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What Big Meat Doesn't Want You to Know about Slaughterhouses

It has happened at slaughterhouses run by Smithfield Foods, Swift and Agriprocessors.

Now U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has swooped down on Southeastern Provision, a cattle slaughterhouse in Bean Station, Tennessee.

On April 5, with helicopters chopping overhead, 97 workers, mostly Hispanic, were detained by ICA. That left a workforce of only three. According to an article in the New Yorker, 32 of the detainees were released the same day, 54 were kept in detention and 10 were arrested for defying previous deportation orders.

Original news reports about the raid stressed the immigration detentions. But it was soon learned that the raid, conducted jointly by ICE and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), was triggered by suspicious cash withdrawals by the slaughterhouse owners. The millions in withdrawals were allegedly used to pay workers in cash in order to avoid paying payroll taxes. The owners of the slaughterhouse operation owe at least $2.5 million in back payroll taxes, according to federal authorities.

But the raid led to other revelations, including evidence that Southeastern Provision's undocumented workers were handling harsh chemicals without proper eye protection, and were not paid extra for overtime. Some earned only $6 an hour.

The April raid was reminiscent of the 2008 ICE raid on Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, in Postville, Iowa. In that case, almost 400 undocumented workers were not just detained but arrested. Initial charges against owners and management included harboring illegal aliens, use of child labor, document fraud, identity theft, physical and sexual abuse of workers, unsafe working conditions, wage and hour violations, and shorting workers’ pay.

Agriprocessors' CEO, Sholom Rubashkin, was convicted of financial fraud and money laundering through a charity. Trump commuted his prison sentence in December, 2017.

In addition to alleged financial wrongdoing, both Southeastern Provisions and Agriprocessors are polluters. In March, Southeastern Provision's septic system failed, contaminating well water with E. coli bacteria. In 2006, Agriprocessors admitted to discharging untreated slaughterhouse wastewater into the Postville sewer system. The company agreed to pay a $600,000 fine.

While many defend the undocumented workers, few want to talk about the jobs they are defending that keep the U.S. in cheap meat.

Maiming and amputations are disturbingly common, yet seldom reported by workers who have no rights.

A few years ago slaughterhouse workers developed autoimmune diseases from aerosolizing hog brains.

“It’s an industry that targets the most vulnerable group of workers and brings them in,” Debbie Berkowitz, former Occupational Safety and Health Administration senior policy adviser, told the New Yorker. "When one group gets too powerful and stands up for their rights they figure out who’s even more vulnerable and move them in.”

Berkowitz is right. After the raid at Agriprocessors, the company hired Somalis, Sudanese and Pacific Islanders, recruiting some of them at homeless shelters.

Some slaughterhouses use prisoners on work-release. Tyson Foods was charged with operating an elaborate illegal worker smuggling scheme replete with fake social security cards.

The huge chicken processor Case Farms, which supplies Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and the U.S. government, reportedly exploited the Guatemalan civil war for workers. The company recruited so many Guatemalans that, in one village, a commonly heard slur at soccer games was he "couldn’t even grab the chickens at Case Farms." Reports say Case housed the workers in cockroach-infested houses with no heat, furniture or blankets.

While it's true that undocumented workers perform much of the U.S.'s agriculture labor, slaughterhouse work is very different. No other industry involves such worker abuse, animal abuse, environmental abuse and, often, financial corruption to produce a product, in the amounts our cheap meat economy allows, that is harmful to consumers.

While most people know red meat is linked to heart disease and many cancers, the saturated fat in chicken and turkey is linked to breast cancer, as well as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cognitive decline. Yet cheap prices keep these foods popular.

According to “Meatonomics,” if Big Meat didn’t offload onto society the true costs of meat production, "a two-pound package of pork ribs would run $32." The offloaded costs include degraded water systems, polluted air, reduced property values near factory farms, higher taxes through government subsidies and higher healthcare costs associated with meat-related heart disease, obesity and more.

And yet, despite Big Meat's taxpayer-funded subsidies, the industry still finds a way to squeeze out even more profits by undocumented workers.

The situation in U.S. slaughterhouses is egregious for workers, animals and the environment. But consumers who buy “cheap” meat bear some of the responsibility for this mess.

Martha Rosenberg a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to the Organic Consumers Association. To keep up with OCA’s news and alerts, sign up here.