Guest Blog: My experience with packing plant employees

Happy Friday Everyone!

Today I wanted to share a blog from a fellow agvocate Travis Arp. He’s a Ph.D. student at Colorado State University studying in Meat Science. He grew up on a family farm in south-central Wisconsin where they raised purebred Gelbvieh and commercial cattle. His passion is cattle, but has developed a love for meat science and all things production agriculture related. His hope is to share his experiences and knowledge with industry friends and consumers alike.

The other day he had a great article where he shared his experience visiting a meat packing plant. With all of the misconceptions and negative stereotypes this industry has been getting lately, I thought it would be good to share his first-hand experience with all of you and I encourage you to share it with your friends and neighbors.

For the next three weeks, my life is going to be spent in either a Holiday Inn Express or a beef packing plant…and likely in the plant more than the hotel.  Throughout my experiences in the meat industry, I have been fortunate to have been able to conduct research in many industrial-type beef packing plants that range from 500-600 to upwards of 5000 head of cattle harvested per day.  I’ve also toured several packing plants for poultry, pork and lamb.  Its a fascinating experience and even last night while collecting kill-floor data for my project, a fellow graduate student remarked to me that no matter how many times she has been in a plant, watching the wheels in motion is still something incredible to witness. (Aside: its often commented by anti-industrialized ag people that they want to tour plants, but don’t have access.  The reality is, is that these are HIGHLY secure facilities.  When I enter a plant, I have to have a contact in the plant to get me in, go through a very rigorous security procedure, and then have those people escort me in.  You can’t expect to have walk-in tours and waltz through the door.  These companies have to be concerned about food safety and security issues; like folks from HSUS taking “undercover videos,” publishing them to the internet and taking practices out of context.   Packing plants do not have an open door policy…not because they don’t want people to see what happens, but in the interest of company, and more importantly, food security)

One of the defacto arguments against large packing plants is that plant workers have terrible working conditions, and that these are oppressed employees that generally do not enjoy the work they have to do.  But again, this is from people that have little to no in-plant experience.  Through my many hours spent in a multitude of packing plants, I can honestly say that this is not the case.

Working in a packing plant is similar to any assembly line-type job.  These workers work an 8 hour shift, they are members of a union, and they have multiple 15 minutes breaks during each shift and a 30 minute lunch.  Each employee has an assigned job which they do all shift.  Workers stand on the production line, and cut the same piece of meat or remove the same part of the carcass for an entire shift.  Most of these jobs, through improvements in technology, have been made easier for workers over the years…whether that be improvements from hand-held knives to pneumatic air knives, or from cutting the hide off the carcass to automated hide pullers in which they simply have to push a button.  When an individual is hired at a plant, they are often given the least-skilled positions, but have opportunity for advancements to more-skilled positions on the line.  This could be starting as a carcass trimmer and eventually moving up to the fabrication line where they are required to be skilled meat cutters (and are payed better).  Furthermore, all of the training for these positions are offered by the company to improve their skill set and offer them advancements in position and pay.

For years, carpel tunnel syndrome was an issue for meat cutters due to the strenuous, fast paced working conditions.  This has been combated by packing plants by increasing the number of cutters to reduce stress on workers, educating on ways to prevent carpel tunnel, and designing more ergonomic designed tools.  Also, one of the most interesting things I’ve witnessed at a plant is lines of workers stopping in the middle of production for them to do specialized stretches to keep this from being an issue.  I’ve even heard of plants playing “The Chicken Dance” over a PA system at a plant to loosen up workers and let them stretch!

Meat cutting is an inherently dangerous job.  You are working with carcasses that weigh upwards of 700 pounds, and are using razor sharp knives to dis-assemble carcass components.  However, every plant has an EXTREMELY strenuous safety protocol that minimizes worker accidents.  Cutters have to wear cut-proof equipment on basically ever exposed area of the body.  Workers that handle live cattle have to wear Kevlar vests and helmets with a face mask.  To even walk into a cooler, you have to wear steel-toe boots, ear plugs, a hard hat, and safety glasses.  Safety is the number one priority for anyone that enters the plant.

To conduct research in a packing plant, it requires me to have a considerable amount of interaction with line employees, not just supervisors and corporate representatives.  It’s required to collect product off the line or get research carcasses segregated for data collection.  I have made many friends in the plant, and even learned the secret handshakes shared between workers on a fabrication lines.  They know me by name, and likewise, and enjoy having people come into the plant and see what they are doing.  They take as much pride in the product being produced as anyone in the company, and it’s a requirement for them to keep their job and put themselves in a position to advance.  It is not a job that requires a college or even a high school degree, but offers an opportunity for these workers to make a good wage and have a steady paying job.  I’m sure many of these people don’t grow up thinking “I want to work on the chuck fabrication line at a packing plant,” but production of any good requires a labor force willing to work, and do so in a quality manner.  The same goes for any industry that produces their product in a similar manner to packing plants.

As industrialization has improved the efficiency of nearly every industry in the United States, along with it comes the need for a labor force which is willing to work in those settings.  The current way we harvest livestock in large quantities requires an assembly line work structure that differs very little from industries like the auto industry, electronics, or even that which is required for produce and processed foods.  The process of killing an animal and the associated dis-assembly of a carcass into subprimal cuts is considered a gruesome process by consumers.  However, whether you are killing five steers at a local locker or 5000 at a large packing plant, the harvesting process is the same.  Therefore, I think people assume worker conditions are poor just because we are killing animals and not assembling a car.

Before we jump to conclusions on what these people do or how they are treated, talk to someone who has experience working with these people and they will tell you about the environment they work in.  These companies place worker safety before everything else during production, and compensate these workers fairly for the hard work the conduct every day.  And believe it or not, most of these people genuinely enjoy doing the work they do.  The job isn’t pretty, but is necessary to put safe, wholesome meat on your plate.  And that is something everyone, from the top executives to the workers on the line, are concerned with.

Thanks for sharing this Travis! It was a great perspective and gives a great inside look in to the industry and some of the current things they are doing to give their employees the best environment possible. To read more from Travis, follow his blog : The Meat of The Issues

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Posted on April 20, 2012, in Agvocating and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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