Writer goes undercover as USDA inspector at Schuyler beef plant

2013-04-20T19:00:00Z 2015-01-22T17:10:23Z Writer goes undercover as USDA inspector at Schuyler beef plantBy RICHARD PIERSOL / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Harper's Magazine is publishing a cover story by a writer who went undercover to inspect meat for the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year at Cargill's beef plant in Schuyler. 

Ted Conover, a National Book Critics Circle Award-winning journalist, has gone undercover before as a hobo, a "coyote" tender of illegal immigrants, a prison guard and a taxi driver. 

In the respected national magazine known for its advocacy reporting, Conover's "The Way of All Flesh: Undercover in an Industrial Slaughterhouse" takes dead aim at the meat industry, Nebraska's largest, and at laws known as "ag-gags" that would restrict the ability of animal rights and animal welfare activists, or journalists for that matter, to go undercover to report on food production. 

The portrayal isn't entirely pretty, but then most people don't expect a slaughterhouse to be as pleasant as a sunny fast-food restaurant. It also draws clear portraits of the people who work alongside the meatpackers to address the public's interest in this profitmaking enterprise.  

In an essay published this week on the Harper's website, Conover explained himself:

"I eat meat. Always have. I’ve tried a couple of times to stop, but have never done more than cut back: I miss it too much.

"Given its intimate connection to my body and my health, I’m interested in how meat is made. This seems natural enough in an age in which farmers and feedlots and meat companies fill animals with hormones and antibiotics and grow animals in factories in order to maximize production.

"But the producers of meat apparently worry that if we know how it’s made, we’ll eat less of it."

Cargill says it wasn't asked for access by Harper's, but has granted that access for plenty of other media outlets. 

Conover consulted the Humane Society of the United States, PETA and Mercy for Animals to learn about their investigations, and he found their undercover operatives usually just went where they could get  jobs in a packinghouse. 

So he just got a job with the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service. 

"During the two years I waited to get a job, I watched with growing alarm the rise of so-called ag-gag laws," Conover wrote. "This class of laws, promoted by agribusiness in farm states, criminalizes the unauthorized recording of video or photographs inside a production facility.

"Nebraska, where I was finally hired in October 2012, is considering an ag-gag law but has not yet passed one, so my research was unaffected. But what about the next journalist? What about the next activist? With the underlying problems at slaughterhouses left unaddressed, undercover investigations won’t stop, which means that before long some idealistic person will be charged with a felony and become a martyr to the cause of safe, humanely produced food. And that should very much focus meat-eating Americans on the question of what’s so wrong with our food that the industry would promote draconian laws to keep its practices hidden from view."

After a couple of weeks of training as an inspector, and about six weeks total at the Schuyler plant, Conover reported graphically on the deaths of animals, the blood and the guts and the routines at Cargill Meat Solutions. He also goes into detail about USDA meat inspectors.  

"I grew up in Colorado but arrived in Nebraska from my home in New York City, which strikes many here as odd," he writes. "Carolina (a fellow inspector) was born in Mexico, spent her childhood in California, came to Nebraska a few years ago, and became a U.S. citizen in the past year. Still, in certain ways she has more in common with our coworkers than I do, because she has worked in meat plants before … which means she has experience with a knife. Which I do not. That experience, I will soon learn, counts for a lot."

Touring the plant with Conover and Carolina, the reader runs into the kind of reporting that makes meat industry advocates unhappy. 

"One cow, unlike the others, lifts her head up high in order to sniff the knocking gun," Conover writes. "What could this thing be? It’s her last thought. The knocker waits until her wet nose goes down, then lowers the gun and thunk. She slumps, then gets hoisted aloft with the others."

But they're not all quite dead yet, as Carolina tells Conover: "In most cases, apparently, what she says is true and intentional: the pumping of their hearts will help drain the blood from their bodies once their necks are sliced open, which will happen in the ensuing minutes. By the time the chain has made a turn or two, the kicking will stop. … Dismemberment proceeds by degrees."

The article goes into the history of the meatpacking industry and the federal government's efforts to ensure sanitary and safe food production. 

It also relates the day-to-day routine among inspectors and workers at the plant -- what they read in the break room, the kind of pop they drink, the history of Schuyler meatpacking, the labor unrest that has happened in its past, the predominance of Hispanic labor now. 

Unsavory details about the evisceration of animals and breaking down carcasses are inevitable. 

"She grabs the U.S. Inspected and Condemned stamp, which sits in a well of blue ink attached to the side of the table, and stamps the liver once," he writes. "That signifies to the workers downstream that the liver is not suitable for human consumption but is still okay for things like cat food."

Just as inevitable is the latest beef controversy.

"In one room, large stainless-steel machines attended by technicians whirred and churned out masses of pink pellets; they looked like Tater Tots made out of meat. 'Know what this is?' Herb asked us. 'You heard of pink slime?'"

Cargill makes its own version of what it calls "finely textured beef" by a patented process, and an FSIS veterinarian at the plant defended it to Conover, as he reported.

"I was surprised that Doc was so unquestioning about the safety of industrial processes like treating meat with ammonia -- Canada, for one, disallows meat that has been so treated," Conover writes.

Finally, the writer goes on to his exit strategy.

"Stan didn’t seem too surprised when I told him I was quitting," Conover writes. "I told him I missed my family, which was true; that the work was tougher than I’d thought, which was true; and that there were prospects for a job teaching, which was true. I didn’t tell him that I no longer had any feeling in my fingertips each morning, or that I wore a brace at night to alleviate carpal tunnel pain. I knew how he felt about complainers.

"I also didn’t tell him about my plan to write an article -- but I will have before this comes out, and I hope and suspect that he will forgive me and let me buy him a meal next time we meet, because I owe him one."

Conover then joins Stan and Stan's wife for beers, a ribeye, a baked potato and a salad with Dorothy Lynch dressing at an unnamed little steakhouse in an unnamed little Nebraska town.  

"It is hard to describe how good that steak was," he writes. "But meanwhile, I was thinking: What did this mean? What kind of witness was I, what kind of predator? I know that going vegan is perhaps the proper ending to my story, and truly, it’s the one I foresaw. But appetite is a hard thing to control; a lifetime habit doesn’t just go away. I do know that I eat much less beef than I did before. … I have subtracted 90 percent of the hamburger from my diet, and I now seek meat that requires a knife to eat.

"It will be better meat -- and using the knife will mean I have to think about it, every single bite."

Reach Richard Piersol at 402-473-7241 or  dpiersol@journalstar.com.

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