Report — From the May 2013 issue

The Way of All Flesh

Undercover in an industrial slaughterhouse

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On the opposite side of the plant is the end of the story. There, scores of refrigerated trailers wait their turn at the loading docks. They’ll be filled with boxes of meat and cattle byproducts, which will make their way in one form or another to a store or restaurant near you.

In the middle, facing U.S. Highway 30 to the north, is the door through which humans enter the plant. We enter willingly, from all appearances, and under careful scrutiny: cameras monitor the main entrance (as they do almost the entire plant), and workers must pass through a security shack en route and show their company I.D.’s.

Though I tend to dislike scrutiny, I actually don’t mind the shack, because it makes me feel important: instead of a Cargill I.D., I get to flash my police-style USDA badge. And when I leave, at shift’s end, the guards can’t ask to see what’s in my bag, as they can the regular workers. Even my walk to and from the car is shorter, because a couple dozen parking places near the entrance are reserved for the USDA.

While the inspectors work at Cargill Meat Solutions, we are not employed by them. Rather, you could say, we are embedded. The company accommodates us along the chain, at four special places on the kill floor. (In another part of the plant, farther downstream, a different, smaller group of USDA employees grades the meat.) Cargill also provides us with our own locker rooms, a couple of offices for the veterinarians in charge, and a break room where we eat meals and hold meetings.

Carolina and I are not like most of the other inspectors. This becomes obvious as Herb, our immediate supervisor, sits us down to fill out paperwork. The regulars are putting on their white hard hats, grabbing the wide aluminum scabbards that hold their knives, and heading out onto the floor to begin the day. They are mostly white and mostly from the area around Schuyler, Nebraska, the town we sit at the edge of. I grew up in Colorado but arrived in Nebraska from my home in New York City, which strikes many here as odd. Carolina 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 co-workers than I do, because she has worked in meat plants before — the JBS packinghouse in Grand Island, Nebraska, where she was a quality-assurance technician, and before that a kosher slaughterhouse in Hastings, Nebraska, where she worked on the line — which means she has experience with a knife. Which I do not. That experience, I will soon learn, counts for a lot.

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is the author of The Routes of Man, Newjack, and Coyotes, among other books. He is Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

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