We all love a bargain, but the real cost of cheap meat is greater than what’s on the price tag. Author Ted Genoways (The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food) has penned an op-ed for the Guardian that sheds some light on the darker aspects of meat processing industry.

“The industry has been stretched to the breaking point by the drive for cheaper and cheaper meat,” he writes. The result is that processing plants have increased the speed of their production lines. As an example, Genoways cites Spam maker Hormel, which increased the number of pigs it processes per hour by 50% over five years, from 900 to 1,350 carcasses. The increase in production line workers over the same period was only 15%.

Photo: Spam

Photo: Spam

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that overworked staff are more likely to make mistakes. But these are extremely dangerous working environments where an error can translate into grievous and sometimes fatal injury. Statistically, someone who works at a meat-packing plant for five years has a 50/50 chance of getting seriously hurt on the job, according to Genoways. But the odds are likely even grimmer in real life—many injuries never get reported because of the high incidence of undocumented, illegal labor in the industry.

Workers face other less obvious dangers, too. Genoways recounts a particularly gruesome story at a Hormel co-packing plant, Quality Pork Processors. A section of the production line required workers to turn pig brains—around 1,300 an hour—into a pink slurry by blasting them with an air hose. However the process also sent small particles of brain matter into the air, which the workers were inhaling.

The workers’ immune systems attacked the foreign particles, but then continued to attack their own neurological tissue because porcine and human brain cells are so similar. By the time the problem was discovered, around two dozen mostly Hispanic employees has suffered nerve, brain, and/or spinal damage. Genoways reports that some received compensation after filing claims, but other were fired for not having legal immigration status.

Pig carcasses (Photo: Flickr/ Max Jackson)

Pig carcasses (Photo: Flickr/ Max Jackson)

Factories that push their production lines to breaking point aren’t just unsafe for workers, however. They’re also unsafe for consumers. The combination of fast processing and insufficient inspection has resulted in meat products containing fecal matter and dangerous bacteria such as E coli; there have also been cases where the carcasses showed signs of disease like tuberculosis.

While this might be sufficiently horrifying to convince you to only buy organic, Genoways counters that shopping ethically for your own family doesn’t address the core issue of an under-regulated industry that exploits its workers:

The food movement has brought greater awareness of where our food comes from, but the problem of chain speed will not be solved by buying organic, welfare-approved pork, or by reducing our personal meat consumption, or even by going over to an entirely vegetarian or vegan diet.

Instead, he argues, we need to pressure government and regulatory bodies to guarantee safer and healthier working conditions for employees, which translates into safer and healthier food for all of us. There’s something to chew on along with your Christmas ham this week.

[via the Guardian]