April 13, 2013

“The Way of All Flesh”

photo by Jared Moossy, http://www.jaredmoossy.com

photo by Jared Moossy http://www.jaredmoossy.com

A couple of years ago, I applied for a job as a USDA meat inspector. Most inspectors work inside slaughterhouses; I thought it would be a good way to take a closer look at that world. Last fall I finally got hired.

I was posted to a large Cargill Meat Solutions beef plant in Schuyler, Nebraska. There I joined a couple of dozen other inspectors, men and women, who work the line on the kill floor examining different components of freshly-slaughtered cattle for disease. We rotated posts throughout the shift: Heads, Livers, Pluck (hearts & lungs), and Rail (final look before the warm carcasses head into the “hot box” to cool off). If we saw something bad (and we did, on almost every shift) we could stop the line until it got corrected.

It’s hard work that involves a lot of repetitive cutting into meat with knife in one hand, hook in the other. Everyone who sticks with it learns how to manage their pain. (Five months after I quit, my wrists and elbows still hurt.) What every inspector knows and appreciates, because many of them worked for meat companies before they worked for the government, is that regular line workers have it worse—most do only one job (they don’t rotate) and take fewer breaks.

Among the things I saw: Cattle husbandry practices take a toll on their health—which the inspectors see hour after hour in things like liver abscesses. And Temple Grandin’s vaunted curving ramps, which cattle ascend in the minutes before they die, may make them feel a bit less good than advertised.

My article about this is in the May issue of Harper’s magazine (and currently behind a pay wall here).


3 responses to ““The Way of All Flesh””

  1. Derik Pereira says:

    What an amazing essay … you certainly live what you write. Thanks!

  2. Alex Lemon says:

    This article was stunning–so so good. Are you writing a book-length piece about this time?

  3. Jennifer Brdar says:

    Thank you for speaking plain. I was a former FSIS meat inspector for M 208 A (National Beef-Liberal). Trust me, everything you saw, I saw too. Be grateful you got more training than I did.