The High Price of Cheap Meat

Our cheap food policy is costing us dearly. The price of chicken or pork in the supermarket coolers doesn't come close to reflecting the real costs to society.

Recently, the news has been filled with Tysons' recruitment of undocumented migrant workers to work in poultry slaughterhouses. But what Tysons is accused of doing is commonplace in the industry.

The enticement and employment of migrant workers is an ill-kept secret. It is common knowledge that the hog, beef, and chicken slaughterhouses across Mid-America and the South employ large percentages of migrant workers, primarily from Mexico.

A national TV newsmagazine reported on this phenomenon several years ago. In this story, the investigative reporters interviewed bus drivers who were paid $100 per head to bring back migrant workers from the Brownsville/Matamoras and El Paso/Juarez areas along the border.

In the unfortunate towns that host slaughterhouses, the costs go deep: housing/medical subsidies, bilingual education, soaring crime rates, and child and spouse abuse. All of these problems were minimal prior to the slaughterhouses' arrival. The companies recruit Hispanic workers at low wages and then expect the communities to absorb the social costs.

The slaughterhouse companies -- Tysons, IBP, Premium Standard Foods, Seaboard, to name a few -- have a very high turnover rate: up to 125 percent per year. Since medical and other benefits don't kick in until an employee has 120-180 days on the job, most don't ever become eligible for such benefits. The work is hard, demeaning, cold and cruel, the pay measly, and high employee turnover is the result.

The costs to human health and the environment result from this cheap, unskilled, uneducated labor market and from close attention to the bottom line. Water and air pollution, disease-ridden meats, and sloppy handling of wastes become part of the profit-process. The companies make money from selling meat, not from providing good working conditions or from environmental and human health protections.

One of the most dramatic -- and sad -- consequences of our cheap meat policy is the dismemberment or outright deaths of slaughterhouse workers. As noted, the slaughterhouses employ unskilled workers, as the companies have adopted factory processes that require only minimal skills and a sharp knife. Many Mexican workers return to their homeland mutilated -- with disfigured limbs, missing fingers or deep scars.

Occasionally, these unskilled workers end up dead. Due to a lack of safety instructions, the speed of the disassembly lines or the necessity to clean up equipment on a very short timeline (overnight), several slaughterhouse workers have been asphyxiated or ground to shreds.

The costs to the companies for these "accidental deaths or dismemberments" are minuscule. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (also called OSHA) has set a maximum fine of $31,000 for a human death.

At the Premium Standard Foods' 7,000-hogs-per-day slaughterhouse in Milan, Missouri, where a sanitation worker fell into a huge sausage blender and was killed, the company was ordered by OSHA, after appeals and negotiations, to pay $9,450. The fine was paid to the agency. All the widow received from the company was her husband's mangled body.

These are the legacies of our cheap food policy: polluted streams, fouled air, tainted meats, high social costs to local communities, and death and dismemberment. The solution is to purchase meats grown by sustainable, diversified, independent producers -- that don't raise animals in confined conditions, and don't have the animals slaughtered in the massive corporations' disassembly plants.

If you choose to buy meats from the supermarket counters -- and it comes from one of the large companies -- enjoy your meal. It is costing you and others many times what you paid.

Ken Midkiff is director of the Sierra Club in Missouri.

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