working very quickly, they may make mistakes. It's during the evisceration of the animal, or the removal of the hide, that manure can get on the meat. And when manure gets on some meat, and then that meat is ground up with lots of other meat, the whole lot of it can be contaminated.

I would imagine that a lot goes into the design of these factory production lines to make them very efficient. ... So you would think that they would be expert at doing their job and therefore contain the pathogens in some way. Is that how it works?

There have been a lot of technological advances in slaughterhouses, and especially food safety technology improvements since the Jack in the Box outbreak, these steam cabinets and various washes and interventions. But one of the problems is the high, high turnover rate among workers at these plants. The industry averages anywhere from 75 percent to 100 percent a year, which means you have a constant flow of workers in and out of these jobs.

Ideally, what you would have would be skilled workers and a stable work force, so that people really know the jobs they're doing and can do them properly. That's not what we have right now especially [with] some of the most important jobs in terms of the evisceration and the tying off of the intestines. These are really unpleasant jobs, and if the workers are not skilled at doing them, they can make mistakes that contaminate the meat.

I've always had the sense that a slaughterhouse is a terrible job. It's a difficult job. That people have been doing too much in too short a time. Is it really any different now?

It's very different now. Work in a slaughterhouse has changed enormously in the last 25 years. It's always been a difficult job. It's always been a dangerous job. But up until recently, this was a job that had good pay, had good benefits, and you had a very stable work force. In the early 1970s, meatpacking had one of the lowest turnover rates of any industrial job in America. It was like being an autoworker.

Then they cut wages, they cut benefits, broke unions. And now it has one of the highest turnover rates of any industrial job. So you have a constant churning of the workers. And just like airport security -- where the airport security workers had a high turnover rate and [were] being treated badly and paid poorly, and that has an impact on airport safety -- I think the same is true with food safety.

The people who are working in these plants should be well trained and well paid, and it should be a stable work force. I think that would have a big impact on the safety of the food we eat.

Describe [the slaughterhouse] for me. People really don't know what it's like in there.

Well, the slaughterhouse is not a pretty thing. I mean, it's a necessary process. It's a highly efficient process. But it's not now, nor never will be, a very pretty thing. Animals come there to die, to be eviscerated, to be decapitated, to be de-hided -- and all of those are violent, bloody and difficult things to watch. So your first and foremost impression of at least the initial stages of the packing house are a very violent, very dehumanizing sort of thing.

But the fact is, we are meat eaters, most of us. And it's a highly efficient way and a reasonably humane way. The animals are rendered unconscious before any of this happens. I think there's a concern for humane treatment of the animals. But the process itself is a violent and unpleasant sort of thing.

As you progressively go down the chain ... it becomes a less violent, a less bloody, a less difficult thing to watch, and really becomes kind of a miracle of efficiency as that live animal is reduced to a carcass and the carcass is reduced to parts that we're very familiar with in eating. The economies of scale, the mobilization of capital -- all of those things that drive businesses are very much at work in the packing industry. ...

You describe it as this difficult environment for the animal, to some degree. What about for the worker? I understand that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says it's the most dangerous job in America.

Certainly worker safety historically not been as good as it should have been in the packing industry. It is becoming better and better -- both humanely driven by the management of the packing companies, and very selfishly driven by the fact that the lack of safe practices can become an incredibly expensive thing. So packers have continued to develop better safety practices, individual automation of individual acts that reduce the stress on the individuals working in the packing business. It is still a tough way to make a living; a difficult job.

Particularly with the line speeds; they're fast, people are in close [quarters], they're wielding knives. ...

The line speed is, of course, an issue that people are concerned about. The faster the line goes the more efficient the operation is, certainly, up to a point. But also the speed with which the working people are required to work increases. The trick is to find that balance between efficient and reasonable production, and going beyond that point to where you endanger the workers who are working with knives, with sawing devices. And you can protect them with chain mail and gloves and other equipment. But they're still working with knives and other cutting devices that, as people become more fatigued, become more dangerous. ...

It's tough work.

It is tough work. And it's essentially dehumanizing work. There's a lot of blood and a lot of heavy activity that goes on. I think the packing plants have dramatically improved their working conditions over a period of time.

It's a low-margin business, and I think the temptation certainly was to drive their people very hard, at one point. But I visited with a major packer just last night, as a matter of fact. And their turnover, for instance, has dramatically slowed down. They're retaining workers better. Working conditions are becoming better. There's a great sensitivity to things like carpal tunnel syndrome.

So I think as evolutions occur, we've got another one occurring in which conditions are better, pay is better, and a number of immigrant people have really been able to live out that American dream -- if not in their generation, in their children's generation. ...

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