Industrial Slaughter, Antibiotic Use and Unhealthy Meat: Ted Conover in Harper's

I don’t often recommend print magazines here, because I figure they already have their own megaphone, and whatever power we at Wired have to push along other writers, I’d rather use to promote bloggers who might not have high traffic. That said: There is a piece in the current Harper’s which should be a must-read for anyone interested in livestock agriculture and meat production in America, written by long-time immersive journalist and NYU professor Ted Conover. It is entirely behind a paywall, and so (to my perception) is not being talked about — but it should be. It is a detailed and unbiased account of how large-scale slaughter happens, and it makes some important points about routine antibiotic use.

The set-up: Using his real name and address, Conover gets hired as a USDA meat inspector, and is assigned to Cargill Meat Solutions in Schuyler, Neb., a massive beef slaughterhouse. In an accompanying blog post, which is open-access, he describes how he went about it:

I thought I might gain a broader view by getting a job not simply as a company line worker but as a federal meat inspector. The Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA oversees live slaughter, and it hires inspectors on the basis of either experience in the industry (often factory work, including quality control) or education, specifically a four-year college degree with sufficient math and science credits. After reviewing my transcript, the FSIS said I was short some credits, so I enrolled in a distance-learning math course at the University of Illinois, completed it five months later (B+!), and reapplied.

The process took two years.

In the Harper’s story, which runs for 18 pages, Conover minutely dissects the process of slaughter and his own process of learning. He details the hard physical work of turning cows into meat and the sometimes surprising camaraderie among his new colleagues, who teach him how to stand and cut efficiently and accurately. He does not find a horror show;  he told the industry-focused blog Meatingplace:

The plant where I worked was more efficient than I expected, more modern, better lit, and its machinery more ingenious than I would have guessed. Most college-educated Americans carry images from Sinclair’s The Jungle in their minds; this wasn’t like that at all.

Over the course of the piece, Conover moves from station to station around the plant, slicing and inspecting different parts of the dismantled animals:  heads, hearts, tongues. Late in the narrative, he is working on livers, and receives a stream of them studded with abscesses so grotesque they make him want to hold his breath, run to the locker room and shower. At the same time, he notices a white-coated woman making notes. She is identified by another inspector as Mary Ann, who works for drug maker Eli Lilly:

“I keep track of how many livers inspectors mark out with abscesses, and they use it to monitor the use of antibiotics in the feed.”

“How do you mean? The more antibiotics, the more abscesses?”

“That’s right.”

I paused and thought. “But wouldn’t antibiotics make the abscesses go away?”

Mary Ann smiled. “I guess not!”

Now, it is important to note that after-publication commenters (notably Dr. Scott Hurd, assistant professor at Iowa State University) say Conover’s pharma-employee character got this wrong. They say that the abscesses occurred, not because of antibiotic use, but because of insufficient use — if the cattle had been appropriately dosed, the abscesses would not have occurred. Which of them is accurate is worthy of further debate. But it doesn’t take any power from Conover’s reaction when he thinks about livestock antibiotic use:

Somehow this was worse than seeing shit on the meat or ingesta leaking out of a ruptured stomach. It wasn’t contamination from an isolated slaughtering mishap: it was deliberate, systemic contamination of the food chain. As much as 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are administered to livestock — they are a powerful way to ensure animal growth. I knew this had to be a dangerous practice, because overuse of antibiotics leads to resistance on the part of bacteria. It ultimately robs those medicine of their power.

What I hadn’t known was that the consumption of these drugs makes so many cattle sick. That was morally unsettling, of course. But it was equally unsettling in terms of what we eat. Can the chemicals that overwhelm a cow’s liver also be present in an otherwise healthy looking cut of beef, in a steak we might eat? If they can, USDA inspectors won’t be the ones to detect such contamination: they’re not trained to look for it.

There are two things going on here. One is the shock (which I’ve heard many times myself) that people experience when they realize that antibiotics are a routine part of livestock raising. The other is the issue of perceiving the results of that use. In his post on his own story, Conover raises the growing number of state “ag gag” laws, which criminalize audio- or video-taping and prevent consumers from seeing what goes on inside slaughter plants. But the irony is that, even when we can see everything, we can’t track the microscopic effect of antibiotics on the meat we eat: As Conover captures, that is troublingly beyond our view.




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