MARQUETTE – Many Americans consume meat and poultry on a regular basis, but few may give much thought as to where it comes from or how it is produced. A new book examines how animals are raised for slaughter and processed from two perspectives: those who work in meatpacking plants and those who have seen their rural communities transformed by the meat industry.

Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America summarizes 15 years of research by Michael Broadway, head of the Northern Michigan University geography department, and Donald Stull of the University of Kansas. Broadway said the book is intended for a general audience. At 158 pages, it is a concise but thorough history of the industry.

“Most people are disengaged from how their food is produced – blissfully unaware of where meat comes from and what goes on in packinghouses,” Broadway said. “Meatpacking is one of the most hazardous occupations, yet the pay is low. The industry recruits immigrant workers, mainly Latinos and Southeast Asians, because local labor pools aren’t large enough and there is a high turnover rate due to relatively poor working conditions.”

Broadway said the industry trend is toward fewer and larger meatpacking plants, which have moved from urban centers to rural communities located close to feedlots. These small towns initially welcome the plants because they bring the promise of economic growth. But small communities often lack the resources to provide newcomer housing, bilingual education, health care and indigent services. The burden for these typically falls on churches and charities. He said the establishment of a new plant is very challenging and relations between established residents and newcomers are often strained as a result.

Broadway began studying the industry when the company IBP built the worldÂ’s largest beefpacking plant near Garden City, Kan. With a Ford Foundation grant, he and a team of social scientists investigated the relationship between the immigrant population and local residents and the plantÂ’s impact on the broader community.

“Garden City has become a cosmopolitan town,” he said. “Initially it was the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who were attracted to the area because of employment opportunities at the meatpacking plant. Now Latinos provide the majority of the labor force.

“But the work is very demanding with a high injury rate, which helps explain the turnover rate of 6-8 percent per month. You combine that professional stress with housing shortages and an influx of young adult single males and you see corresponding increases in alcohol-related incidents, domestic violence and other crimes. Large cities might be able to absorb the impact of the industry less conspicuously, but it is hard to hide the effects in a small town.”

Broadway also studied how the social costs of production are passed on to communities in Nebraska, Iowa and Alberta, Canada. His next goal is to explore the beef industry in Australia, a country that exports most of its meat products.

He and co-author Stull each wrote five chapters for Slaughterhouse Blues based on their independent research and critiqued each otherÂ’s work. They previously collaborated on Any Way You Cut It, a 1995 book that examined the role of the meat industry in transforming rural America and several other book chapters and journal articles. They have been asked to write an article for an upcoming issue of Mother Earth News.

“It is total serendipity that I came to study the meatpacking industry,” Broadway said. “I was born in England and grew up in a small village 20 miles from the center of London. My first academic job was at Wichita State University in Kansas. A refugee coordinator in Garden City needed help completing a survey for the federal government. He called three universities in Kansas and I agreed to help him and it ended up launching my career.”

When asked if the book will make people think twice about eating meat and poultry, Broadway replied: “Maybe, but both Don and I still eat meat. We are not against the industry – we are just trying to increase the awareness of those who purchase and consume the product. We want people to know how meat is produced and to think about alternatives to the current system.”

Prepared By
Kristi Evans
News Director