Ted Genoways calls it the “dropping of the curtains”. Fed up with the intrusion of animal rights activists and investigative journalists, the meat industry in America has been quietly making it more difficult for anyone to shine a light on what it does.
New state laws in the US allow companies to take legal action against anyone “interfering” with their business and charge whistle-blowers for possessing proof of crimes committed by others. It’s designed to deter undercover reporters from collecting evidence of wrongdoing against a company.
Just why the meat industry in the US might be so keen on these tougher restrictions becomes clear after reading Genoways’ book ‘The Chain’.
An investigative journalist, whose grandfather worked in a slaughterhouse, Genoways spent four years piecing together his story of the lives of the workers, meatpackers, farmers and the local community in and around major pig-processing sites.
His book’s title ‘The Chain’ refers to the speed of the processing line in a meatpacking plant. The higher the speed, the faster the workers must kill and process animals and the more likely they are to face injury.
Unsurprisingly, as factory owners have tried to cut costs and boost profits the workforce has shifted to undocumented immigrants who are willing to work for cheap and not complain about dangerous, unsanitary conditions for fear of losing their jobs, or facing deportation.
While the US pork industry is touted as a success story around the world with its high output and profits, Genoways’ book reveals its hidden social and environmental costs: The pollution of local drinking water supplies, an injured and discarded workforce and a divided local community. In one town he writes about how locals have pushed for legislation making landlords liable for undocumented immigrants living in their properties.
More than 100 years ago, journalist Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle‘ book did a similar job in exposing the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants working in the US meatpacking industry. The then US president Theodore Roosevelt was forced into action, bringing in new meat inspection rules and eventually setting up of the Food and Drug Administration.
What shocked readers then was less the treatment of workers, but the possibility of food being contaminated with sordid tales of workers falling into the meat rendering machines. Today, the situation for workers, at least, remains barely improved.
“While there are areas that have improved in terms of food safety, conditions for workers have remained similar to a century ago,” said Genoways. “I feel disappointed in the US for running a system based on illegals doing a job US citizens don’t want to do in unsafe conditions, for not much pay and being demonised by the wider public.”
The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food by Ted Genoways. Harper, October 2014. For more info see www.tedgenoways.com