Meat Safety and General Opinion

(This blog post was written quite a while ago.) The average person doesn’t know how food is produced. And that’s a good thing. It’s easier to assume safeguards are followed and that food is generally safe to eat. We are at the mercy of giant corporations whose commitment to safe food is not always a given. We hope that circumstances in facilities producing our food are not operated in an undesirable way- but we know in our hearts that it probably isn’t true.

I don’t want to complain about Meatsack Inc (fake name, of course), as it pays the bills for a lot of people. Despite the rough work environment, I ran into a lot of great people when I worked in a meat plant. Most of the people were great. A lot of those great people would be shocked at the conditions that existed under their noses. And the environment seemed to promote and reward people who were able to cross the food safety line. Speed kills – both on the road and in food production. It injures human beings and it injures the ability to take appropriate safety measures for food consumption. Day in and day out I watched as management said and did the most asinine and unsafe things. Nothing got in the way of the efficiency god and cost was trumped by safety only when unavoidable. It was like watching a preacher give a sermon and rob the congregation at gunpoint.

However, is it wrong of me to feel happy that the company has suffered a least a degree of bad publicity lately? I know that it’s almost impossible to guarantee a safe food supply. The “however” comes into play because when you personally see avoidable and ignored conditions that lead to unsafe food practices, it tends to carry a different significance. Mistakes can and do happen. Willful misapplications and failures to follow rules and guidelines can’t be hidden as “mistakes.” (Even if the marketing and legal departments spends millions attempting to convince us of this.)
While much of my criticism is my OPINION, the reality is that meat facilities of any kind aren’t really operated in a manner that I agree with, to put it nicely. They are generally dehumanizing, dirty, and even established procedures are blithely ignored in order to increase efficiency and allegedly, profits. Or they were back in my day. I have to admit that my opinion could be 100% inaccurate now. Based on what I am told by people I trust, the same objections I once raised are still being shouted today as well.
One positive: Meatsack, Inc. left me with an appreciation for other jobs. Even simple acts such as being able to go to the  restroom can’t be taken for granted for many meat facility employees. Need a drink of water? Have a muscle cramp? Good luck getting human attention.There is a huge gap between the expectation of an honest day’s work for honest pay and the human exploitation of designing processes that don’t fundamentally address the physical effects of long-term repetitive motion issues, among others, on employees. Regardless of cost – even if higher prices result. Of what purpose is the perpetuation of any industry that doesn’t address profit as a result of human-oriented activity?
Working for so many years at a meat facility also demonstrated to me that management cannot survive without “open secrets” behind every aspect of operations. Don’t have time to document inspections, much less do them? How will anyone know it’s done if you document it, but don’t do it? That’s why publicized issues with cleanliness and disease always at first seem credible to me. I’m sure I’ve been mistaken in my contempt for some of the businesses embroiled in these food safety debacles. There must be companies dedicated to cleanliness at any cost. There must be…
It’s not that people who work at meat facilities are bad. It’s that the production method itself inspires nonsensical behavior. Add management who literally can’t communicate with much of the workforce and who know, but can’t acknowledge, that every day must be run one small second away from a disaster. Good people have to adjust a lot of behavior in order to work long-term at meat facilities. In dehumanizing jobs, it is difficult to avoid the pull downward in regards to what you can not only personally put up with, but what you can stomach doing to others. It becomes easier to disconnect from the consequences of doing things wrong. We’re not the ones making the decisions, we tell ourselves.
Daily, however, I saw and participated in processes that simply failed to be hygienic. Managers would become angry if you stopped and pointed out that the way we were doing things was just WRONG. Production seemed to consistently run on the edge of disaster, products needed to be shipped before they were even made and the “get it out the door” mentality was the dominant mantra, even if it was implemented with a wink. Everyone “knew” that rules had to be bent to make production. Discussion of these exceptions was simply not acceptable. (I won’t digress too much into  how SAFETY is considered in exactly the same way, but I worked in an area where someone with decades of experience was almost decapitated. I, too, was exposed many times to the extra SAME danger. Honestly speaking, my exposure was worse than the person who was almost mortally injured in that area. Everything about that area was operated in direct opposition to its inherent dangers and people were injured because of management’s mentality about it.)
Worse still, I had to actively participate in the “overlooking” sometimes, even when I knew beyond a doubt that it was contributing to the likelihood of a degraded food product. On many occasions, I was threatened directly and indirectly to stop talking and do as I was told, even though it was my name on the line. Working in a couple of areas was a course in counter-espionage, with the enemy being anyone or anything standing in the way of MAXIMUM production. A couple of the best people I ever met were inspectors of one kind or another and it was toward them that management ordered me to not only not answer questions, but to actively engage in behavior that was questionable and to falsify inspections and data. If I were under subpoena, I of course could name some of them after all these years. They would have a different recollection. Guess what? There would be no documented proof, as we falsified it all! I got the ‘wink’ from management so often I forgot that it was possible to do things correctly without cooking the books, so to speak. Repeatedly. Like dirty ceilings dripping directly into the food supply, meat spilled onto the floor and then shoveled up off of the floor without being reported, chill coolers being way too hot for storage, fresh product being frozen solid and then sneaked through production to avoid temperature inspection, etc. Did really bad things happen every day? No, of course. Very often? Yes.People don’t like to be reminded that they were involved in the shenanigans, as they feel like they had no choice. But when you are the one making the decisions, the buck can’t be passed.
I’ll never forget the summer when someone was putting a contaminant into cooked deli. Despite our supposedly rigorous detection procedures, we shipped a lot of this stuff out the door to customers. We had to work a lot of overtime to run it all through detectors again – after the contaminant was being found for the second time in cooked meat that we had already processed twice. And even missed some the second time. Yet, at each point, our procedures were documented, our machines calibrated. Or were they? Did speed trump safety? To ask is to answer affirmatively. Someone was paying for all that overtime. We also had lie detectors being used on us during this period, to catch the person contaminating the cooked food supply with metal. At the outset, I knew that only a select few could have been guilty. Management knew my crazy reputation so I wasn’t a suspect. But it bothered a couple of them that an idiot from line production like me could take a cursory look at the circumstances and correctly narrow the suspect pool to a handful of people. Nevertheless, they wasted a lot of resources chasing phantoms instead of taking an honest look at how they were producing food. Any real emphasis on checking the food supply more carefully would have guaranteed a safe food supply. Instead, we focused on production speed. So focused on the necessity of production to keep their respective jobs that sensible group safety thinking among managers often disappeared. Being well-educated, many of the management team could fast-talk themselves and others into forgetting that many of us on the front lines of production knew better than to drink the “we’re doing things right” kool-aid. We didn’t inspect the cooked end enough to guarantee no trapped air or holes in the packaging. If we sliced a box accidentally and into the meat or bird below the cardboard, we often ignored it. Did we use the wrong broth formulation because we knew it couldn’t be proven? Yes, of course. Time was always trumping quality. Yet, we had to listen to paradoxical exhortations to be safe and to treat the food products safely – until we couldn’t, at which point every objection people had to doing things correctly was treated as insubordination. As I was quite the ass when younger, many times it was me doing the objecting and listening to the stupidity of their “shhhh system” of dealing with problems.
If you are reading this and thinking, “Can any of this be true?” Just remember that I am heavily censoring and editing what I say. It is not a specific company or person I want to comment on, even though I am addressing my situation. I’d rather you focus on the idea that if it happened one place it happened many places. Which of course it did. I could tell some hypnotic and horrifying stories of what was done to the food supply. Most of them can be summed up this way: Management said to do it and to shut up about it – or else.
I’ve long said that the way to determine a company’s true values and purpose can be learned by listening, watching, and experiencing things as they happen. If you are in a meat facility, go to where the less-educated workers are holding knives and cutting. It’s the best place to start. Talk to them, in their language, if it isn’t English. Patterns image. You can’t blame all of the negativity on the people expressing their opinions.
(Reading the lofty statements on plaques near the front door only serves to confuse your vocabulary.)
With meat facilities, at least in my past experience, the emphasis is on maximum production. This is the case with most businesses. People forget that a critical difference is that meat plants produce food that can either nourish or kill someone.

Meatsack, Inc hopefully will be reminded to be more careful. Not because of the public spectacle of hurting people avoidably. But because it’s the right thing to do. Again, I’m writing this years later. Maybe the entire business has changed and maybe I was just in the right place at the right time, exposed to a specific set of people who aren’t and weren’t representative of how things should be done in the food supply.

On the other hand, I still see the same stories and allegations about meat suppliers. I’m not sure what an acceptable number of bad companies might be.