I’ve been reading about farmers having to kill hundreds or even thousands of their own animals, and especially hogs, because of meatpacking plant closures caused by the pandemic. It made me think of your chapter in How Nature Works and about the sensitivities that are bred into hogs and then developed by the people who are taking care of them.
Thanks for this. It’s an important and underdiscussed burden added onto food system workers, on top of the many pressures they already face. When I have seen this issue brought up in news stories over the summer, they tend to focus on the mental anguish of landed farmers who are forced to kill the animals they own. But with pigs, at least, I don’t think most people realize how much of the day-to-day intimate tending to animals is actually done by wage laborers.
I think one of the stereotypes of large-scale animal agribusiness is that pigs are widgets, that they’re treated like mindless commodities and that people have zero connection with them. During my research, I was always surprised by the length that some workers would go to care for pigs, how much they cared about the well-being of the animals despite the harsh conditions. In some senses, I would argue that workers were forced to care: these systems were using genetics and living conditions that made many of the animals so fragile that people had to expend a lot of themselves and become invested in learning about pigs in order to heal them and keep the system afloat. In a paradoxical way, the very vulnerability and fragility of hogs, through efforts to make them proliferate and grow faster, can lead to unusual forms of intimacy and attachment in spite of all the violence.
But I also think we have to put these mass culls we have seen over the summer into context because they shine a remarkable light on the broader system of animal agriculture that our society has developed. We’re talking perhaps a one- to two-week slowdown in the ability to get these fully grown hogs to market, and the system cannot accommodate them. We are talking about a just-in-time system that in any major plant across the United States is trying to move 20,000 285-pound hogs to slaughter on a precise date, and if you get reductions in plant capacity due to COVID-19 absenteeism slowing the line, or the odd plant shutdown, there’s simply nowhere for these animals to go. We can’t even maintain pigs for two extra weeks or find ways to deal with pigs that are 15 to 20 pounds overweight for the slaughter systems that have been designed. This system is very totalizing—it requires an incredible amount of coordination of both workers and animal biology. But it is also very fragile.
Is this the first time the system has been that complete and that fragile?
I think this is the first time we’ve seen the industrial meatpacking sector face such a shortage of labor or an inability to run at capacity in quite some time. But I think the specific problem we’re seeing with the culling of so many hogs and chickens is tied to changes across the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. The first issue is the move to indoor confinement for pigs and chickens, whereby we have living arrangements that can only accommodate animals up to a certain weight and age. I think we can see that difference between what’s happened with cows and pigs, both of which are on a different continuum of vertical integration, consolidation, and industrialization. The crisis seems to have hit beef packing less severely, precisely because cows are less confined and their bodies less standardized, and it is possible to let them grow out longer. Their lifespans are not so predetermined by integrated slaughter infrastructure.
More broadly, I see the breakout of COVID-19 in slaughterhouses as a crisis of efficiency and labor exploitation. We have to remember that slaughterhouses themselves are really old; in some senses, they predate the dominant images of American industrialization as we know it. Henry Ford is said to have taken the automobile assembly line from the Chicago meatpacking disassembly line. These spaces are precisely engineered at every level for maximum throughput and productivity. But what that also means is fast-moving, tightly packed lines: these spaces are full of people and full of labor. For the first time in decades corporations are having to reduce line speeds and reduce their so-called efficiency. It’s possible that through successful organizing and other measures we might see some of the things that workers’ organizations and unions have been calling for decades, which is primarily about a decrease in line speeds. Even prior to COVID-19, there were many reports of pork and chicken plants that were running so quickly that workers had to wear diapers on the line—they could not accommodate bathroom breaks. The human body has long been a problem for this system, one that has, for far too long, been ignored. I think we’re already way past the point where efficiency becomes violence.
One of the quirks of industrial slaughter, especially in the United States, is that increases in mechanical technology have tended to increase the pressure on workers’ bodies. When I was doing my research, managers insisted that they didn’t think anyone could invent machines that would cleanly take apart animal muscles, even if they were very uniform. There were still minor differences in fat and tendon placement and so forth that made it challenging to automate this process. We could also say there hasn’t been very much incentive to automate given the relatively low wages in the rural United States—which is itself tied to social racism given that meatpacking has recurrently been an occupation primarily done by immigrants. One of the things we might see emerge out of this is an effort to try to achieve some actual automation in plants, rather than simply using conveyor belts to more quickly move meat to workers who then have to adjust on the fly to make from 5,000 to 10,000 repetitive motion cuts in a shift. Some would argue that this would be a good thing, making American plants closer to their European counterparts. But it does not address the costs of mass-producing cheap meat.
I think we have to insist that meat is not essential. People should not have to risk their lives for a livelihood, especially for something like meat, which is not biologically necessary. But even if meat is not biologically essential, the last hundred years of development of agriculture have made meat essential to our systems of economy and capitalism. We don’t often think about it, but most US agriculture isn’t organized around directly feeding human beings, at least in terms of acreage of corn and soy and so forth. It’s really about feeding animals and, if we think about urban food provisioning, entire food infrastructures, such as fast food, are built up around and reliant on cheap meat. Minimally, I would have hoped that this crisis might spur reconsideration of the degree to which the food chain revolves around making more and more of a few species of animals. That, in itself, is fragile and unsustainable.
Let me ask you about your book. Your new book, Porkopolis, is an ethnography of a community organized around the raising and slaughtering of hogs. How did you get interested in that, and what did you learn while you were writing the book?
I grew up in an area of southwestern Ontario that in the mid-2000s looked like it was going to be changed quite a bit around industrial chicken and pork production. I wanted to go to an area that appeared to be the most industrial of industrial meat areas and see what one future for my hometown could be. The place where I ended up in the American Midwest—a town of 15,000 and its surrounding geographies—annually births, raises, and kills of 7 million pigs in a year. It is a kind of company town built through meat, and my original impetus for the project was to try to understand, first, what does it mean to industrialize animals? We use words like “factory farm,” but what is the “factory” in the factory farm? What is the “industrial” in the industrial pig? And second, what does it mean to be human in places that are organized around the mass production of animal life and death?
In terms of what I found, two things: First, that the project of creating factory farms or vertically integrated animal agribusiness isn’t a matter of taking a natural organism and industrializing it. It’s actually a much older process. I think we should see these systems as the outcome of up to 150 years of trying to industrialize animal life and death. What these things really represent is an effort to reindustrialize and find new value in an animal that’s already been subjected to many decades of industrial engineering. To keep compounding new ways of working a pig that is already incredibly overworked. And second, I think from the outside we oftentimes look at things like factory farms and see them as sites of human domination over animal life. But living in this community made me think differently. From hog pre-life to post-death, it was really more about shaping animals to exploit human workers—shaping animals to extract more labor, and more products. It was a matter of dominating people, ecologies, and landscapes through the life and death cycles of industrial pigs.
What did you learn about what it means to be human? Or how did what you saw change what it means to be human?
What I saw across my research—what I inadvertently ended up focusing on—was less efforts to engineer pigs and more efforts to engineer human communities to make them amenable to maintaining 7 million animals in a 100-mile-radius region. A lot of my research ended up tracking how managers came to change human relationships—who lived with who, different sensibilities and forms of labor, and even forms of human embodiment—to try to make them more amenable to these animals.
Photograph courtesy and copyright of Sean Sprague. All rights reserved.
For instance, managers came to be worried that everyday, taken-for-granted human kinship relationships were actually affecting the biological productivity of their hogs. They were worried that if a worker who works in the slaughterhouse was living with someone who works in a growing barn, pig diseases that either kill or limit the growth of animals could be transferring across their bodies and rippling through untainted barns of swine. So in this place where there are 4,000 different workers in different stages of the process, they felt like they needed to make workers’ living arrangements match their own divisions of labor all the way from pre-life in boar studs to post-death in things like fat-cum-biodiesel–processing facilities. They were allegedly monitoring workers’ payroll forms to ensure that people from different parts of the operation weren’t living together; in other words, coming to see mundane forms of human friendship, kinship, household, and so forth as threats to pigs.
That small example—and there are many others in the book—might give us a sense of how industrial meat re-domesticates human beings. However, I think we should be careful about thinking of these places as exceptionally deviant or exceptionally horrific. That’s a pretty common trope in the ways that people look at factory farms, to see them as antithetical to all American norms. Instead, I think we should see them as typical of where our society is, and could perhaps be going, in efforts to unendingly get more value and profit out of things. I don’t see these operations as moral aberrations so much as I see them as the outcome of 150 years of accumulated capitalist refinement.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. For more about Alex Blanchette’s work, listen to his recent conversation with Duke University Press senior executive editor Ken Wissoker.