Aired May 23, 2020
Gordon Katic: Hey all you cool cats and kittens. You’re listening to Secondary Symptoms, from Cited. And I’m Gordon Katic.
BASKIN SONG: Carol Baskin! Killed her husband, whacked him. Can’t convince me that it didn’t happen. Fed him to tigers they snackin.’ What’s happenin’
Gordon: I just really wanted to say that. Can we… um, can we talk about Tiger King for a moment?
I’m not here to hear your theories about whether Carol or not she killed her husband—she did, right? There’s actually something else I realized about the show recently— a twisted kind of irony.
I binged it basically as soon as it came out. And maybe you did the same— this was a month or two ago now. It was the distraction I needed.. because it came out just as the pandemic was hitting. And for about a week there: it seemed like my life was two worlds. The hash reality of coronavirus news, and the murderous meth-addicted Tiger weirdos.
CLIPS FROM TIGER KING:
I'm Joe Exotic, otherwise known as the Tiger King. The gay, gun-carrying red neck with a mullet.
"Do you watch porn?" He says, "Yeah." I said "What do you enjoy? The guy with the little one doing her, or do you enjoy watching the big one doing her?"
I actually saw jokes about this on Twitter. The internet had become two things: Coronavirus, and memes about Carol and Joe. Two worlds, and never the twain shall meet, right?
But uh… I thought about it a little bit more, and here’s the twisted irony I’m talking about: Tiger King is a kind of Covid-19 story. Think about it: according to the best theories we have, you are in isolation because of a virus that originated from the exotic animal trade. And you are watching a documentary… about the exotic animal trade. Tiger King is not escapism. You are literally looking at the very industry that put you in isolation.
Granted, the animal that started Covid-19 originated from China, not the United States. But the exotic animal trade is enormous in the U.S. It could have just as easily happened there. Despite thee rising Sino-phobia and dangerous anti-China rhetoric coming out of the administration, and Joe Biden, this is really not about China. This is about animals.
Look, forgive me for getting back on my vegetarian animal-rights bullshit, but I just have to, because Covid-19 is fundamentally about how we treat animals. If you don’t accept that, you’re really putting your head in the sand. And it’s not just Covid-19: the recent history of global pandemics, the vast majority of them came from animals. Take AIDS for example.
ROLAND KAYS: Yeah, so AIDS is actually a really famous one where that was not a human disease for a long time
Gordon: Dr Roland Kays is a zoologist and associate professor at North Carolina State University.
ROLAND KAYS: It transferred in the Congo into humans, probably back in the 1930s. And lived in a population there in Congo for a long time, sort of slowly becoming more common but not really be noticed. And then sort of met the world of global travel and aeroplanes in the 70s and 80s. And it was sneaky, right? Because we didn't really know what it was for a long time. We didn't realise what was going on. And it was able to spread around the whole world
Gordon: Ebola, SARS, Swine flu… all zoonotic. In 2016, the UN sounded the alarm about this. They published a report that said 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. And this problem will only get worse. The main reasons: encroaching on natural habitats, climate change, new industrial breeding practices, cramped animal confinement, and unsafe agricultural practices.
In the US, meatpacking plants are the powderkeg.
Idyllic family farms are a thing of the past. This is a highly centralized industry. Four companies own 80% of the beef, and another four own almost two thirds of the chicken. Most of the work done here is done in a few, hyper-efficient plants. These places kill a new animal every few seconds, and millions of animals a year. They’re brutal, and anyone who dares learn a thing or two about them should maybe think twice about eating meat.
But look -- say you don’t care-- kill all the dumb animals you want because they’re too tasty to give up. OK, well.. this is still bad for your health.
Recently in the Guardian, Jonathan Safran Foe and Aaron S Gross described these plants as quote, “the Silicon Valley of viral development.” According to the CDC, 14 of the last 16 novel influenza viruses originated from commercial poultry plants. 14 out of 16.
But let's stick to Covid-19. It is impossible to socially distance in these plants, so they shut down. But THEN, in late April, John Tyson— that’s the chairman of Tyson Foods-- He put out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for re-opening the slaughterhouses.
NEWS CLIP: ...from the CEO of Tyson Foods. Tonight he says the U.S. food supply chain is breaking because so many workers who process meat have Coronavirus. And farmers say their crops, meant for schools and restaurants, are rotting. This comes at the same time that food banks are running low...
Gordon: A few days later, guess what happened? Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act and forced the re-opening of these slaughterhouses
TRUMP TALKING WITH REPORTERS: We’re going to sign an executive order today, I believe, and that will solve any liability problems, where they had certain liability problems...
States couldn’t do anything to stop it— oh and by the way, Trump didn’t require any mandatory safety precautions, and he also shielded these companies from legal liabilities. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, meat packing plants have become Covid hotspots.
Democracy Now clip: This week, the world’s biggest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, shut down its processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. That’s responsible for close to 5% of U.S. pork production. After more than 350 workers at the plant tested positive for Covid-19. That’s accounting for nearly half of South Dakota’s reported infections. In Pennsylvania, 130 weorkers tested positive at a Cargill Meat Solutions plant….
Gordon: As of May 11th, there are 12,608 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in America’s meat packing plants.
So Covid-19 is about the callous way we treat animals and the people who work with them. That was the cause of Covid-19, it is exacerbating Covid-19, and it will lead to new Covid-19-like viruses.
That’s what we’ll be talking about today on Secondary Symptoms. I’ll speak to Alex Blanchette on his new book Porkopolis. It’s an anthropological investigation of one mid-western company town. The town houses one of the largest pork processing plants in the world. His book is not exactly what you’d expect. It’s really not a shocking expose of abuse— instead, it describes the business as usual. It describes how these businesses really work, and what their philosophies are. Alex reveals their grand techno-scientific ambitions of total control of the pig, and total control of the workers who process them.
ALEX BLANCHETTE: Some of these companies actually kind of look like they’re trying to build this kind of bio-industrial system that is made, and runs, through pigs. Say, they perhaps take all of the fat from the pigs and turn it into biodiesel to power trucks. Or take all the manure from hogs, and use it to power barns or slaughterhouses -- trying to create something of a closed-loop system that is made from, and made through, hogs.
But first, back to Tiger King. Tiger King wasn’t escapist. Like I said: it was about the very industry that put you in isolation. One person who did make that connection was Dr. Kendra Coulter. She studies the relationships between animals and labour, and she works at Brock University in Ontario.
A lot of people are trying to escape from the social economic health challenges of COVID with the Tiger King, but the fact is that it's directly connected to the challenge. I mean, I think the show is actually quite tragic. I found it very sad. I found many of the human stories troubling. But in particular, it was the devaluation of the animals. So even when the camera was right on them, we weren't really considering their well being. And there's sort of a twisted irony that what many of us were looking to for escapism is in fact, directly connected to the cause of this pandemic, which is the use, display touching and consumption of exotic animals.
So when we say exotic animals, we mean those who really should be living in the wild in other countries. Of course, tigers are not native to North America, nor are many of the animals that are kept in private hands. So no, Tiger King is not about some unusual culture elsewhere. The challenge of exotic animals is very connected to Canada.
Gordon:So what's the connection between the exotic animal trade or animals in general and the so-called, what scientists calle the zoonotic diseases like COVID-19? I mean, what makes this exotic animal trade dangerous to our health?
Zoonotic diseases are certainly something we're talking a lot more about. And those are the illnesses and pathogens that travel from animal to people, and then make us sick. And so there are two main types. There are the viruses, which the scientists estimate that there are over 10 million viruses inside of animals, which are harmless to us. Unless we interact with, touch or consume those animals. At that point, we augment the risk. So in the context of exotic animals, they may have these viruses in their bodies. And it's when we start consuming or interacting with them, that we increase our risks.
The other side are the bacterial infections. The scientist says that whether the next pandemic is viral or bacterial, we will most likely get it from consuming animals. This is about other animals from other countries who are brought into our own, but it's also about the risky ways that we treat our agricultural animals in particular.
So we have a serious problem with microbial resistance. Or antibiotic resistance. So, you know, in the case of say, strep throat, you might need antibiotics. If you just have a general sore throat, it's a virus and your body will normally take care of it with rest, vitamin C, etc, your body will fight it off. In the case of the bacterial infections, so like a strep throat, we need antibiotics. But what we're increasingly seeing is that bacteria are stronger and stronger. And a main reason for this is the overuse of antibiotics in industrial animal agriculture.
So the normal practices intensive confinement of farmed animals, so packing them in great numbers in very cramped conditions, and preemptively giving them antibiotics even when they're not sick. And so the bacteria are becoming stronger and more resilient, and our antibiotics are increasingly ineffective at combating bacteria.
These are quite scary facts. So you know, whether the pandemics are viral or bacterial, we're probably going to get them from animals. And we're exacerbating both threats by failing to take animals seriously by disrespecting animals by ignoring these health concerns, which have been flagged for many years, whether we're talking about exotic animal consumption or industrial animal agriculture close to home. These are both very risky practices that are not good for the animals, and dangerous for us as well.
Gordo: I don't know if it's possible to generalise. But like, who, who are the people that are trading exotic animals and why are they doing so?
Kendra Coulter: You're right that it's not possible to generalise, there would be a range of people who are well intentioned, those who are simply seeking money. Others who are fascinated with the unusual and want to obtain status or power from being able to own or touch, often control these kinds of animals.
That latter group is very much what we saw in the Tiger King, which were, you know, a lot of these men were seeking to seem unusual and to seem special to gain status by being associated with the big cats in particular. And it's a way we don't need to be interacting with nature, you know, you can ask any kid about dinosaurs, they've never seen or touched a dinosaur in real life, but they know everything about them. So there are many ways for us to have more positive interactions that are with animals that are safer for them and for us. And ways for us to learn about them that don't require their needs and their social relations to be subverted for our interests.
Gordon: I think one of the interesting things about the response to COVID-19 is that so much attention has been placed on the wet markets in China. And as you were just alluding to there, I mean, we have our own kind of factory farms that have absolutely atrocious conditions for both the animals and the people that work there. Yet, it seems to me like there's not a ton of conversation. I mean, maybe there is in sort of animal rights circles, but how much of this have you seen in kind of public discourse-- actual attention to our practices in North America?
Kendra Coulter:Not enough. But I think that some of the potential benefits that may come from both Tiger King and this global pandemic are that we are going to begin taking these issues more seriously.
The challenge of industrial animal agriculture here close to home at is very serious. Exactly, as you mentioned, Gordon, these very difficult working conditions, dangerous, risky jobs for people, and of course, even worse for animals who lead very short lives of suffering and are ripe for disease production.
You know, there was a piece recently in The Guardian that referred to poultry or chicken farms in particular as the quote, “Silicon Valley viral development and mutation”, where you have thousands of animals cramped into very tight conditions. And it's a, you know, a cauldron for infections.
The problem comes from animal exploitation, and it's bad for animals, but it's also irresponsible and very dangerous for us.
Gordon: So I think people get the general impression that these pandemics seem to be coming from China. I mean, that's where the focus is. But obviously, like we were alluding to earlier, there are risks and there are, there are diseases that outbreak in North America from the way that we treat animals in factory farms and meatpacking plants and, and in other contexts. So have there been outbreaks? Like, what's kind of the history of this sort of zoonotic diseases originating from North America?
Kendra Coulter: From my research, what I've been able to glean is that most of the recent issues have come from animals in different parts of the world. More serious, I think, is that scientists are now saying, the next pandemic, it's not if, but when, and they are very much turning their attention to the conditions in factory farms. We have known there are issues with E. coli, with Mad Cow. This is not just “out there” or “somewhere else”.
The thing with viruses and bacteria is that they don't discriminate. They don't have a command centre where they sit around and plan where they're going to attack next, there are likely multiple potential sources that exist already. The question is simply going to be where does the next challenge emerge-- and there's a very good likelihood that it could be close to home.
Gordon Katic: I want to ask you more about the workers in these meatpacking plants, because fundamentally you're a labour scholar. And one of the things that I've sometimes felt a little bit uncomfortable about seeing, you know, these kind of videos from behind the scenes at a slaughterhouse or something from PETA, or some other animal rights organisation... Oftentimes, it's the migrant, like Latinx worker, that's harming the animal and is sort of made to look like the villain of it, or at least is part of, part of what's happening. But what are the conditions that he or she in some cases, I guess, he or she is being subject to, and how is that informing the the way that they treat the animals in those conditions?
Kendra Coulter: It's very important and and complex issue that you raise. The thing to remember but undercover footage isn't that it's not unusual. It just happens to be someone had a camera on that day or that particular plant had someone who purposefully sought to try to document about what's going on. So harm and devaluation is normalised in, in this, these kinds of industries. You know, just objectively. These are workplaces where you are bringing living beings and to be killed and taken apart.
The research is pretty clear about the difficulties of this work. This is not a dream job for anybody. Even when there are unions present, there might be slightly better benefits and slightly better pay, but it's tough to make these kinds of jobs into good jobs by most standards.
In chicken slaughtering facilities workers at the front end are receiving. Normally, chickens who are alive cramped into little crates, who need to be flipped upside down so their feet are hanging on hooks, which will then move along and a blade will slice their neck.
And in the standard is 20 chickens per minute. So you're being expected to flip a live chicken upside down and clip their feet into the hooks every three seconds. The standard for North American pig processing plants is 1,000 an hour, and the industry would like to speed that up in order to make more money.
The research that’s been done on slaughterhouses hhas found that turnover rates are far exceed the manufacturing average. Sometimes they're 200% per year. People don't want to do this work. The injury rates are higher. The psychological impact of doing this work is very clear. And not surprising to anyone who's listening, that if your job is to kill and be part of taking apart an animal's body every single day at such a rapid pace, that's extraordinarily difficult work.
And so the physical and psychological impacts on workers are... are very real. And, you know, we need to have some, some empathy with the people who, who are doing or have to do this work. I think they deserve better. At the same time, we're seeing a lot of technological developments for things like lab grown meat, that could make the need for these very difficult and dangerous slaughterhouse jobs obsolete. If we're able to mass produce lab grown meat, those who want to consume it can without having to cause so much suffering to animals and people.
So we have this very fertile culture for alternatives, which include innovative product development, so plant based products of different kinds, but also farming. And I don't think we need to simply accept violence and harm and danger in the name of jobs. What we should be doing instead is saying people don't just need work. They need good, sustainable, humane jobs, which treat them with respect, but that also are about doing no harm.
Gordon: I think one of the things that's interesting here when you talk about these slaughterhouses-- we've known about this for a long, long time. I mean, for at least since Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle” in the turn of the century, right. And we know only more so now with the emergence of these sort of undercover videos that we've been talking about, and people seem to put their head in the sand a little bit on what's happening in these spaces. And even now, when it's in their self interest to know more about them because we're all cooped up because of a zoonotic disease, we still tend not to turn our gaze into these meatpacking plants, these slaughterhouses and these other contexts where animals are so mistreated. What do you think accounts for the kind of, I don't know what you'd call it... willful blindness of a lot of the public?
Kendra Coulter: It's really good point. I mean, we've been taught for decades or centuries that particular practices are normal, natural or necessary, when the reality is that food is completely infused with cultural ideas and politics. And we could be doing things very differently. It's going to require leadership. And a lot of people are-- increasingly we're seeing-- people asking important questions and changing their own practices and their own patterns at you know, record rates. So there is a bit of a shift. The availability of products is helpful and will make things easier. There is a need for, you know, the labour movement to confront this. That, you know, we don't just want difficult jobs, we want good and humane jobs. And there's going to be a need for political leadership as well.
So we've seen investment and subsidies provided to particular industries. Those can be shifted. The public sector could be playing an important role in encouraging research and development, and encouraging innovative products. And in cultivating particular kinds of farming to make it easier for people. I think it's sometimes useful to look historically at, say smoking, and look at its journey. Where originally it was seen as normal, desirable, sexy, and it took many years and decades of a combination of strategies to try to raise public awareness and, and shift perceptions away from this being a normal or desirable thing to do.
You know, this isn't about, you know, vegans versus omnivores, it's not about cities versus the country. This is about humans. This is about the survival of, of life on Earth. It's in everyone's interest for us to be creating safer and more sustainable kinds of food and places to work.
Gordon: That was Dr Kendra Coulter, department chair of labour studies at Brock University and fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.
Gordon: Dr. Coulter mentioned meat processing plants in that interview. Armies of low paid workers perform exhausting, repetitive tasks in unsafe conditions. They are human cogs in a colossal machine, that is finely tuned to produce the most meat for the lowest cost.
Some plants have been forced to close by outbreaks of Covid-19, but like I said, Trump invoked the Defence Production Act, so many of them are back to work. They’ve become dangerous hotspots for the Covid-19 outbreaks.
Dr Alex Blanchette knows a thing or two about these plants. When he was researching his book, Porkopolis, he spent 27 months in a small mid-western town that’s home to a colossal pork production facility.
Alex Blanchette: The place that I call Dickson in the book is really a company town that’s built in and through pigs.
Gordon: Just one note. This was a anthropological study: so, because of his university ethics-- he had to change the name of the town, the plant, and the people he interviewed. He’s calling the town Dixon; but that’s not it’s real name.
Alex Blanchette: It’s a town of 15,000 people that annually births, raises, kills, processes and ships over 7 million hogs a year. The companies that operate out of there control every single phase in the process of making pigs, from pre-life to post death. These companies were also talking in public media like they were on the cusp of a new agricultural future. A new future of animal agriculture. Their goal was not just to produce millions of hogs. And it wasn’t just to monopolize all existing value in the hog-- although it is that. Essentially what they’re trying to do is produce an incredibly uniform, standardised pig that can get premiums in global wholesale markets, that is very biochemically consistent, so they can create more than one thousand product codes from it, and also, and perhaps more importantly, that allows them to increase line speeds in the slaughterhouse.
Gordon: The picture he paints is dystopian. These companies have grand techno-scientific ambitions to create the perfect “capitalist swine”. They control every step of the process, from birth to death. And this means controlling life in Dixon-- the plant tries to dictate where workers can live, and who they can socialize with, because they fear diseases might travel from one side of the plant to another. It is a company town through and through: and their industry is the Pig.
Alex Blanchette: Before I ever went there, I was always fantasizing about what a town that is given over to animal lives--a place that some people call the red meat capital the world -- would actually look like. And when I first arrived there, I have to confess, it didn't look very different than any other Midwestern town. With the exception of seeing a hog snout sticking out of the side of a truck, you would never see a pig in public. But yet there were many signs of this being an area that is given over to the agribusiness industry. Gas stations have signs that say 100% gas on their exterior, in an attempt to advertise that they do not use ethanol, corn based ethanol, which increases the price of animal feed. The main street itself is thriving.
Gordon: It's interesting in your book, I find your vision of what industrialization and deindustrialization means slightly is different. I mean, we have this sense that the United States is being de-industrialised-- which is, I guess it's true because it's like, less people are doing it-- but then you have a place like Dixon, where it is thoroughly an industry town.
Alex Blanchette: I mean, Dixon, as I say in the book, is what I call a porkopolis. And porkopolis is originally a name given to Cincinnati in the mid late 18th-- or 19th century sorry. And then later to Chicago in the late 19th century, as really the city that produces more animal protein, animal flesh, than any other. One of the things that I found striking and working through this project, in this in this moment when people talk about how the United States is a post industrial country that is not organised around industrial production anymore. Yet we still have, across the rural United States, these different towns really opening up is almost like 19th century company towns, single industry towns. That are entirely reliant on pigs, chickens, cows, oil, or corn.
And one of the points that I try to make in the book is that, it is true that the United States has underwent deindustrialization in the very specific sense that especially in cities, fewer and fewer people work within factories. But that's a pretty narrow --first of all-- definition of industrialism. Right? If I look around my room, for instance, virtually every object, including my very own book, comes from industrial factories, right? It's not the case that the world has been deindustrialised. And indeed, even the climate today is profoundly industrialised. So one of the questions for this book was really, what do we mean when we say the U.S. has been deindustrialised? And looking at the country from certain rural locales, we can actually start to think about how deindustrialization from some places can actually mean hyper-industrialization. Right. Rather than having smaller, less industrialised farms spread out across the country, we instead have tiny pockets, hundred mile radius regions of that country that now are responsible for the production of 6, 7, 8 percent of the national pork supply.
Gordon Katic : So can you tell me about the first time that you went to the plant and what that was like?
Alex Blanchette: Contemporary slaughterhouses-- slaughterhouses that kill 19 to 20, sometimes 21,000 animals in an 18 hour shift-- are really overwhelming places. They're enormous. They are packed with people. I distinctly remember walking through the halls and thinking “this is like a high school” with so many people moving through it. They’re sensorially overwhelming. You can be in the stockyards, the part where they hold 10,000 pigs as they prepare them for slaughter, and be overwhelmed by the smell of ammonia and so forth and just the heat from 10,000 bodies.
The kill floor is hot. It's almost overwhelming and it smells but it's also oddly serene. It's just a portrait of unending repetition, as the animal moves from having its throat slit, being bled, to being gradually disembowelled, dismembered.
The cut floor whereby chilled carcasses are broken down into ever finer, sale-ready pieces is overwhelmingly cold and loud and just filled with labour. Just an unending array, a maze really, of conveyor belts.
But then juxtaposed against these sites of intense labour, whereby no motion’s wasted, where it seems like every single space of these plants, after 150 years of refinement, have been worked out. So there's no wasted motions, no wasted space, no wasted anything.
You have the contrast with the management offices, which really appear no different than any other business.
Gordon Katic: I thought it was interesting, you had a couple of different managers that you spoke with. There’s a term used at one point, like “a politics of totality” or something? Like there’s this faith that they have that they can somehow control every facet of the pig’s life and of the surrounding environment, even.
Alex Blanchette: One of the points of Porkopolist is that we shouldn't imagine the industrialization of pigs or chickens as something that just happened within the last 20 or 30 years. Yes, things have changed in the last 20 or 30 years, especially around vertical integration and single companies owning every single phase of an animal's existence.
But we're also talking about a very old industrial slaughter system, A very old system of industrialising animals that really dates back in significant ways to before industrialization, as we know it. Famously, Henry Ford is said to have taken the idea for the automobile assembly line from the Chicago meat packers of the 19th century disassembly line.
In some senses one of the premises of Porkopolis, is that we're actually dealing with an animal that's already been subjected to 150 years of industrial processes. 150 years of industrial demands, and one result of that is like a wildly over productive and super efficient system.
And so for many managers, the task was actually like, how do we realise new forms of value and new forms of profit within this animal in this system that already has so many economic demands on it.
And really, though these companies themselves are a significant factor, they're in some senses the cause of cheap meat and these very low margins of return, in a paradoxical way, they're also kind of struggling with the very profit margin pressures that they've helped create.
They're trying to reindustrialize a pig that already bears a great many historical processes of industrialization.
Gordon: You know, there's this way to think about like, humans sort of torturing something natural. It comes out that's too simple a story, that the pig itself, like you're just alluding to, is the consequence of these historical processes, that it's actually a kind of capitalist pig.
Alex Blanchette: Yeah, one of the kind of shifts or changes to the lenses that I try to develop in the book is that I think it's pretty common to see things like factory farms is purely anthropocentric projects. Purely projects that are about the human domination of animals, or the domination of animals through the machines, right?
Like it's fairly common to read in a lot of factory farming exposés, is the sense that what factory farming really represents is that these natural pigs have been locked into this system of mechanised industrialization. And that's not entirely false. But I prefer to look at it from a slightly different perspective, which is in many ways that the very machine of the factory has itself been constructed through the pigs.
Some of these companies actually kind of look like they're trying to build this kind of bio-industrial system that is made and runs through pigs. That's to say they perhaps, take all of the fat from pigs and turn into biodiesel to power trucks. Or take all of the manure from hogs and use it to power barns or slaughterhouses, trying to create something of a closed loop system that is made from and made through hogs.
But in a broader sense, I would say that these are not so much purely anthropocentric operations in the sense of a generic human domination of an animal, so much as they're really about shaping animals to make them more amenable for labour exploitation. Of really trying to almost open up animals across their entire life and death course, in order to try to create almost new terrains, carnal terrains within pigs in order to exploit workers and try to create new sources of profit.
Companies are trying to produce incredibly uniform animals, some different agribusiness corporations are trying to compete with each other, really, to have the most standardised pig and constantly try to have more and more and more animal uniformity. That actually requires a great deal of work to produce a very uniform and predictable pig at the scale of 7 million requires workers who outside of work are careful with who they interact with so as to not spread diseases across each other's bodies.
It requires people in artificial insemination to make the exact same motions and labours try to have a relatively predictable sense of litter sizes. It requires an entire regimen of vaccination, of antibiotic treatments, and other kinds of hormone treatments to try to gradually make diverse animals more and more uniform.
And this is really in many ways about trying to shape an animal so that its body is very uniform so that you can put it through at exactly six months and 285 pounds. You can put it through a slaughterhouse this assembly line, and I have a predictable set of tendon placements and muscle distributions and so forth, so that you can organise 2,000 workers to make a single cut around it and increase line speeds.
Similarly, even after the animal dies is where so much of the labour then begins. These companies are constantly trying to find more room, if you will, within the pig to develop specialised processes.
The company that I studied at the time that I was doing the bulk of my research in the early 2010s had 1,100 different product codes that they marked out of pigs.
Much of that was different cuts for different wholesalers. But much of it was also things that had nothing to do with meat: pet foods flavourings, or different kinds of organ based derivatives for pharmaceuticals, and so forth.
Gordon: In the beginning of the pig, the to sow is artificially inseminated. You spent some time there. What is that like?
Alex Blanchette: I guess I'd actually say it's kind of boring. Without boars being present, the job is to really become the boar. The job is essentially just sitting on sows for most of the day, trying to imitate the back pressure that normally would have been applied by a boar when it mounts. Much of the job is just one of repetition, of moving down a single file line, repositioning a pheromone boar in front of a bank of sows that are all locked in gestation crates, so they can't really move and turn around. Inserting a spearette of boar semen from another farm into the sow. Rubbing it in a few different motions that are supposed to be reflective of how boars would mount a sow in, quote unquote, “nature”. And then really just sitting on animals for most of the day, as you tried to act as human boar replacements.
Gordon : You're from a rural part of Ontario, so maybe this isn't foreign to you, but, is this something that that you've done before? Or understood before you got into this research?
Alex Blanchette: No, I mean, the first time stepping into an industrial [unintelligible], an industrial confinement farm, was unlike anything I've ever experienced. And even with artificial insemination... while, it's true that artificial insemination for animals isn't anything new, it's something pretty different when you're working in a breeding barn that houses anywhere from 2,500 to 12,500 different breeding sows.
Really where you are in this environment that is loud, right. Is hot, that has 2,500 different animals surrounding you, and whereby you really only have one job to do for the most of the day. Sure, you might show up in the morning and you might make sure that all the pigs have been fed, you might clean up a little bit. There's different maintenance tasks that need to be done, but by and large, for the most part, each person is really doing one thing all day. And so if you're working in artificial insemination, we're talking more or less, five, six hours of just repetitively moving down banks of sows and just doing the same thing over and over again. And attempt in other words to try... We think about factory farms... an attempt to make an industrial process out of the creation of life.
Gordon Katic :These places are known for being quite dangerous places to work well. What sort of workplace hazards did these workers face?
Alex Blanchette: Well, I think we have to remember when we say something like when we talk about contemporary animal agribusiness or factory farms, we're not talking about one workplace. The hazards in these operations vary wildly. In the barns, there's issues of animal bites, say. Or problems that can ensue from spending eight hours a day simply standing over a manure pit and breathing in hydrogen sulphide and many other chemicals. Or simply constantly standing in rubber boots on concrete slats can really wear out the legs.
But on the other hand, in meatpacking, you have an entire other environment and set of problems. Meat packing is incredibly fast, brutal and repetitive labour. We're talking making 10,000, up to 10,000, discrete motions repetitively across an eight or nine hour shift. And making, you know 10,000 different knife motions can really come to reshape the body. As one manager put it to me, euphemistically, “you're learning to become an athlete but you're not an athlete”, right? That, in other words, these very specialised tasks of repetitive knife motion require the development of muscles in perhaps unusual parts of the body, such as the hands and so forth. That can lead, especially when workers start, to incredible amounts of pain.
You know, I lived in a homeless shelter for a couple months that primarily employed new migrants to the slaughterhouse, or new employees of the slaughterhouse, who are awaiting their first paycheck. And evenings in that homeless shelter would be really people just sitting around flexing stress balls, trying to keep their hands from seizing into claws from just the shock of what workers called “break-in” or breaking in. Really accustoming the body to do this is hard and repetitive work.
Gordon Katic: meatpacking plants are in the news right now as COVID hotspots. And one of the things that's interesting with your book, and the managers and The way that you describe them, they have this kind of this politics of the totality and this and ambition of their own kind of control of this biological system. And if they've honed what they do down to a fine science, so perhaps it's somewhat ironic that these plants are constantly home to biological outbreaks, and now and now COVID-19. So, what do you think accounts for that?
Yeah, I mean, one of the ironies is perhaps that you know, trying to manufacture 7 million hogs in 100 mile radius region, and continuously make more and more hogs and make hogs more and more uniform also tends to create its own instabilities, right, that are internal to the project. Disease outbreaks become a major issue that are hard to manage when pigs are so concentrated. Instituting new forms of animal genetics for instance, perhaps trying to make pigs that are more and more prolific, trying to create increased litter sizes so that you can create more pigs with less sows and not have to pay for feed costs for those sows can also create really make different kinds of animals appear on farm. A farm animal with weaker muscle muscle fibres and so forth, that also necessitate new kinds of labour procedures and new kinds of knowledge about animals to keep them alive.
Gordon Katic: They push biology to its sort of natural limits almost and Is that what you're saying with with the sows
Alex Blanchette: Animals in contemporary agribusiness are very fragile. That was something that was always repeated to me. They're constantly subject to endemic diseases, diseases that the companies have learned to manage, that they've decided they can't eradicate. But also oftentimes threatened with new ones. But even beyond the level of the herd or illnesses that can affect all of the animals -- everyday, the animals that one encounters on an everyday basis can be very fragile.
I actually open the book with a manager who told me that I should never look a pig in the eye, which was, you know, one of the odder things that I've ever been told. And the reason for that, or the reason he said that, is because for instance, when you're leading animals through the hallways of a barn, and if you make eye contact with one, they'll freeze. And so it's kind of an odd experience of being embodied when you walk through these barns and you see animals moving through the halls, you're instructed to turn your head and face the wall so that you don't make accidental eye contact.
And the problem there is that if you make accidental contact with a pig and it freezes, all of the animals can pile up on each other and there can be miscarriages. Someone else told me, whether this isn't necessarily true or not, that I shouldn't pet a sow. I shouldn't give individual attention to an animal because this can potentially alarm the sow, and cause her to to get upset and perhaps alert and upset the other sows in the barns and lead to a wave of miscarriages.
In other words, workers were kind of being taught that their every action can potentially affect these animals that have largely been genetically selected to produce large litters, but but not selected for much else.
Gordon Katic: What about the workers themselves? Are there the kinds of biosafety protocols that would protect their health?
Alex Blanchette : You know, one of the things I think I found that was pretty striking to me was that I'd say much more company resources are dedicated towards trying to protect the pigs.
Not even just so much the pigs wellbeing, but trying to keep pigs free of disease and so forth in order to ensure that they're constantly growing and proliferating at an increasing rate. So for instance, the company became concerned where the diseases were potentially transferring across their workers bodies, right.
That perhaps someone who works in the slaughterhouse who was living with someone who works in a breeding farm or a growing farm, that by spending a lot of time together in their home that pig diseases might transfer across their bodies, and infect novel barns of swine.
And over the course of my research, I learned that managers were allegedly monitoring payroll forms to try to figure out who is living with who, and then intervening and saying, hey, if you work in a slaughterhouse you can't live with someone who works in a growing farm, because it might lead to new infections of pigs.
And so they are insisting that people either had to change jobs within the companies or say that a multi generational family living together would have to all find different departments if they wanted to keep those jobs.
Or in another instance, I knew a woman who worked caring for baby piglets, and her new husband worked in the slaughterhouse. And when they moved in together, the company said she had to essentially leave the job caring for pigs. In other words, these companies were actually trying to intervene and remake human domesticity, kinship, and housing arrangements in order to try to maintain the health of their pigs.
On the other hand, though, one thing I'd want to say is that I think the company that I studied, especially relative to some others, was trying to do what they could, within these very low margin systems to try to create a safer workplace for workers. So for instance, when I was doing my research managers had been consumed concerned with the rate of injury within the slaughterhouse. And to some extent within farms. They were starting to be concerned, in fact, that the very speed of the slaughterhouse system was such that it was harming workers' bodies, and then workers' comp claims were starting to cut into the bottom line.
And so one of the more striking things that during my research was when the companies tried to put in a health clinic for workers. You know, this is a company that every year or two tries to develop a new process, a new value-added process, to try to find a new product in pigs. It might be putting centrifuges in the slaughterhouse in order to drive the blood from pigs and turn into plasma to feed back to baby piglets and so forth... But when I was there, the major venture that was put in was actually a health clinic for workers.
And it was kind of striking to me I was like, well, what does this have to do with further capitalising on the pig? And indeed, as I talked to more and more people, it turned out that, you know, one of the biggest liabilities in terms of profits -- and it's important to note here that this is a liability precisely because this company, unlike some others appears to actually be paying out workers comp claims. But one of the major liabilities for the company was that injuries were becoming so severe that they wanted to put in a health clinic. And I initially thought that this health clinic was probably about treating cuts or treating sudden injuries, and maybe its logic was also to ensure a steady supply of labour and a small rural town that's constantly experiencing shortages of workers.
But really what I found what it does, is that it gives workers intense physicals before hiring. This isn't entirely unusual industrial sites. But it basically has people lift different series of weights or perform different exercises in ways that are meant to evaluate the strength of different portions of their bodies so that companies can position workers so that the corporation can position workers to make one discrete motion within the packinghouse. Essentially trying to monitor and supervise their body to find the strongest part of it, and then plugging them into the part of the disassembly line that works those muscles the most, in an effort to decrease injuries.
In that case, that was a matter of actually trying to take into consideration workers health, but it was also about trying to realise profits in a system whereby the slaughterhouse line was already moving so fast that it was threatening to undercut profits by harming workers.
Gordon Katic: So they're trying to try to maximise the return that they can get out of their workers too, it sounds like. Where are they best suited on line based on their physiological makeup? It doesn't sound that progressive to me.
Alex Blanchette: Well, I think within the broader world of U.S. meatpacking, and especially the stories one reads, especially in the poultry industry in the south, where workers in many ways are treated as quite disposable, right. Where they appear to be worked and worked until the point where they have injury and then they are fired or let go. This was at least an attempt, I think, to manage the very disassembly line that is moving at an inhuman pace. And from the perspective of corporations trying to manage a system that itself is just so efficient that it's out of control.... From their perspective, this is the one thing that they felt they could do to try to manage this, this line that has been increasing in speed for well over 100 years.
Gordon Katic: On the last question of the COVID I mean, when you I'm sure you've been seeing the news of these COVID outbreaks in meatpacking plants. I mean, what are your thoughts on that? Were you surprised?
Alex Blanchette : It was surprising to me that a human virus did this much damage to the meat supply chain. In retrospect however, it's not entirely surprising. I frankly expected it to be a swine disease such as African Swine Fever, that right now is killing over 25% of China's hogs.
But I think in retrospect, it's not hard to see why the slaughterhouse, not unlike -- for different ways-- like prisons, has been so vulnerable. I mean, the first issue is that we're dealing with cold, refrigerated warehouse rooms that extensively can help viruses spread. And we might also have issues with air circulation in those plants. But, we're also talking about a place where with such tightly packed conditions of labour, where like really, every single space, every single inch of those plants is dedicated to productivity. Partly tied to refrigeration costs of massive warehouses, where simply all space is used. To line production, a system whereby everyone who touches something in the plant comes into contact with something that someone else touched.
It's a hard, brutal process of physical labour. People are making thousands of cuts or lifts in a single shift. So they're sweating. They're breathing heavily. We've also got a situation where dealing with really underpaid communities of workers who likely can't afford to miss a paycheck. And in some of the early cases, especially around case around pork plants in the Midwest, we also had companies incentivizing people to come to work by offering them a bonus, if they don't have any missed days in the midst of this outbreak.
You have cramped hallways, cafeterias and locker rooms. But it's also just like the sheer degree of industry consolidation that makes these plants so large, you know, with upwards of 3,000 people working within them. Which, when you think about it, we don't have that much in the US anymore, these are highly refined worked out industrial sites where there's just an incredible amount of people employed within them.
And here, I think we should think about concentration in this outbreak in a couple ways. The sheer amount of hogs that are there, right-- anywhere from 18,000, all the way up to 32,000 in the Smithfield Tar Heel, North Carolina plant, 32,000 hogs a day being killed. And that can mean that you know, single plants can be responsible for anywhere from 5% to 10% of the national pork supply, but also just concentration in terms of the ways that companies are trying to monopolise all possible sources of value, all sources of profit within these animals, and all within a single plant. And one thing that simply means is a ton more people working within these operations in this highly concentrated value chain
Gordon: That was Dr Alex Blanchette, anthropologist and author of the book “Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm”
Thanks to our guests Dr Kendra Coulter, Dr Alex Blanchette and Dr Roland Kays.
This episode was produced by Jay Cockburn, and myself Gordon Katic. Music by our composer, Mike Barber. Dakota Koop is our graphic designer. And David Tobiaz is our production manager.
Cited’s executive producers are Gordon Katic and Sam Fenn.
Please let us know what you think. You can follow us on Twitter and drop us a line there. The handle is @CitedPodcast, and you can also drop me a line, my handle is @GordonKatic.
This episode was funded in part by a grant to discuss ideas in Liberal environmental thought. Jessica Dempsey and Rosemary Collard were research advisors on this episode.
Cited is still being produced in my bedroom, but usually it is out of the Centre of Ethics at the University of Toronto. That’s on the traditional land of Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat Peoples.
We are also produced out of the Michael Smith Laboratory at the University of British Columbia -- which is on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.
Thanks for listening, join us next week.