We’re Eating Less Meat…and Building More Factory Farms

People in the United States are eating a lot less meat, with consumption dropping to a level not seen in fifty years. All sorts of explanations are being posited, each with their own spin, ranging from claims of a ‘War on Meat’ to arguments that ethical consumers are being more careful about what they eat. The growing cost of meat is certainly a factor as well in this tight economy; despite all the efforts of the industry’s lobby, people seem less inclined to eat meat, and there are no signs that the trend is going to reverse. We may be seeing a shift in dietary habits in the United States, and it’s a shift many argue would be good for the environment.

But there’s a catch. In the Midwest, the number of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) is actually on the rise, with an upturn in permits for new facilities. Iowa residents are speaking out, as are Iowa farmers, because they’re concerned about the impact growing numbers of CAFOs may have on the environment and their quality of life. These facilities are infamous for maintaining large sewage lagoons prone to rupture, releasing large amounts of untreated animal waste into the environment. In addition to smelling horrific, this can have a highly detrimental impact on waterways, spreading a wake of pollution that can travel in neighbouring states.

And they’re not good places for animals, who live short lives in crowded, abusive conditions where they are treated as commodities, not living things. Sick and dying animals mingle with their healthy counterparts in squalor, and conditions so awful that humans wear respirators to protect their respiratory systems before entering barns and pens. Animals are not allowed to engage in natural behaviours and instead develop extreme stress, which can result in picking, fighting, and depression.

If we’re eating less meat, where is all this meat going? Exports, says Twilight Greenaway at Grist, pointing out that China’s demand for meat, particularly pork, is climbing, and as the nation’s population grows, there’s tremendous pressure to source meat from outside the country. Intriguingly, China isn’t interested in a lot of our pork because it contains pharmaceutical compounds the Chinese government doesn’t feel are safe, but allegedly the industry is pressuring the government to change its official stance and give ractopamine a chance.

The compound is used to make pork leaner, a desired attribute in meat produced for the US market, but it also comes with risks, including larger numbers of downer pigs, and evidence that it lingers in animals for a week or longer after dosing. Furthermore, the demand for lean meat is very culturally specific, and many Chinese cooks are less fixated on limiting fat in their dishes. In fact, some dishes actively call for fattier cuts of pork.

Greenaway also points out another sinister aspect of the expansion of the meat industry: The exploitation of workers. As is common with slaughterhouses, meatpacking plants, and other processing facilities across the US, much of the labour in these workplaces is performed by immigrants, some undocumented. They’re paid low wages and work in some of the most dangerous conditions in the United States; the industry has a notoriously high rate of workplace injury, an inevitable consequence of a combination of high production speed, heavy equipment, poor worker protections, and sheer processing volume.

Some of those workers are also disabled, and under sheltered workshop laws, disabled employees can be paid less than other staff members on the grounds that they perform less work. Two years ago, I wrote about the abuse of disabled workers at an Iowa meatpacking plant, and not a lot has changed since then. Such workers are extremely vulnerable to exploitation and have limited legal resources. Many don’t understand their rights or may be afraid of protesting poor working conditions and low wages. Like the undocumented immigrants they work alongside, many are housed in substandard conditions, forced to work through fatigue and injuries, and intimidated into silence by supervisors.

As the industry grows, the pressure on workers is only going to increase, and this creates a situation that could become explosive. Disturbingly, as Greenaway points out, immigrants working in these facilities are being called ‘the sacrifice generation,’ the ones who pave the way for their descendants to live out better lives in the United States. The idea of treating an entire generation of people as throwaways is nothing new in US history, of course; this country is filled with narratives of impoverished people arriving on its shores in search of the American Dream, working their fingers to the bone for their children.

The fact that these narratives continue to be not just widely accepted but sometimes actively celebrated and advanced as models of how to assimilate into the United States and how to be a ‘successful immigrant’ is very, very telling of social attitudes. Especially since many of the workers in these plants are actually in the United States on guest visa lottery programmes, which do not necessarily guarantee the right to stay in the United States and build a place for their families. These workers are, in fact, cheap, disposable labour who can be readily rotated out, and given the wages they earn and the high risk of injury in meatpacking plants, they can end up even worse-off than they started.

They’re sold a myth about building better lives in the United States and given the limited opportunities some have in their home communities, thanks in part to things like NAFTA, which gutted rural regions in Mexico, they agree to these conditions in the hopes of being the ones who beat the odds. It’s gross, it’s exploitative, and it’s something the rest of the country chooses to ignore. The expansion of the meat industry is being touted as a job creator by people who want to promote it, but those jobs should be more closely examined before celebrating, as should the people who are performing those jobs. Is exploitative, abusive employment really the way the United States wants to spur economic recovery?