When I walked onto the floor of the JBS Marshalltown Pork Plant in central Iowa, I expected the sensory assault to hit my nose first. But turns out it was my ears that first felt the most severe impact. The processing line is noisy. It’s also chilly, to protect the meat. That also prevents the sort of noxious smell I had anticipated. Instead of an animal stench, my nose mostly registered cleaning products and a raw meat smell as if I just opened a package of pork chops in my own kitchen.
Myriad conveyor belts continuously move dangling, blood-drained, headless carcasses; sides of ribs; and rough-edged bellies throughout the cavernous operation, contributing to the noise. Power tools, particularly circular saws in various sizes, whirred and buzzed as employees used them to convert animal parts into cuts of meat.
My media tour was arranged by the National Pork Producers Council and Iowa Pork Producers Association, each of whom sent a representative, in coordination with World Pork Expo. Besides me, there was one additional agriculture reporter and we were both on our first slaughterhouse tour. As part of our series on the precarious working conditions of many slaughterhouse workers, “Dangerous Jobs, Cheap Meat,” Harvest Public Media reporters requested entry to various other slaughter facilities, but were denied. Here, our JBS hosts told us we could not take photos or video, make audio recordings or quote the company without permission.
On the processing floor, despite having to push through the moving line of dead pigs a couple of times, I found things looked highly organized and very efficient. Workers in white smocks, many of them wearing sweatshirts underneath, with the hoods pulled up on their heads, stood at stations and performed specific tasks as the meat they worked on arrived and left on a waist-high conveyor. The floors were sometimes wet and slippery, but as much from cleaning products as from the bits of pork being washed away. Plastic floor mats in some places kept the path from getting too slick, and in many areas workers stood on mats.
Metal catwalks and stairwells gave us a passage between workers and their different stations. There was one area, just one, where the steps and handrails between two sets of workers were just covered in tiny bits of pork. Mini-meat projectiles flew around us, sticking to our smocks, boots, etc. I wasn’t sure whether more saws were being used close together or if some other factor was the reason. But in most areas, scraps and trimmings were deliberately pushed into collection bins, to be turned into various processed products such as ground pork.
In the barn area, I saw workers shake plastic paddles filled with metal balls, or hit the floor with those paddles, to encourage pigs along. Occasionally a paddle came down on a pig’s butt to get it moving, but for the most part the noise and the slap of the paddle on the ground kept the pigs walking. The hogs typically spend two to four hours in the dimly-lit, warehouse-like barn, in groups of a couple hundred, according to our tour guide. And then they are marched to their death. They walk onto a lift, which is lowered into a chamber where they are anesthetized. Once they are asleep, they are killed. The plant uses a carbon dioxide stunning system, according to a pre-tour safety video. Then the lifeless bodies are moved out of the lift and tumble down a ramp onto the first of many conveyors.
From there, we went to the kill floor. It’s not chilled, so when I walked in, my glasses immediately fogged up and I was glad for that because it gave me a chance to adjust and be deliberate about what I wanted to look at. Only here did we see workers’ smocks covered in blood rather than raw meat. The grisliest sites were here: heads dangling from the rest of the carcass by only skin after the bloodletting and before their removal, and evisceration.
These workers, too, wielded knives, wore chainmail safety aprons and worked swiftly. But they did it in a warmer, and yes, smellier, space and surely left each shift covered in swine blood. USDA inspectors here watched for any irregularities in the animals that could compromise food safety.
I’d gone on the tour with another reporter and when I ran into her at World Pork Expo the following day, we agreed those dangling heads were among the visuals that had most stuck with us. But she was also still reeling at the fate of the workers who spend all day every day in those conditions, earning perhaps $12, $15 or $18 per hour, depending on the skill level of the job. The work may be difficult, but it’s plentiful. U.S. meat producers are pushing to keep up with the increasing demand for cheap meat, both here and abroad.
Even though we were talking about the disorienting experience of being in a slaughterhouse, I could tell this other reporter had made peace with the grisly process of turning pigs into pork. How? She was eating bacon when I ran into her.