But the history of meatpacking work over the past 40 years shows that Trump’s executive order won’t address the underlying issues. The modern food system rests on a thin reed of worker abuse and poor sanitation that covid-19 has finally broken. The history of how we got here reveals that strengthening the food supply chain requires prioritizing safer working conditions.
For the first 80 years of the 20th century, workers and consumers gained substantial power to push meat producers to improve worker conditions and make meat safer through modern and sanitary production techniques. Doing so made the meat industry resilient. During this fight, notable successes included the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 (the less famous sibling of the Food and Drug Act of that same year), the expansion of inspection to include poultry and federal regulations limiting line speeds and other worker protections.
For example, in 1951, when a slaughterhouse owner in Kansas City, Mo. wanted to speed the conveyor belt that transported cattle carcasses through the facility, the Meat Inspection Division of the Department of Agriculture prevented the packing plant from doing so, judging the increase in speed too fast for workers. As one inspector’s supervisor explained, “it is wholly within your province to regulate the rate of slaughter and operations which assures the sanitary handling of product.” Consumers benefited from such oversight, too. The Inspection Division played a key role in reducing the incidents of trichinosis by requiring pork be processed at temperatures hot enough to kill the roundworms that caused the disease.
Despite the grueling work, gains by their unions by 1975 allowed meatpacking workers to make 14 percent more than the average for industrial work — earning about $28 per hour adjusted for inflation.
That didn’t mean that meatpacking was easy or safe work. In 1971, former meat processing plant worker Elias Barrientos wrote to California state regulators to report that he had contracted brucellosis a few years earlier while working at a pork processing plant in Los Angeles County and, as a result, had become too weak to work. Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that causes joint and muscle pain and fatigue, symptoms that debilitated Barrientos. Thanks to decades of dedicated eradication in cattle and hogs, only a few hogs slaughtered in California by the late-1960s were infected with the disease.
But as he explained it, the company failed to provide “adequate washrooms facilities” or bathrooms and forced workers to eat their lunches in the locker room. This meant that workers like him were constantly exposed to the infected viscera of the hog they slaughtered and processed. Eating meals near contaminated work clothes and the lack of sanitation equipment increased the risk of exposure to the bacteria. He warned that the state needed to force the company to fix this situation or others would become ill like he had.
Policymakers agreed: the pork processors endangered the lives of their workers by failing to provide the proper safety equipment and sanitary facilities. In 1971, Gov. Ronald Reagan’s administration issued a report warning companies that they needed to take steps to protect their workforce from Brucellosis, including providing proper protective gear for workers and building appropriate sanitary facilities in pork processing plants.
But this model of worker protection and regulation came tumbling down by the end of that decade and into the 1980s, when a new group of meat companies rose up and conquered the world’s meat industry. The secret to their success was moving the center of meat production away from its original home in the union strongholds of the industrial Midwest, cities like Chicago and Kansas City, and to the rural Midwest, South and Great Plains. In these areas, they built massive animal feeding facilities that specialized in producing a constant supply of animals ready for slaughter at newly built, similarly massive, slaughter and packing plants now located in the same areas. These highly mechanized facilities required fewer workers but operated at a faster pace while also producing products at a higher volume. Their profits came from the volume produced and not from raising prices to cover their costs.
By the 1990s, meatpacking work changed. It was no longer a job that provided a well-compensated stable middle-class industrial job. Instead, it was a job for the working poor, who often lived in crowded and unsanitary conditions because their wages could no longer cover homeownership. They were increasingly immigrants, often undocumented, and women, groups perceived to be unlikely to organize and resist employers’ directives.
In those decades, workers suffered as owners imposed faster work speeds. Workers were required to handle more meat at higher risk. Injury rates soared throughout the 1990s before dropping afterward but still remaining higher than average for industrial work. Major meat corporations point to the declining injury rates since the 1990s as a sign of success — but unions say that workers are underreporting injuries out of fear of reprisals, making official reports of injuries inaccurate.
Wages have plummeted 50 percent since 1975, with current median earnings at $14 per hour. The historian Roger Horowitz provides a stark assessment of this process: “almost a century after Upton Sinclair’s pioneering expose of meatpacking, packinghouse workers in the United States have tragically returned to the jungle.”
By 2010, four meat-processing corporations produced half of the meat consumed in the United States, a return to concentrated production not seen since the Meat Inspection Act passed in 1906. In the mid-2010s, the U.S. meat industry became more consolidated and globalized with foreign firms now owning some of the major domestic corporations.
They have kept food costs low and generated savings for consumers. Between 1900 and 1970, food consumed at home took up nearly one-third of a family’s budget; currently it is less than 10 percent. During those same 70 years of the 20th century, consumers were constant supporters of the meatpacking worker and they formed a political alliance to ensure the passage of new laws like the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967, which expanded federal inspection to cover meat produced and processed for intrastate consumption. They were united by the idea that vigorous and strictly enforced federal regulations helped both workers and consumers equally.
Yet, as meat prices and workers’ compensation declined, so too did the alliance. As meatpacking workers faced an ever-increasing line speed and the injury rate spiked, they were unable to mobilize their former allies or garner enough sympathies to block the increases. The USDA had used this power in the past, making it plausible that a committed coalition of meat consumers and workers might have put pressure on the government to use its powers to slow production speeds, increase the distance between workers and ensure that workers had adequate access to sanitation and proactive equipment. No such alliance coalesced, however, because consumers became detached from laborers in the fight between workers and management in the meat industry.
Without such interventions, the Trump administration has continued this decades-long process, lifting regulations on pork slaughterhouses, allowing increasing line speeds for poultry and allowing for fewer inspectors.
But the costs of cheap meat have been exposed by the coronavirus, which may have broken the American food production system where it is weakest: the worker’s health. Because of the changes to the industry over the last four decades, these facilities have become hot spots for covid-19 outbreaks. While covid-19 is ravaging the rural meatpacking industry’s poor workers, it is these broader shifts in the industry benefiting consumers at the expense of workers that has facilitated the rapid spread of the illness.
President Trump’s executive order empowered the federal government through the Department of Agriculture, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure that meat companies continue to operate but the order did not specify what kinds of worker safety measures ought to be implemented or what kinds of benchmarks might be required before an individual plant can reopen. Not only does this order put workers back at work to risk injury but it could expose them to covid-19, further threatening their lives.