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Fast-Food Nation Part Two: Meat and Potatoes

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Sprays of hot water blanched the fries, gusts of hot air dried them, and 25,000 pounds of boiling oil fried them to a slight crisp. Air cooled by compressed ammonia gas quickly froze them, a computerized sorter divided them into six-pound batches, and a device that spun like an out-of-control Lazy Susan used centrifugal force to align the french fries so that they all pointed in the same direction. The fries were sealed in brown bags, then the bags were loaded by robots into cardboard boxes, and the boxes were stacked by robots onto wooden pallets. Forklifts driven by human beings took the pallets to a freezer for storage. Inside that freezer I saw 20 million pounds of french fries, most of them destined for McDonald's, the boxes of fries stacked thirty feet high, the stacks extending for roughly forty yards. And the freezer was half empty. Every day about a dozen railway cars and about two dozen tractor-trailers pulled up to the freezer, loaded up with french fries and departed for McDonald's restaurants all over the West.

Near the freezer was a laboratory where men and women in white coats analyzed french fries day and night, measuring their sugar content, their starch content, their color. During the fall, Lamb Weston adds sugar to the fries; in the spring, it leaches sugar out of them; the goal is to maintain a uniform appearance throughout the year. Every half hour, a new batch of fries was cooked in fryers identical to those installed in fast-food kitchens. A middle-aged woman in a lab coat handed me a paper plate full of premium extra longs, the type of french fries sold at McDonald's, and a salt shaker and some ketchup. The fries on the plate looked so familiar yet wildly out of place in this laboratory setting, this food factory with its computer screens, digital readouts, shiny steel platforms and evacuation plans in case of ammonia-gas leaks. Despite all that, the french fries were delicious – crisp and golden brown, made from potatoes that had been in the ground that morning.

I finished them and asked for some more.

Where the Beef Has Been

You can smell Greeley, Colorado, long before you can see it. The smell is hard to forget but not easy to describe, a combination of live animals, manure and dead animals being rendered into dog food. The smell is worst during the summer months, hanging heavy in the warm air, almost assuming a physical presence, blanketing Greeley day and night. Some people who live there no longer notice the smell; it recedes into the background, present but not present, like the sound of traffic for most New Yorkers. Others can't stop thinking about the smell, even after years; it permeates everything, sickens them, interferes with their sleep. Greeley is a factory town, one where cattle are the units of production.

Monfort Inc., "The Complete Meat Company," runs a beef slaughterhouse, a sheep slaughterhouse and processing plants a few miles north of Greeley. To supply the beef slaughterhouse, Monfort operates two of the nation's largest feedlots, which together hold up to 200,000 head of cattle. One of the feed-lots stretches for almost two miles along Highway 35. At times, the animals are crowded so closely together that it looks like a Woodstock Festival for cattle, a moving mass of animals that goes on for acres. At feeding time, the cattle don't eat blue grama and buffalo grass off the prairie; during the three months before slaughter, they eat surplus grain dumped into long concrete troughs that resemble highway dividers. The grain fattens the cattle more rapidly than grass would. Almost two-thirds of the grain produced in the U.S. is now used to feed livestock, mainly cattle.

A typical steer will consume about two tons of grain during its stay at a feedlot, just to gain 400 pounds in weight. The process involves a fair amount of waste. Each steer deposits about fifty pounds of manure every day. The two feedlots outside Greeley produced more excrement last year than the populations of Denver, Boston, Atlanta and St. Louis – combined.

More than ninety percent of American cattle were grass-fed, not grain-fed, until the years after World War II. They roamed the range, eating native grasses, or lived on farms and ate hay. Warren Monfort, who owned a farm north of Greeley, became one of the nation's first large-scale cattle feeders, buying cheap corn, sugar beets and alfalfa from local farmers during the Depression. Monfort's feedlot business expanded after the war. By feeding cattle year-round, he could control the timing of his livestock sales and wait for the best prices at the Chicago stockyards. The meat of grain-fed beef was fatty and tender. Unlike grass-fed beef, it did not need to be aged for a few weeks; it could be eaten within days of the slaughter. Feedlots sprang up throughout the Midwest during the 1970s. The huge American grain surpluses, largely caused by government price supports, provided cheap food for livestock and made cattle feeding a standard practice in the nation's beef industry. The annual capacity of Warren Monfort's feedlots in the 1950s was about 20,000 head of cattle. The three Colorado feedlots operated by Monfort Inc. now fatten almost a million cattle a year.

A generation ago, meatpacking plants were located in cities across the United States. The plants were staffed by skilled union workers. Meatpacking was a difficult job but a highly paid and desirable one. It provided a stable middle-class income – a career. Live cattle were shipped from the high plains to urban packing houses, where they were slaughtered, cut into sides of beef and then sold to wholesalers. Skilled, unionized butchers reduced the sides of beef to marketable cuts or ground them into hamburger meat. But in 1966, a new company, Iowa Beef Processors (later known as IBP), launched a new meatpacking system that soon made the traditional slaughterhouse obsolete. IBP opened slaughterhouses in the high plains, placing them near the feedlots. Instead of shipping full sides of beef, IBP "fabricated" carcasses into smaller cuts within the plant and sold them as "boxed beef." It changed production methods in order to take advantage of a deskilled work force – much like the fast-food chains – simplifying each job into a single task that could be performed again and again. And it waged a ruthless campaign against labour unions, an effort made easier by the placement of its slaughterhouses in rural states such as Iowa and Nebraska that were hostile to unions. In the mid-1970s, the average meatpacker's wage was about fifteen dollars an hour (in today's dollars). The workers at IBP plants were paid about half that amount.

As IBP opened a series of slaughterhouses in small rural towns, becoming the nation's largest beef-processing company, its competitors were forced to adopt the same system of production or risk going out of business. The Monfort family had established a slaughterhouse near its feedlots in Greeley during the early 1960s, later becoming one of the leading meat-packers in the industry. The workers at Monfort be longed to a union and earned good wages. There was a waiting list for jobs at the plant. But the changes in the meatpacking industry soon reached Colorado. In 1980, Monfort shut down its slaughterhouse in Greeley and fired all the workers. When the beef plant reopened two years later, union members were not rehired and wages were cut by forty percent.

The same production system that enabled meatpacking companies to get rid of their union workers allowed supermarket chains and wholesalers to fire their skilled, highly paid butchers. More and more beef processing took place within slaughterhouses. Grinders were installed to make hamburger meat. And the growing purchasing power of the supermarket chains and the fast-food chains encouraged concentration in the meatpacking industry. In 1968, McDonald's bought ground beef from 175 local suppliers around the country; a few years later, seeking to achieve uniformity as it expanded, McDonald's reduced the number of its beef suppliers to five. Rival meatpackers joined forces to cut costs and wipe out their competition. In 1918, the five largest meatpackers controlled fifty-five percent of the American market. President Woodrow Wilson's administration curtailed the power of these companies, known as the Beef Trust, using a consent decree. In 1977, the four largest meatpacking companies controlled only twenty-five percent of the market. By the end of the 1980s, however, three multinational corporations controlled more than seventy percent of the beef slaughter in the United States – the greatest degree of market concentration in the beef industry since record-keeping began in the late nineteenth century. The Justice Department during the Reagan administration did not oppose the disappearance of hundreds of small meatpacking firms. On the contrary, the Justice Department opposed using antitrust laws to stop the giant meatpackers.

In 1983, Monfort sued Excel – the nation's second-largest beef processor, owned by Cargill – to prevent it from acquiring Spencer Beef, the nation's third-largest beef processor. Lawyers for Monfort argued that the acquisition would allow Excel to engage in predatory pricing and to reduce competition. A panel of federal judges ruled in favor of Monfort, but Excel appealed their decision to the U.S. supreme Court. Reagan's Justice Department submitted a brief in the case, arguing on behalf of Excel, claiming it had every right to buy a rival company. In 1986, the Supreme Court approved the merger of America's second- and third-largest meatpacking companies. The following year, Monfort gave up its independence and agreed to a takeover by the ConAgra Corp. "It seemed to me that if the industry was going to be concentrated," Ken Monfort said, explaining the sale of the company founded by his father, "there should be at least three large players instead of just two."

By purchasing Monfort, ConAgra became the largest meatpacker in the world. It is now the biggest food company in the United States. In addition to being the top producer of french fries, ConAgra is the largest manufacturer of frozen food, the largest sheep processor and turkey processor, the largest flour miller, the largest distributor of agricultural chemicals, the third-largest pork processor, as well as a leading chicken processor, seed producer, feed producer and commodity-futures trader. ConAgra sells its food under dozens of retail brand names, including Hunt's, Chun King, Swiss Miss, Orville Redenbacher's, Reddi-wip, Knott's Berry Farm and Healthy Choice. Twenty years ago, ConAgra – a combination of two Latin words whose intended meaning is "partnership with the land" – was an obscure Nebraska flour company with annual revenues of less than $600 million. Last year, ConAgra's revenues were nearly $24 billion. The company's phenomenal growth in the 1980s was driven by a vow to increase its earnings per share by at least fourteen percent every year. Top managers who fail to reach their targeted profit levels are often fired. The workers at ConAgra plants are viewed as being equally expendable. In April 1996, ConAgra closed a meatpacking plant in Des Moines, terminating the employment of 1,322 workers with just a day's notice. ConAgra's president once sought changes in the Nebraska tax code by warning the state legislature, "Some Friday night we (may) turn out the lights, click, click... back up the trucks, and we'll be gone by Monday morning."

The unprecedented degree of concentration in the meatpacking industry has helped depress the prices that ranchers receive for their cattle. In the last two decades, the rancher's share of every retail dollar spent on beef has fallen from sixty-four cents to forty-nine cents. "If ConAgra's my only buyer," asked Dave Carter, head of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, "and on the day I need to be selling, they're not buying, what kind of a market is that?" A 1996 United States Department of Agriculture investigation of packer concentration found that many ranchers were afraid to testify against the meatpacking companies, fearing retaliation and "economic ruin." The four largest meat-packers now control perhaps twenty percent of the live cattle in the United States. When the price of cattle starts to rise, the meatpacking companies can flood the market with their own animals, driving the prices down. They can also obtain cattle through confidential agreements with large producers, never revealing the true prices being paid. "A free market requires many buyers as well as many sellers, all with equal access to accurate information, all entitled to trade on the same terms and none with a big enough share of the market to influence price," a report by Nebraska's Center for Rural Affairs concluded. "Nothing close to those conditions now exists in the cattle market."

In Meatpackers and Beef Barons, sociologist Carol Andreas calls Greeley a "modern-day company town" and describes the changes in its work force during the 1980s. When Monfort reopened its beef plant there in 1982, after breaking the union, it began to hire recent immigrants – some of them illegal – from Mexico, Central America and Southeast Asia. Jobs that had once provided a solid middle-class life now trapped workers in rural poverty. Instead of a waiting list, the meatpacking plant soon had a turnover rate that approached 100 percent a year, as the company churned through its workers. Andreas suggests that the high turnover rate improved the company's bottom line. A worker needed six months to a year of employment at the plant to get health insurance, two years of employment to earn vacation pay. "There are some economies, frankly," one meat-industry executive admitted in 1984, "that result from hiring new employees." Monfort's influence extended throughout Weld County and the city of Greeley. The director for environmental protection of Weld County's Health Department later became the vice president of ConAgra Red Meats, taking charge of its environmental operations. The doctor at the Greeley Medical Clinic who evaluated the severity of many workplace injuries – Andreas calls him "the one doctor who was most despised by workers" – later became the corporate medical director for ConAgra Red Meats. And when workers at the Monfort Portion Foods plant went on strike in 1987, inmates at a local halfway house were hired to do those jobs.

In 1992, the National Labor Relations Board found that Monfort had committed "numerous, pervasive and outrageous" violations of labor laws, including "unlawful termination of union supporters, interrogations, threats of plant closings... unilateral changes in working conditions (and) threats of discharge." Employees who had been unfairly dismissed were awarded a $10 million settlement, and workers at the Monfort beef plant voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers union. A list of the slaughterhouse job categories in the latest union contract evokes a world unfamiliar to most people, with a nomenclature all its own: knocker, sticker, shackler, rumper, tub dumpler, knuckle dropper, splitter top/bottom butt, feed kill chain.

Today, Monfort is still the largest employer in Weld County, with about 4,000 workers at its feedlots, slaughterhouses and processing facilities. The majority of the workers at Monfort's beef plant cannot speak English. Most of them are Mexican immigrants who live in places like the River Park Mobile Court, a collection of battered old trailers just down the road from the slaughterhouse. The basic pay at the beef plant is now $9.20 an hour; health insurance is offered after six months; vacation pay after a year. Monfort refuses to disclose the current rate of turnover; a union official told me that roughly seventy percent of the workers quit or are fired every year. The high turnover rate at the slaughterhouse is made possible by the steady flow into Greeley of poor immigrants desperate for work.

Javier Ramirez is president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 990, which represents employees at the Monfort beef plant in Greeley. Ramirez is in his late twenties and knows a fair amount about beef. His father is a UFCW leader in Chicago. Ramirez grew up around slaughterhouses and watched the beef industry abandon his hometown for rural plants in Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and Colorado. The UFCW has given workers in Greeley the ability to challenge unfair dismissals and to file grievances against supervisors. The return of the union has led to pay raises and better working conditions. But the union's power has been limited by the high turnover rate among Monfort workers and the aging equipment at the beef plant. Demands for higher pay could prompt ConAgra to shut the plant down. Monfort has lately tried in good faith to screen out illegal immigrants and improve the safety record at the plant. Nevertheless, one of the most pressing issues for Javier Ramirez is the danger that slaughterhouse workers face every day: the risks to their health and their lives.

The injury rate among meat-packers is the highest of any occupation in the United States. Working in a slaughterhouse is three times more dangerous about one-third of all slaughterhouse workers – roughly 50,000 men and women – suffer an injury or an illness that requires first aid on the job. Aside from the automated production lines and a variety of power tools, most of the work in American slaughterhouses is still performed by hand. Poultry plants have been largely mechanized, thanks to the breeding of chickens that are uniform in size; but cattle come in all sizes and shapes, varying in weight by hundreds of pounds and preventing the mechanization of beef plants. A sharp knife is still the most important tool in a slaughterhouse. Lacerations are the most common injury suffered by meatpackers, who often stab themselves or someone working nearby. Tendinitis and Cumulative Trauma Disorders are also quite common. Many slaughterhouse workers make a knife cut every three seconds, which adds up to about 10,000 cuts during an eight-and-a-half-hour shift. If the knife is not sharpened regularly and grows dull, additional pressure is placed on a worker's tendons, joints and nerves. A large number of meatpackers develop shoulder problems, carpal tunnel syndrome and "trigger finger" (a disorder in which fingers become frozen in a curled position). The slippery floors in slaughterhouses, the carcasses rapidly swinging past, and the cutting tools and heavy machinery are responsible for back injuries, falls, broken bones, dismemberments and fatal accidents.

Perhaps the leading determinant of the injury rate at a slaughterhouse is the speed of the production line. Meatpackers often work within inches of each other, wielding large knives. As the pace increases, so does the risk of accidental cuts and stabbings. About seventy-five cattle an hour were slaughtered in the old meatpacking plants in Chicago. Twenty years ago, the Monfort plant in Greeley slaughtered about 175 cattle an hour. By the early 1990s, the Monfort plant slaughtered as many as 400 cattle an hour, about half a dozen animals every minute, sent down a single production line, carved by workers under tremendous pressure not to fall behind.

Beef slaughterhouses now operate at a low profit margin. The three giant meatpacking companies – Monfort, IBP and Excel – try to increase earnings by maximizing the volume of production at their plants. A faster pace means higher profits. Declining beef consumption in the United States has been prompted less by health concerns than by the price of beef compared with the prices of other meats. The same factors that make beef slaughterhouses inefficient (the lack of mechanization, the reliance on human labor) also encourage companies to make them even more dangerous (by speeding up the pace).

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