Cogs in the Great Machine
excerpted from the book
Fast Food Nation
by Eric Schlosser
Perennial Books, 2002, paper
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, blanketing
Greeley day and night like an invisible fog. Many people who live
there no longer notice the smell; it recedes into the background,
present but not present, like the sound of traffic for New Yorkers.
Others can't stop thinking about the smell, even after years;
it permeates everything, gives them headaches, makes them nauseous,
interferes with their sleep. Greeley is a modern-day factory town
where cattle are the main units of production, where workers and
machines turn large steer into small, vacuum-sealed packages of
meat. The billions of fast food hamburgers that Americans now
eat every year come from places like Greeley. The industrialization
of cattle-raising and meatpacking over the past two decades has
completely altered how beef is produced-and the towns that produce
it. Responding to the demands of the fast food and supermarket
chains, the meatpacking giants have cut costs by cutting wages.
They have turned one of the nation's best-paying manufacturing
jobs into one of the lowest-paying, created a migrant industrial
workforce of poor immigrants, tolerated high injury rates, and
spawned rural ghettos in the American heartland. Crime, poverty,
drug abuse, and homelessness have lately taken root in towns where
you'd least expect to find them. The effects of this new meatpacking
regime have become as inescapable as the odors that drift from
its feedlots, rendering plants, and pools of slaughterhouse waste.
The ConAgra Beef Company runs the nation's
biggest meatpacking complex just a few miles north of downtown
Greeley. Weld County, which includes Greeley, earns more money
every year from livestock products than any other county in the
United States. ConAgra is the largest private employer in Weld
County, running a beef slaughterhouse and a sheep slaughterhouse,
as well as rendering and processing facilities.
To supply the beef slaughterhouse, ConAgra
operates a pair of enormous feedlots. Each of them can hold up
to one hundred thousand head of cattle. At times the animals are
crowded so closely together it looks like a sea of cattle, a mooing,
moving mass of brown and white fur that goes on for acres. These
cattle don't eat blue grama and buffalo grass off the prairie.
During the three months before slaughter, they eat grain dumped
into long concrete troughs that resemble highway dividers. The
grain fattens the cattle quickly, aided by the anabolic steroids
implanted in their ear. A typical steer will consume more than
three thousand pounds of grain during its stay at a feedlot, just
to gain four hundred pounds in weight. The process involves a
fair amount of waste. Each steer deposits about fifty pounds of
urine and manure every day. Unlike human waste, the manure is
not sent to a treatment plant. It is dumped into pits, huge pools
of excrement that the industry calls "lagoons." The
amount of waste left by the cattle that pass through Weld County
is staggering. The two Monfort feedlots outside Greeley produce
more excrement than the cities of Denver, Boston, Atlanta, and
When the slaughterhouse in Greeley first opened, its rural location
was unusual. Meatpacking plants were much more likely to be found
in urban areas. Most large American cities had a meatpacking district
with its own stockyards and slaughterhouses. Cattle were shipped
there by rail, slaughtered, carved into sides of beef, then sold
to local butchers and wholesalers. Omaha and Kansas City were
prominent meatpacking towns, and the United Nations building now
stands on land once occupied by New York City's stockyards. For
more than a century, however, Chicago reigned as the meatpacking
capital of the world. The Beef Trust was born there, the major
meatpacking firms were headquartered there, and roughly forty
thousand people were employed there in a square-mile meat district
anchored by the Union Stockyards. Refrigerated sides of beef were
shipped from Chicago not only throughout the United States, but
also throughout Europe. At the dawn of the twentieth century,
Upton Sinclair considered Chicago's Packingtown to be "the
greatest aggregation of labor and capital ever gathered in one
place." It was in his view the supreme achievement of American
capitalism, as well as its greatest disgrace.
The old Chicago slaughterhouses were usually
brick buildings, four or five stories high. Cattle were herded
up wooden ramps to the top floor, where they were struck on the
head with a sledgehammer, slaughtered, then disassembled by skilled
workers. The animals eventually left the building on the ground
floor, coming out as sides of beef, cans of beef, or boxes of
sausage ready to be loaded into railcars.
The working conditions in these meatpacking
plants were brutal. In The Jungle ( 1906) Upton Sinclair described
a litany of horrors: severe back and shoulder injuries, lacerations,
amputations, exposure to dangerous chemicals, and memorably, a
workplace accident in which a man fell into a vat and got turned
into lard. The plant kept running, and the lard was sold to unsuspecting
consumers. Human beings, Sinclair argued, had been made "cogs
in the great packing machine," easily replaced and entirely
disposable. President Theodore Roosevelt ordered an independent
investigation of The Jungle's sensational details. The accuracy
of the book was confirmed by federal investigators, who found
that Chicago's meatpacking workers labored "under conditions
that are entirely unnecessary and unpardonable, and which are
a constant menace not only to their own health, but to the health
of those who use the food products prepared by them."
The popular outrage inspired by The Jungle
led Congress to enact food safety legislation in 1906. Little
was done, however, to improve the lives of packinghouse workers,
whose misfortune had inspired Upton Sinclair to write the book.
"I aimed for the public's heart," he later wrote in
his autobiography, "and by accident I hit it in the stomach."
For the next thirty years, unions battled to gain representation
among Chicago's stockyard and slaughterhouse workers, who were
mainly eastern European immigrants. The large meatpacking firms
used company spies, blacklists, and African-American strikebreakers
to thwart organizing efforts. Nevertheless, most of Chicago's
packinghouse workers had gained union representation by the end
of the Depression. After World War II, their wages greatly improved,
soon exceeding the national average for workers in manufacturing.
Meatpacking was still a backbreaking, dangerous job, but for many
it was ~ also a well-paid and desirable one. It provided a stable,
middle-class, income. Swift & Company, the largest firm in
the industry until the early 1960s, was also the last of the big
five meatpackers to remain privately controlled. Much like Ken
Monfort, Harold Swift ran the company founded by his father with
a paternalistic concern for workers. Swift & Company paid
the industry's highest wages, guaranteed long-term job security,
worked closely with union officials to address worker grievances,
and provided bonuses, pensions, and other benefits.
In 1960 Currier J. Holman and A. D. Anderson,
two former Swift executives, decided to start their own meatpacking
company, convinced that by slashing costs they could compete with
the industry giants. The following year Iowa Beef Packers opened
its first slaughterhouse-a meat factory that in its own way proved
as influential as the first Speedee Service McDonald's in San
Bernardino. Applying the same labor principles to meatpacking
that the McDonald brothers had applied to making hamburgers, Holman
and Anderson designed a production system for their slaughterhouse
in Denison, Iowa, that eliminated the need for skilled workers.
The new IBP plant was a one-story structure with a disassembly
line. Each worker stood in one spot along the line, performing
the same simple task over and over again, making the same knife
cut thousands of times during an eight-hour shift. The gains that
meatpacking workers had made since the days of The Jungle stood
in the way of IBP's new system, whose success depended upon access
to a cheap and powerless workforce. At the dawn of the fast food
era, IBP became a meatpacking company with a fast food mentality,
obsessed with throughput, efficiency, centralization, and control.
"We've tried to take the skill out of every step," A.
D. Anderson later boasted.
In addition to creating a mass production
system that employed a de-skilled workforce, IBP put its new slaughterhouses
in rural areas dose to the feedlots-and far away from the urban
strongholds of the nation's labor unions. The new interstate highway
system made it possible to rely upon trucks, instead of railroads,
to ship meat. In 1967 IBP opened a large plant in Dakota City,
Nebraska, that not only slaughtered cattle but also "fabricated"
them into smaller cuts of meat -into primals (chucks, loins, ribs,
rounds) and subprimals (such as chuck rolls). Instead of shipping
whole sides of beef, IBP shipped these smaller cuts, vacuum-sealed
and plastic-wrapped, as "boxed beef." This new way of
marketing beef enabled supermarkets to fire most of their skilled,
unionized butchers. It also left IBP with a great deal of leftover
bones, blood, and scraps of meat that could be rendered into profitable
byproducts such as dog food. IBP soon added "grinders"
to its plants, machinery that made hamburger meat in enormous
quantities, driving small processors and wholesalers out of business.
The company's low wages and new production techniques transformed
the entire beef industry, from the feedlot to the butcher counter.
... In the 1980s large numbers of young men and women from Mexico,
Central America, and Southeast Asia started traveling to rural
Colorado. Meatpacking jobs that had once provided a middle-class
American life now offered little more than poverty wages. Instead
of a waiting list, the slaughterhouse seemed to acquire a revolving
door, as Monfort plowed through new hires to fill the roughly
nine hundred jobs. During one eighteen-month period, more than
five thousand different people were employed at the Greeley beef
plant-an annual turnover rate of about 400 percent. The average
worker quit or was fired every three months.
Today, roughly two-thirds of the workers
at the beef plant in Greeley 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 a quarter-mile
down the road from the slaughterhouse. They share rooms in old
motels, sleeping on mattresses that cover the floor. The basic
pay at the slaughterhouse is now $9.25 an hour. Adjusted for inflation,
today's hourly wage is more than a third lower than what Monfort
paid forty years ago when the plant opened. Health insurance is
now offered to workers after six months on the job; vacation pay,
after a year. But most of the workers will never get that vacation.
A spokesman for ConAgra recently acknowledged that the turnover
rate at the Greeley slaughterhouse is about 80 percent a year.
That figure actually represents a decline from the early 1990s.
Mike Coan candidly discussed the whole
subject during a 1994 interview with Business Insurance, an industry
trade journal. At the time, he was the corporate safety director
of ConAgra Red Meat. "There is a 100 percent turnover rate
annually," Coan said, in an article that applauded Monfort's
skill at keeping its insurance costs low. Another
ConAgra meat executive agreed with Coan,
noting that "turnover in our business is just astronomical."
While Monfort did keep some long-term employees, many slaughterhouse
jobs needed to be filled several times every year. "We're
at the bottom of the literacy scale," Coan added; ".
. . in some plants maybe a third of the people cannot read or
write in any language."
During a federal hearing in the 1980s,
Arden Walker, the head of labor relations at IBP for the company's
first two decades, explained some of the advantages of having
a high turnover rate:
Counsel: With regard to turnover, since
you [IBP] are obviously experiencing it, does that bother you?
Mr. Walker: Not really.
Counsel: Why not?
Mr. Walker: We found very little correlation
between turnover and profitability . . . For instance, insurance,
as you know, is very costly. Insurance is not available to new
employees until they've worked there for a period of a year or,
in some cases, six months. Vacations don't accrue until the second
year. There are some economies, frankly, that result from hiring
Far from being a liability, a high turnover
rate in the meatpacking industry-as in the fast food industry-also
helps maintain a workforce that is harder to unionize and much
easier to control.
For more than a century, California agriculture
has been dependent on migrant workers, on young men and women
from rural villages in Mexico who travel north to pick by hand
most of the state's fruits and vegetables. Migrant workers have
long played an important role in the agricultural economy of other
states, picking berries in Oregon, apples in Washington, and tomatoes
in Florida. Today, the United States, for the first time in its
history, has begun to rely on a migrant industrial workforce.
Thousands of new migrants now travel north to work in the slaughterhouses
and meat processing plants of the High Plains. Some of these new
migrants save their earnings, then return home. Some try to establish
roots and settle in meatpacking communities. And others wander
the country, briefly employed in one state after another, looking
for a meatpacking plant that treats its workers well. These migrants
come mainly from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Many were
once farm workers in California, where steady jobs in the fields
are now difficult to find. To farm workers who've labored outdoors,
ten hours a day, for the nation's lowest wages, meatpacking jobs
often sound too good to be true. Picking strawberries in California
pays about $5.50 an hour, while cutting meat in a Colorado or
Nebraska slaughterhouse can pay almost twice that amount. In many
parts of rural Mexico and Guatemala, workers earn about $5 a day.
As in so many other aspects of meatpacking,
IBP was a trailblazer in recruiting migrant labor. The company
was among the first to recognize that recent immigrants would
work for lower wages than American citizens-and would be more
reluctant to join unions. To sustain the flow of new workers into
IBP slaughterhouses, the company has for years dispatched recruiting
teams to poor communities throughout the United States. It has
recruited refugees and asylum-seekers from Laos and Bosnia. It
has recruited homeless people living at shelters in New York,
New Jersey, California, North Carolina, and Rhode Island. It has
hired buses to import these workers from thousands of miles away.
IBP now maintains a labor office in Mexico City, runs ads on Mexican
radio stations offering jobs in the United States, and operates
a bus service from rural Mexico to the heartland of America.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service
estimates that about one-quarter of all meatpacking workers in
Iowa and Nebraska are illegal immigrants. The proportion at some
slaughterhouses can be much higher. Spokesmen for IBP and the
ConAgra Beef Company adamantly deny that they in any way seek
illegal immigrants. "We do not knowingly hire undocumented
workers," an IBP executive told me. "IBP supports INS
efforts to enforce the law and do[es] not want to employ people
who are not authorized to work in the United States." Nevertheless,
the recruiting efforts of the American meatpacking industry now
target some of the most impoverished and most vulnerable groups
in the Western Hemisphere. "If they've got a pulse,"
one meatpacking executive joked to the Omaha World-Herald in 1998,
"we'll take an application."
The real costs of this migrant industrial
workforce are being borne not by the large meatpacking firms,
but by the nation's meatpacking communities. Poor workers without
health insurance drive up local medical costs. Drug dealers prey
on recent immigrants, and the large, transient population usually
brings more crime. At times, the meatpacking firms have been especially
brazen in assuming that public funds will cover their routine
business costs. In September of 1994, GFI America, Inc.-a leading
supplier of frozen hamburger patties to Dairy Queen, Cracker Barrel
Old Country Store, and the federal school lunch program-needed
workers for a plant in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It sent recruiters
to Eagle Pass, Texas, near the Mexican border, promising steady
work and housing. The recruiters hired thirty-nine people, rented
a bus, drove the new workers from Texas to Minnesota, and then
dropped them off across the street from People Serving People,
a homeless shelter in downtown Minneapolis. Because the workers
had no money, the shelter agreed to house them. GFI America offered
to pay the facility $17 for each worker and to donate some free
hamburgers, but the offer was declined. The company's plan to
use a homeless shelter as worker housing soon backfired. Most
of the new recruits refused to stay at the shelter; they had been
promised rental apartments and now felt tricked and misled. The
story was soon picked up by the local media. Advocates for the
homeless were especially angry about GFI America's attempt to
misuse the largest homeless shelter in Minneapolis. "Our
job is not to provide subsidies to corporations that are importing
low-cost labor," said a county official.
The high turnover rate in meatpacking
is driven by the low pay and the poor working conditions. Workers
quit one meatpacking job and float from town to town in the High
Plains, looking for something better. Moving constantly is hard
on their personal lives and their families. Most of these new
industrial migrants would gladly stay in one job and settle in
one spot, if the wages and the working conditions were good. The
nation's meatpacking firms, on the other hand, have proven themselves
to be far less committed to remaining in a particular community.
They have successfully pitted one economically depressed region
against another, using the threat of plant closures and the promise
of future investment to obtain lucrative government subsidies.
No longer locally owned, they feel no allegiance to any one place.
In January of 1987, Mike Harper told the
newly elected governor of Nebraska, Kay Orr, that ConAgra wanted
a number of tax breaks- or would move its headquarters out of
Omaha. The company had been based in the state for almost seventy
years, and Nebraska's tax rates were among the lowest in the United
States. Nevertheless, a small group of ConAgra executives soon
gathered on a Saturday morning at Harper's house, sat around his
kitchen table, and came up with the basis for legislation that
rewrote Nebraska's tax code. The bills, drafted largely by ConAgra,
sought to lower the state taxes paid not only by large corporations,
but also by wealthy executives. Mike Harper personally stood to
gain about $295,000 from the proposed 30 percent reduction in
the maximum tax rate on personal income. He was an avid pilot,
and the new legislation also provided tax deductions for ConAgra's
corporate jets. A number of state legislators called Harper's
demands "blackmail." But the legislature granted the
tax breaks, afraid that Nebraska might lose one of its largest
... In 1990, IBP opened a slaughterhouse in Lexington. A year
later, the town, with a population of roughly seven thousand,
had the highest crime rate in the state of Nebraska. Within a
decade, the number of serious crimes doubled; the number of Medicaid
cases nearly doubled; Lexington became a major distribution center
for illegal drugs; gang members appeared in town and committed
drive-by shootings; the majority of Lexington's white inhabitants
moved elsewhere; and the proportion of Latino inhabitants increased
more than tenfold, climbing to over 50 percent. "Mexington"-as
it is now called, affectionately by some, disparagingly by others-is
an entirely new kind of American town, one that has been transfigured
to meet the needs of a modern slaughterhouse. You would never
think, driving past the IBP plant in Lexington, with its colorful
children's playground out front, with Wal-Mart and Burger King
across the street, that a single, innocuous-looking building could
be responsible for so much sudden change, hardship, and despair.
In Lexington I met a cross-section of
IBP workers. I met Guatemalan Indians who spoke no English and
barely spoke Spanish, living in a dark basement strewn with garbage
and used diapers. I met Mexican farm workers struggling to get
used to the long Nebraska winters. I met one IBP worker who'd
recently been a housekeeper in Santa Monica and another whose
previous job was collecting manure from fields in rural Mexico
and selling it as fertilizer. I met hard-working, illiterate,
religious people willing to risk injury and endure pain for the
benefit of their families.
The smell that permeates Lexington [Nebraska]
is even worse than the smell of Greeley. "We have three odors,"
a Lexington resident told a reporter: "burning hair and blood,
that greasy smell, and the odor of rotten eggs." Hydrogen
sulfide is the gas responsible for the rotten egg smell. It rises
from slaughterhouse wastewater lagoons, causes respiratory problems
and headaches, and at high levels can cause permanent damage to
the nervous system. In January of 2000, the Justice Department
sued IBP for violations of the Clean Air Act at its Dakota City
plant, where as much as a ton of hydrogen sulfide was being released
into the air every day. As part of a consent decree, IBP agreed
to cover its wastewater lagoons there. "This agreement means
that Nebraskans will no longer be forced to inhale IBP's toxic
emissions," said a Justice Department official. As of this
writing, IBPis also preparing to cover its Lexington wastewater
On July 7, 1988, IBP held a public forum
at a junior high school in Lexington, giving local citizens an
opportunity to ask questions about the company's proposal to build
a slaughterhouse there. The transcript of this meeting says a
lot about how IBP views the rural communities where it operates.
Would there be much turnover among workers at the new IBP plant,
someone asked. Once the slaughterhouse was running, an IBP executive
replied, it would have a stable workforce. "Ninety percent
of our people," he said, "or 80 percent will be fairly
stable." Would local people be hired for these jobs, someone
else asked. "We will not bring in an hourly workforce,"
the IBP executive promised. A local IBP booster, who had just
returned from a visit to the company's slaughterhouse in Emporia,
Kansas, suggested there was little reason to worry about the "type
of people" the plant might attract or the potential for increased
crime. He said that in Emporia, apparently, "they work them
so hard at IBP that they're tired and they go home and go to bed."
An IBP executive, a vice president of public relations, confirmed
that assessment. "And people who work on our lines work hard,"
he told the gathering. "As the chief of police [in Emporia]
said, they go home at night and go to bed rather than carouse
around town." Another IBP executive, a vice president of
engineering, assured the audience that the new plant in Lexington
would not foul the air. No odor would be noticeable, he promised,
even "a few feet away" from the plant. In any event,
the smell emitted by slaughterhouse lagoons would be "sweet,"
not objectionable. And the smell from the slaughterhouse itself,
the IBP vice president said, would be "no different than
that which you produce in your kitchen when you cook."