The Means, Part 6: Factory Farming
by Bobby Dillon
There’s something bizarre that happens in my brain when I go to the grocery store, or the restaurant. I see the burger sitting there, or I look at the eighty-eight-cent pork chops and all my knowledge about our corporate agricultural system just fades away. I know the human cost of these tasty treats. I know what they do to those animals, how they’re treated, and the conditions in which they live. But it doesn’t matter. It’s like I forget it all.
I love meat even though I know what it takes to get that meat to my plate. I love burgers. I love brats. I will FUCK UP a Cuban sandwich any day. I wish I could give you a good reason why I continue to make these choices, considering everything I know about what goes into these products, but I can’t. I just like meat.
In his 2014 book The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food, journalist Ted Genoways writes of “the true cost of cheap meat.” Focusing specifically on Hormel Foods, he details the horrors of factory farming and meat processing. Genoways tells the story of a major part of the American agricultural system.
It’s a system that depends on cheap labor and horrendous working conditions. It relies on keeping farmers tied down with debt and keeping them utterly dependent upon their corporate overlords. I want to emphasize here that while The Chain focuses on Hormel Foods, Hormel is NOT the only company that treats its workers and its farmers this way. Giant companies like Smithfield and IBP and Hormel make their money off the backs of hundreds of thousands of men and women and the only way it’s possible is through gross exploitation.
Animals are processed in these massive, sprawling factories. Genoways begins the book by describing “the brain machine” – which is to say, the machine that uses air pressure to smash a pig’s brains into a “pink slurry” which then gets sold as a thickening agent. Famously, as Genoways puts it, every single inch of a pig is edible. The toll the brain machine takes on the people who operate it is astounding, and it’s all done so Hormel can squeeze an extra penny or two out of each hog.
As it turns out, standing over a machine that blasts pig brains into slurry produces a lot (a whole fucking lot) of aerosolized pig brains. Wouldn’t you know it, breathing that shit in for eight to twelve hours a day, every day, carries some serious health risks. Genoways recounts the stories of several people who acquired rare neurological disorders as a result of working the brain machine.
Rare neurological disorders aside, nobody who works at a factory like this is safe. We’ll never really know how many injuries occur in workplaces like this. Over and over throughout the early chapters of the book, Genoways mentions people who have lost fingers or parts of fingers to the line at a meat processing plant. On top of this, people regularly develop repetitive stress injuries and carpal tunnel just from showing up to work every day.
Now, some work is just dangerous. People have been losing fingers way longer than capitalism has been around. BUT! Genoways lays out just how breakneck the pace is at one of these processing plants. From slaughter to packaging, these hogs move along a line (like the opposite of an assembly line… a disassembly line) where people cut it into bits to be packaged for the grocery store. Because the company wants to turn as much profit as possible, they make the line move as fast as the workers can go. You can guess what happens every time the line gets faster: people get hurt more, accidents happen. The crucial point here is that so many of these injuries are preventable – just slow the line down! But that would cut into the profits.
This is just a glimpse of the human suffering on offer in Genoways’s book. The toll this industry takes on the people who make it move is staggering and unsustainable. And that’s just what it does to workers. There’s a growing body of research that shows just how catastrophic this mode of food production is for the environment. From zombie soil that’s wasting away to hog farms polluting the water supply, this kind of farming is killing the environment.
I work in a grocery store. I work in the meat department, in fact. I’m not innocent here. I move serious weight. Pounds upon pounds of ground beef – a few pounds of 85-15 ground Chuck here, a few pounds of 90-10 ground Round there. Tack on a few pounds of 90-10 ground Sirloin, which is different from the 90-10 Round in ways I don’t understand yet. Whatever the reason, the Sirloin sounds fancier and it costs a dollar more per pound. I’m slinging meat for people most days of the week, and even I don’t see the real cost of this stuff.
By the time this stuff gets to the store it all looks so neat and nice and packaged. What I see is just perfectly identical chunks of meat, vacuum-sealed and packed into boxes – a mostly-bloodless, sanitized view. It abstracts the labor and brain-slurry that goes into making it. By the time this stuff makes it to the grocery store, it’s been stripped of its casual horror. 1300 pigs an hour, every hour.
If I asked 100 people whether they want THIS kind of food production or something humane that pays its workers a living wage, 99 of them would choose the latter. The vast majority of people don’t want others to suffer for their benefit. But that’s the thing about living in the heart of the greatest empire ever built: every comfort we enjoy comes at the cost of someone’s exploitation. The phones in our pockets, the cars we drive, the TVs in our living rooms, most of our clothes and so much more comes from another country with a bought-and-paid-for government that looks the other way when it comes to labor abuses.
Our government is ALSO bought and paid for by the companies that benefit most from this system. As a result, these transnational corporations get to do whatever they want, wherever they want. What they want is to make money and create surplus for their investors. How they do it, as Ted Genoways lays out in his book, is on the backs of thousands and thousands of VERY low-wage workers.
I highly recommend the book, but for a brief taste of what’s on offer, check out this article he wrote in The Guardian back in 2014.
We must come up with something better because even if everyone reading this were to stop eating meat today, it wouldn’t even make a dent in this system. Eating meat isn’t the problem – the problem is the fact that our entire agricultural system is designed from the ground up to produce profit. If something doesn’t produce profit, it doesn’t get made. The quest for profit demands as much profit as possible, regardless of what it does to the people who make the system move.
That means we can’t just rely on “consumers” to make the “right” choice – we need a complete system reform. We can build something better.