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Fast-Food Nation Part Two: Meat and Potatoes

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The slaughterhouse workers I met in Greeley talked about the difficulties of their jobs, as well as a few of the rewards. Felipe (not his real name) was originally from Chihuahua, Mexico. He learned about job openings at the Monfort plant in the late 1980s from a friend who was already in the United States. Felipe crossed the border illegally, made it to Greeley, applied for a job at the plant and anxiously waited to see whether Monfort would hire him. For two weeks he lived outdoors in Greeley, sleeping under bridges and working at construction sites during the day. Monfort hired Felipe, not at all concerned about his lack of English, and asked whether he knew of other people back home who might want to work at the plant. His first day at the slaughterhouse was confusing. "Nobody helped train me – no training how to use the knife," Felipe said. "So you see how the people on either side of you do the work, and then you do it."

Jose (not his real name) had been employed at the slaughterhouse for more than ten years. During that time many workers had lost fingers, mainly while using power saws. One man lost an arm in the box-making machine. People get cut all the time, trying to keep up with the pace. "The knives don't know any difference between cow meat and human meat," he said. Jose hurt one hand while operating a machine and badly injured a shoulder during a fall. A company doctor told him the shoulder was just fine; six months later an orthopedist told him surgery was necessary; years later, the shoulder still bothers him sometimes. His toughest stretch at the slaughterhouse was working a double shift. Jose didn't want to do it but thought he'd be fired for refusing. And so he worked a double shift six days a week. He would put in seventeen hours straight, drive forty miles home, sleep for a while and then return to the slaughterhouse. He did this for four months. "I'll remember that till the day I die," he says. Jose now works forty-eight hours a week at the Monfort plant and about twenty-five hours a week at a local fast-food restaurant. His wife works fifty-six hours a week at two different restaurants. They still have payments to make on their trailer home, and they have two teenage children. Though he has worked at the Monfort beef plant for more than a decade, Jose earns an hourly wage that is only twenty cents higher than the starting wage. "But the whole thing is," he tells me, as though revealing a dark secret, "if they'd just pay a decent wage so I didn't have to pull two jobs, you know, it wouldn't be a bad place to work."

The speed of the production line at a slaughterhouse is largely responsible not only for the high injury rate but also for the contamination of the meat. The problem starts in the feedlots. A government health official, who prefers not to be named, compares the sanitary conditions at a modern feedlot to those of a crowded European city during the Middle Ages, when people dumped their chamber pots out the windows, raw sewage ran in the streets and epidemics raged. The cattle now packed into feedlots get little exercise and live amid pools of manure. Far removed from their natural habitats, the cattle become more prone to illnesses. And what they are fed often contributes to the spread of disease. The rise in grain prices has encouraged the feeding of less-expensive materials to cattle, especially substances with a high protein content that can accelerate growth. About eighty percent of the cattle in the United States were routinely fed slaughterhouse wastes – the rendered remains of dead sheep and dead cattle – until August 1997. The USDA banned the practice, hoping to prevent a domestic outbreak of mad-cow disease. Millions of dead cats and dead dogs, purchased from animal shelters, are being fed to cattle each year, along with dead ducks, geese, elk and deer. steven P. Bjerklie, a former editor of the trade journal Meat and Poultry, is appalled by what often winds up in cattle feed. "Goddamn it, these cattle are ruminants," Bjerklie says. "They're designed to eat grass and, maybe, grain. I mean, they have four stomachs for a reason: to eat products that have a high cellulose content. They are not designed to eat other animals."

The slaughterhouse tasks most likely to contaminate meat are the removal of an animal's hide and the evisceration of its digestive system. The hides are now removed by machine; but if a hide has not been adequately cleaned first, pieces of dirt and manure may fall from it onto the meat. Stomachs and intestines are still pulled out of cattle by hand; if the job is not performed carefully, the contents of the digestive system may spill everywhere. Workers being rushed are bound to make mistakes. The consequences of one error are quickly multiplied. Knives are supposed to be cleaned and disinfected every few minutes, something that workers in a hurry tend to forget. "If a knife gets contaminated," Bjerklie says, "then it's just going to spread that contamination to everything it touches." The literature on the causes of food poisoning is full of euphemisms and dry scientific terms: fecal coliform levels, food-borne pathogens, total plate counts, et al. behind them all lies a simple explanation for why most people get sick: There is shit on the meat.

One night I visit a slaughterhouse somewhere in the high plains. The slaughterhouse is one of the nation's largest. About 5,000 head of cattle enter it every day, single file, and leave in a different form. Someone who has access to the plant, who is upset by its working conditions, offers to give me a tour. The slaughterhouse is an immense building, gray and square, about three stories high with no windows on the front and no architectural clues to what's happening inside. My friend gives me a chain-mail apron and gloves, suggesting I try them on. Workers on the line wear about eight pounds of chain mail beneath their white coats – shiny steel armor that covers their hands, wrists, stomach and back. The chain mail is designed to protect workers from cutting themselves and from being cut by other workers. But knives somehow manage to get around it. My host hands me some Wellingtons, the kind of knee-high rubber boots that English gentlemen wear in the countryside. "Tuck your pants into the boots," he says. "We'll be walking through some blood."

I put on a hard hat and climb a stairway. The sounds get louder – factory sounds, the noise of power tools and machinery, bursts of compressed air. We start at the end of the line, the fabricating room. Workers call it "fab." When we step inside, fab seems familiar: steel catwalks, pipes along the walls, a vast room, a maze of conveyor belts. This could be the Lamb Wenston plant, except hunks of red meat ride the belts instead of french fries. Some machines assemble cardboard boxes, others vacuum-seal subprimals of beef in clear plastic. The workers look extremely busy, but there's nothing unsettling about this part of the plant. You see meat like this all the time in the back of your local supermarket.

The fab room is refrigerated, kept at about forty degrees. As you head up the line, the feel of the place starts to change. The pieces of meat get bigger. Workers – about half of them women, almost all of them young and Latino – slice meat with long, slender knives. They stand at a table that is chest high, grab meat off a conveyor belt, trim away fat, throw meat back on the belt, toss the scraps onto a conveyor belt above them and then grab more meat, all in a matter of seconds. I'm now struck by how many workers there are, hundreds of them, pressed close together, constantly moving, slicing. You see hard hats, white coats, flashes of steel. Nobody is smiling or chatting; they're too busy, anxiously trying not to fall behind. An old man walks past me, pushing a blue plastic barrel filled with scraps. A few workers carve the meat with Whiz-ards, small electric knives that have spinning round blades. The Whizzards look like the Norelco razors that Santa rides in the TV ads. I notice that a few of the women near me are sweating, even though the place is freezing cold.

Sides of beef suspended from an overhead trolley swing toward a group of men. Each worker has a large knife in one hand and a steel hook in the other. They grab the meat with their hooks and attack it fiercely with their knives. As they hack away, using all their strength, grunting, the place suddenly feels different, primordial. The machinery seems beside the point, and what's going on here has been going on for thousands of years – the meat, the hook, the knife, men straining to cut more meat.

On the kill floor, what I see no longer unfolds in a logical manner. It's one surreal image after another. A worker with a power saw slices cattle into halves as though they were two-by-fours, and then the halves swing by me into the cooler. Dozens of cattle, stripped of their skins, dangle on chains from their hind legs. My host stops and asks how I feel, whether I want to go any farther. This is where some people get sick. The kill floor is hot and humid. Cattle have a body temperature of about 101 degrees, and there are a lot of them in the room. It stinks of manure. Carcasses swing so fast along the rail that you have to keep an eye on them constantly, dodge them, watch your step, or one will slam you and throw you onto the bloody concrete floor. It happens to workers all the time.

I see: a man reach inside cattle and pull out their kidneys with his bare hands, then drop the kidneys down a metal chute, over and over again, as each animal passes by him; a stainless-steel rack of tongues; Whizzards peeling meat off decapitated heads, picking them almost as clean as the white skulls painted by Georgia O'Keeffe. We wade through blood that's ankle deep and that pours down drains into vats below us. As we approach the start of the line, for the first time I hear the steady pop, pop, pop of live animals being stunned.

The cattle suspended above me look just like the cattle I've seen on ranches for years, but these ones are upside down, swinging on hooks. For a moment, the sight seems unreal; there are so many of them, a herd of them, lifeless. And then I see a few hind legs still kicking, a final reflex action, and the reality comes hard and clear.

For eight and a half hours, a worker called a sticker does nothing but stand in a river of blood, being drenched in blood, slitting the neck of a steer every ten seconds or so, severing its carotid artery. He uses a long knife and must hit exactly the right spot to kill the animal humanely. He hits that spot again and again. We walk up a slippery metal stairway and reach a small platform, where the production line begins. A man turns and smiles at me. He wears safety goggles and a hard hat. His face is splattered with gray matter and blood. He is the knocker, the man who welcomes cattle to the building. Cattle walk down a narrow chute and pause in front of him, blocked by a gate, and then he shoots them in the head with a captive bolt stunner – a gun attached to the ceiling by a long hose – which fires a column of compressed air that knocks the cattle unconscious. the animals keep strolling up, oblivious to what comes next, and he stands over them and shoots. For eight and a half hours, he just shoots. As I stand there, he misses a few times and shoots the same animal twice. As soon as the steer falls, a worker grabs one of its hind legs and shackles it to a chain, and the chain lifts the huge animal into the air.

I watch the knocker knock cattle for a couple of minutes. The animals are powerful and strong one moment and then gone in an instant, suspended from a rail, ready to have their necks slit. A steer slips from its chain, falls to the ground, and gets its head caught in a conveyor belt. The line stops as workers struggle to free the steer, stunned but alive, from the machinery. I've seen enough.

I step out of the building into the cool night air and follow the path that leads cattle into the slaughterhouse. They pass me, driven toward the building by workers with long white sticks that seem to glow in the dark. One steer turns and tries to run. But workers drive him back to join the rest. The cattle lazily walk single file toward the muffled sounds, pop, pop, pop, coming from the open door.

The path has hairpin turns that prevent cattle from seeing what's in store, keeping them relaxed. As the ramp gently slopes upward, the animals may think they're headed for another truck, another road trip – and they are, in unexpected ways. The ramp widens as it reaches ground level and then leads to a large cattle pen with wooden fences, a corral that belongs in a meadow, not here. As I walk along the fence, a group of cattle approaches me, looking me straight in the eye, like dogs hoping for a treat, and follow me, out of some mysterious impulse. I stop and try to absorb the whole scene: the cool breeze, the cattle and their gentle lowing, a cloudless sky, steam rising from the plant in the moonlight. And then I notice that the building does have one window, a small square of light on the second floor. It offers a glimpse of what's hidden behind this huge, blank facade. Through the little window you can see bright-red carcasses on hooks, going round and round.

In the Early Part of this Century, hamburgers had a bad reputation. According to the historian David Gerard Hogan, the hamburger was considered "a food for the poor," tainted, unsafe to eat. Restaurants rarely served hamburgers; they were sold at lunch carts parked near factories, at circuses, carnivals and state fairs. Ground beef was rumored to contain old, putrid meat heavily laced with chemical preservatives. "The hamburger habit is just about as safe," one food critic warned, "as getting your meat out of a garbage can...." White Castle, the nation's first hamburger chain, worked hard in the 1920s to dispel the hamburger's tawdry image. As Hogan notes in his history of the chain, Selling 'em by the Sack, the founders of White Castle placed their grills in the direct view of customers, claimed that fresh ground beef was delivered two to four times a day, chose a name with connotations of purity and even sponsored an experiment in which a University of Minnesota medical student lived for thirteen weeks on "nothing but White Castle hamburgers and water."

The success of White Castle in the East and the Midwest helped to popularize hamburgers and to remove much of their social stigma. The chain did not attract a broad range of people, however; most of its customers were urban, working-class and male. The rise of drive-ins and fast-food restaurants in Southern California elevated the once-lowly hamburger to the status of America's national dish during the 1950s. Ray Kroc set out to attract families to McDonald's. Hamburgers seemed an ideal food for children: convenient, inexpensive, handheld and easy to chew. Prior to World War II, pork was the most widely consumed meat in the United States. Rising incomes, the growth of the fast-food industry and the mass appeal of the hamburger pushed American consumption of beef higher than that of pork. By the early 1990s, beef production was responsible for almost half of the employment in American agriculture, and the annual revenues generated by beef, nearly $50 billion, were the highest of any agricultural commodity in the United States. Every day, about one-third of the American people ate a hamburger. Roughly seventy percent of those hamburgers were bought at fast-food restaurants. And children between the ages of seven and thirteen ate more hamburgers than anyone else – an average of six a week.

In January 1993, doctors at a hospital in Seattle noticed that a large number of children were being admitted with bloody diarrhea. Some were suffering from hemolytic uremic syndrome, a disorder that often causes kidney failure. Health officials soon traced the outbreak of food poisoning to under-cooked hamburgers served at Jack in the Box restaurants. The hamburgers contained a potentially lethal microbe: Escherichia coli O157:H7. Jack in the Box issued an immediate recall of the contaminated ground beef, which had been supplied by the Vons Co. in Los Angels. Nevertheless, more than 700 people in five different states were sickened by Jack in the Box hamburgers, about 195 were hospitalized, and four died. Most of the victims were children; Jack in the Box accepted responsibility for their medical costs, and the chain was nearly destroyed by the publicity surrounding the outbreak. But this was not the first outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 linked to fast-food hamburgers. As Nichols Fox reveals in her book on food-borne pathogens,Spoiled, dozens of children were sickened in 1982 by contaminated McDonald's hamburgers in Oregon and Michigan. McDonald's had quietly cooperated with investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, providing ground-beef samples [Cont. on page 136] that proved to be tainted with E. coli O157:H7. In public, however, the McDonald's Corp. denied that its hamburgers were responsible for any illnesses. Reports on the outbreak never mentioned McDonald's, referring to the chain simply as "Restaurant A."

In the five years since the Jack in the Box outbreak, perhaps 100,000 Americans, the majority of them children, have been made seriously ill by E. coli O157:H7. Every week, on the average, a few Americans die from eating hamburgers. E. coli O157:H7 is a mutated version of a bacterium found abundantly in the human digestive system. The E. coli bacteria in our digestive system help the body synthesize vitamins and ward off dangerous organisms. E. coli O157:H7, on the other hand, releases a powerful toxin that can destroy the lining of the intestine. In most cases, the ensuing bloody diarrhea subsides within a week or so. In about six percent of the cases, however, the toxins produced by E. coli O157:H7 enter the bloodstream, interfering with kidney function and causing hemolytic uremic syndrome. Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable to developing HUS – although perfectly healthy adults can develop it, as well. The illness can cause kidney failure, anemia, internal bleeding and the destruction of vital organs. It can cause anyone to suffer seizures or strokes, or to lapse into a come. The painfull and debilitating symptoms of the illness may last for weeks. About five percent of the people who develop HUS are killed by it. Those who survive often have permanent disabilities, such as blindness or brain damage. E. coli O157:H7 is now the leading cause of kidney failure among American children.

Antibiotics have proven ineffective in treating illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7. Some evidence indicates that treatment with antibiotics actually makes these illnesses worse. At the moment, little can be done for people with HUS, aside from the provision of fluids, transfusions and dialysis. E. coli O157:H7 infections are extraordinarily easy to transmit. To be infected by most food-borne pathogens, such as salmonella, you have to consume a fairly large dose – thousands or even millions of organisms. An infection with E. coli O157:H7 can be caused by as few as ten organisms. The microbe can survive on counter tops for days and in moist environments for weeks. Children have been infected by hand-to-mouth contact, by swimming in a contaminated water park and by crawling on contaminated carpeting at a day-care center. A microscopic particle of uncooked hamburger tainted with the bug is enough to kill you.

Although outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 have been linked to lettuce, alfalfa sprouts and apple cider, cattle manure has ultimately been the cause of most infections. Cattle seem to be the primary host for the microbe; it thrives in their digestive systems without making the animals sick. A recent study of cattle manure at one feedlot found that about 1.6 percent of the samples carried E. coli O157:H7. Given that rate of infection, perhaps five cattle bearing the microbe are eviscerated at a large slaughterhouse every hour. The centralization and concentration of beef processing has spread E. coli O157:H7 far and wide. Steven P. Bjerklie, the former editor of Meat and Poultry, believes that "the structure of this industry is just beautifully conducive to massive contamination of ground beef." A single large plant can produce 800,000 pounds of hamburger meat daily – and just one animal infected with E. coli O157:H7 can contaminate 32,000 pounds of that meat because of the way ground beef is made today. A single fast-food hamburger now contains the meat of anywhere from forty to one hundred different cattle, raised in as many as half a dozen different countries.

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