For many Americans, meat is a way of life. Breakfast may mean bacon and sausage. Turkey sandwiches or chicken-topped salads at lunch. Dinner might mean more chicken, grilled pork tenderloin, meatloaf, or roast beef. Last month, the New York Times reported on research that downplayed health risks associated with eating red meat, and the response from the country’s protein-loving masses was almost rapturous. In fact, Americans consume more meat than ever, an average of 222 pounds per person, up from 214 pounds in 2017.
But for the people who actually process the animals that provide America’s supply of pork, beef, and chicken, keeping up with the country’s demand for affordable meat is more dangerous than ever, and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration — the federal agency that enforces health- and safety-related labor laws — currently operates “with the fewest safety and health inspectors in its 48-year history,” according to a report from Human Rights Watch.
In 28 states, operators of cattle, pig, and poultry slaughtering plants are required to report workers’ deaths and injuries — including lost body parts or lost eyes — to an open-access database. “Pretty much every other day a worker is sent to the hospital or loses a body part,” says Matt McConnell, a research fellow at Human Rights Watch. On top of that, there are thousands of plant workers suffering chronic health issues: respiratory diseases brought on by the chemicals used to spray chickens, as well as crippling nerve and muscle pain that’s caused by repetitive, relentless motion. McConnell recalls one worker at a beef plant in Nebraska who said his hands were numb every day after work, and he was in so much pain that he couldn’t open a jar of mayonnaise.
McConnell is part of a team who spent nine months interviewing workers at meat and poultry plants across Nebraska, Alabama, North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Iowa. Their findings, recently published by HRW, are 100 pages of disturbing details on the injuries and injustices suffered by employees who, on average, earn less than $15 an hour.
One major concern is line speed, the rate at which animals are slaughtered in these processing plants. The faster the line, the more danger posed to workers, McConnell says. And on September 17, the USDA signed off on a rule that may push pork slaughter lines to run even faster. Line speeds at the slaughterhouses that produce 90 percent of the pork eaten in the U.S. will no longer be overseen by federal inspectors; the job is now left to plant supervisors, with no upper limit on speed. In pilot plants in Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, and California, this led to line speeds that averaged 1,099 heads per hour, versus 977 hph across plants not in the pilot program.
The USDA is pursuing similar deregulation of line speeds at beef slaughter plants, according to Food & Water Watch, and some of the industry’s largest poultry plants have already asked the USDA to exempt them from line-speed limits that were first set in 2014.
Workers affected by these increases have little recourse, and almost no way to advocate for their own safety. More than 60 percent of the workers McConnell interviewed for the report are immigrants, he says, some undocumented. While they’re still entitled to workplace protections under international human rights law, they’re afraid to speak up, especially in light of ICE raids across poultry plants in Mississippi. “Immigration enforcement actions under the Trump administration have made workers feel less safe,” McConnell says, “and feel less able to speak about abuses.”
Representatives for the plants, of course, say workers are free to stop lines for health and safety reasons. Tyson Foods has “policies and practices that allow any team member to stop a line at any time for worker or food safety issues,” the company wrote to Human Rights Watch. Smithfield Foods provided a similar statement. But when the Southern Poverty Law Center surveyed 300 poultry plant workers, almost 99 percent of them said they had no influence over line speed. Twelve percent of respondents said that supervisors sped up lines when workers asked to slow them down.
With dwindling oversight and consumer demand continuing to rise, market forces simply will not force the situation to change. Instead, McConnell says that Americans will have to advocate for the workers who cannot. We need to “leverage public outrage about the risk factors facing workers,” he says, urging consumers to sign Human Rights Watch’s petition to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service asking it to stop lifting line speed limits.
Meanwhile, the HRW report includes 26 recommendations — to Congress, the USDA, the Department of Labor, and the buyers who decide which products their stores will carry — about what can be done to improve the situation. For grocery stores and restaurants, that means refusing to buy meat and poultry from companies that abuse workers. For consumers, like you and me, that means asking your local grocery store or favorite burger place about sourcing, and walking away if we don’t like what we hear.