by Bill Droel

Your Working Catholic blogger frequently drives through Chicago’s abandoned stockyards on the way to the ballpark, but the area doesn’t visually tell much of a story. Back in the day, 50,000 people worked on the killing floors, where each hour 600 animals were slaughtered and packaged. That history is the subject of Slaughterhouse by Dominic Pacyga (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Pacyga knows the old stockyards well; he once worked there and he has talked with plenty of old-timers and with people at the two, small remaining meat plants in that neighborhood.

Nowadays stockyards are dispersed in remote areas, like Cargill Meat Solutions in Schuyler, NE. The plant employs about 2,000 workers who slaughter over 5,000 cattle daily. Ted Conover worked there as an inspector for USDA.

The stockyard is loud and dangerous, Conover reports in Harper’s Magazine (5/13). The workers, though relatively underpaid, are competent. There are about 15 USDA inspectors on each of two shifts at Cargill. They are interspersed with Cargill workers along the line and use knives, pliers and hooks to cut into cheeks, lymph nodes, organs and other animal parts—about four seconds for each procedure. They can condemn specific animals and if warranted can even shut down the entire plant.

The Cargill and USDA workers are responsible and cooperate with one another, Conover concludes. The problem is in the inspection method. “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” looking for bacteria. The problem is more serious in poultry, says Conover, and getting worse.

The USDA now allows some poultry plants to accelerate the line from about 140 birds per minute to 175 per minute. That’s because USDA will allow the plants to treat all carcasses with chemicals after the normal skinning, cleaning and inspection process, reports Kimberly Kindy in Chicago Tribune. “High powered nozzles first shoot water and chemicals into the interior of a bird and along its surface. Next the bird moves through one or two spray cabinets, where it is showered with other chemicals. Finally, it is chilled and soaked, usually in chlorine and water,” writes Kindy. This faster line along with inadequate lab tests means some suspect chickens “get a pass” with the assumption that sprays takes care of problems. In fact, the chemicals might add to, not subtract from, consumer health risk.

A similar acceleration is selectively allowed with other meat, as Ted Genoways details in The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of Our Food (Harper Collins, 2014). Workers incur more injuries and breathe harmful vapors in a fast plant.

Food safety and worker safety move in fits and starts.

• In 1880 the Swift Refrigerated Line began shipping processed meat to the East Coast in boxcars. The insulation and design of the cars gradually improved, but the basic element was ice. In 1965 the Santa Fe Railroad introduced liquid nitrogen cars. Airlines also used that technology to ship meat. Theoretically, steaks, chops and chicken can arrive at the grocery as fresh as possible.

• Following the 1905 publication of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), Congress passed food policies and established a department which is now called Food and Drug Administration.

• As for the workers, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union organized in 1897. The CIO-affiliated United Packinghouse Workers began in 1937. Today, following a 1979 consolidation, the United Food and Commercial Workers ( represents some meat and poultry workers. The industry’s long history of strike-breaking, union-busting, automation and hiring lower-paid immigrants off-sets the unions’ notable accomplishments in worker safety and benefits.

Former USDA inspector Ted Conover still eats beef, although he is selective in his choices. Beware: meat quality is a long way from achievable safety. Be aware: Slaughterhouse workers are arguably as exploited today as those portrayed years ago by Upton Sinclair.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free newsletter about faith and work.