Saturday, August 06, 2005

Processing Plants And Psychology

A proponent of meat-lite or vegetarian diets, I sometimes feel resented by meat-eating family members, friends, and acquaintances. Their resentment may be the result of a guilty conscience, a conviction that vegetarian diets are unhealthy, or some combination of the two. But because it takes a long while to explain my personal approach, and because quiet examples are better than loud ones, I don't expend a lot of breath defending my diet. In fact, I'm irritated by vegetarians who make a fuss about their choice, say hateful things about meat-eaters, or make a morality play out of every public meal. This Washington Post piece, though, describes an aspect of the meat industry that gets little attention, even from "fundamentalist" vegetarians and animal rights activists.

The work conditions faced by meat packing employees are deplorable. Better monitoring of work place practices and of the psychological needs of the employees is needed. The psychological stresses of meat industry employment are too often overlooked. Although I'm comfortable butchering my own meat (and feel that every meat-eater should be required to gut and prepare at least one of each species they plan to consume in the course of their lifetime), the assembly line approach of the meat industry can skew one's relationship with death. As the Washington Post article mentions, workers must use "caustic chemicals and high-powered hoses to remove blood, bone and gristle from moving machinery parts." The caustic chemicals are dangerous, of course, but what of the folks who spend all day living amongst the gore-covered machinery? For them, does death cease to be death?

The region of Virginia where I spent my youth supported many chicken farms and several large-scale "processing" plants belonging to Perdue, Holly Farms and Tyson. The stench emanating from these plants - the smell of excrement and rotting guts - drew apocalyptic flocks of gulls. Likewise, the minimum wage jobs drew a steady line of ashen-faced employees who, in order to cope in such a work environment, ceased to view chickens as life forms. The bird was reduced to mere product. Such a corrosion of moral and ethical reasoning signals, in my mind, a critical breakdown in our understanding of humanity's place in the world.

A reduced demand for meat would gradually vacate most of these jobs. Yes, that's "bad for the economy," but what's bad for the economy isn't always bad for our spirit.

Photo credit: The Baltimore Sun


Updog said...

Once, in a cemetery behind a slaughterhouse in Smithfield, VA, I heard a sound like a poorly lubed turbine. The jarring screech came from the factory, and I assumed immediately that it was some immense piece of machinery starting up. At some point it warbled, and I realized with horror that it was the sound of the dying hogs.
Later, with the sound reverberating in my memory, I wondered what effect this slaughterhouse had on the collective psyche of the town. Pigs and people are unnervingly similar. At what point, I wonder, does one look at another person and know what his or her innards would look like spilling out. At what point does one apply the habitual routines of slaughter and dismemberment to the person sitting across the table? I've never seen a study done, but I'd like to know if there is a relationship between massive slaughterhouses and violence. It seems to me that this type of carnal knowledge, coupled with the bleak economics of many rural factory towns could have disastrous concequences for those involved.

Snooze said...

Fantastic post. I choose not to eat meat when I have a choice, but I'm not very adamant, and I do wear leather shoes/boots so I don't preach to people. However, I agree with you that if we eat meat, we should understand where it comes from. I used to only eat shellfish because that's what I figured I could "kill". I'm a bit more slack now, but unlike most people, never critique a friend of mine who likes to hunt because at least he's honest about the process.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Thanks for the terrific comment. I muse over such ideas often enough that I sometimes worry if perhaps I'm "touched.' It's always nice to know folks like you are out there listening to the terrible screams of dying pigs while standing in a cemetery.

I hope the painting is going well. By the way, the guy named Albert that called about your used convertible...


Glad to hear it. As for wearing leather shoes and the like, excessive or thoughtless meat consumption has a far more profound impact than shoes and belts. That said, I try to buy "vegetarian" shoes (they offer a entire section at, but often they just don't have what I'm looking for. About half of my shoes are leather or make use of some leather and two of my belts are leather. (I rationalize this by taking very good care of the shoes; my two pairs of leather dress shoes are five years old and still look brand new.) As more people become aware of the environmental, humanitarian and ethical problems connected to industrial farming, I assume they will request more alternatives.