Ted Conover Goes Undercover as a USDA Meat Inspector
A synopsis of our May 2013 cover feature
“Splash enough chemicals on and you can call anything safe.” So a meat inspector tells journalist Ted Conover, indicating how food safety will be handled if proposed government cuts take inspectors out of poultry plants. Conover — who once worked as a rookie correction officer at Sing Sing for nearly a year (without the state’s knowledge) and wrote an award-winning book, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, about that experience — spent part of last fall working undercover as a USDA inspector at the Cargill Meat Solutions plant in Schuyler, Nebraska.
The resulting article, which appears in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine, gives a firsthand account of the USDA’s regimen of visual, carcass-by-carcass beef inspection — a system that came to be in 1906 after Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle frightened the nation so thoroughly that Congress passed legislation mandating inspection. The inspectors Conover works alongside are almost heroic in their diligence. The work they do is grueling and takes a toll on the body — Conover must take painkillers to endure his six-week stint — but it is also in peril as consensus grows that industrial processes can replace their thoroughness.
“We’re told to look at them closely,” he writes of the inspection post known as Heads. “They are a gruesome sight, dripping with blood, eyeballs protruding the way eyeballs do from a skinned skull, small muscles exposed and twitching as though the animal was still alive.” The inspectors have about a minute to check them for signs that might indicate mad-cow disease or other infections. At the Livers and Pluck station, “the most disturbing, and the most interesting, on the kill floor,” inspectors watch while workers upstream on the chain disembowel skinned carcasses. “There’s a lot of steam (those innards are still hot) and splashing as the viscera hit the table with a plop,” Conover writes. “It’s a lot to take in, the river of organs flowing slowly by.” He likes livers the best because they are easy to cut. Knife skills, essential to the job of beef inspection, do not come easily to Conover. Hearts “wildly various, soft or firm, small as a cantaloupe or bigger than a honeydew,” are the most difficult to work with. “A proper first cut, which exposes all the heart’s chambers, will often release a warm pond of blood.” He gets splashed a lot.
Conover is surprised to encounter a representative from Eli Lilly at the plant. She is there to examine the effects their products have on the meat. USDA line inspectors do not test meat for the presence of antibiotics. “I keep track of how many livers inspectors mark out with abscesses, and they use it to monitor the use of antibiotics in the feed,” she tells him. “But wouldn’t antibiotics make the abscesses go away?” Conover asks. “I guess not!” the pharmaceutical rep replies. “Somehow this was worse than seeing shit on the meat or ingesta leaking out of a ruptured stomach,” Conover writes. “It wasn’t contamination from an isolated slaughtering mishap: it was deliberate, systemic contamination of the food chain.” Conover reports that as much as 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States is administered to livestock. “What I hadn’t known was that consumption of these drugs makes so many cattle sick,” he writes. “Can the chemicals that overwhelm a cow’s liver also be present in an otherwise healthy-looking cut of beef, in a steak we might eat?”
Meatpacking is a cleaner, more automated, and more humane business than it was in Sinclair’s day, yet the machinery of industrialized slaughter remains unsettling. “The soothing only goes so far,” Conover writes of livestock expert Temple Grandin’s much-ballyhooed slaughterhouse ramps, with their gentle curves and penumbral lighting. As he watches the cattle being prodded along toward death, he asks one of the workers why it smells so bad. “They’re scared,” the worker replies. “They don’t want to die.”
Conover finds the workers frustrated by how urban consumers with little knowledge of animal husbandry or the food industry are influencing the rural economy. A veterinarian who runs inspection details at Cargill calls the campaign against pink slime “a witch hunt.” “The publicity around that is just outrageous,” he tells Conover. “The product is proven safe — it might be the safest thing in ground beef, because it’s so thoroughly disinfected.” He doesn’t like how big-city politics and ignorance are costing workers their jobs. “Humanely treated, organic beef,” groans another inspector. “What does ‘humanely treated’ even mean? Do you take them into a barn every night? Do you brush them and sing them a song? No cattle are raised that way! It’s some city person’s fantasy!”
No, Conover hasn’t become a vegetarian, but he does eat less meat than he used to. “Appetite is a hard thing to control; a lifetime habit doesn’t just go away,” he writes. He also avoids ground beef. “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.”