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Appendix A: The Production Process in Meat and Poultry Plants

Meat Plants

Industry experts can better describe what goes on inside meat and poultry slaughtering and processing operations than Human Rights Watch. Here is what one industry expert says about meatpacking:

Packinghouses, even under the best conditions, are not pretty; the meat industry is not a photo opportunity for the documentation of American enterprise and commerce. It is an industry based upon the killing, evisceration, and disassembly of animals – most of them large. The industry acknowledges the gruesomeness of its task with its own nomenclature: the area of a packinghouse where animals are killed and eviscerated is the “kill floor”; on the kill floor, workers “stick” carcasses to bleed them; eviscerators “drop bungs,” “pull sweetbreads,” and perform “head workups.” Even the animals have been made, in this argot, to seem less individual and thus less alive. Most foremen and supervisors working on kill floors refer to a single steer or carcass as “a cattle.” Moving animals through production is called “getting blood on the kill floor.” Because steers, as well as hogs and lambs, are large warm-blooded creatures, red-meat kill floors tend to be hot and humid. Moisture rises from the hot, fat outside coverings of carcasses like vapor from a swamp. The brownish air in slaughterhouses stinks of opened bellies, half-digested cud, and manure.348

More detail was provided by a hog slaughtering plant manager in testimony in an unfair labor practice trial before an administrative law judge (the process is essentially similar in beef processing), excerpted at length here:

When the hogs come in there they’re channeled one behind the other. They’re stunned electrically and they slide down on to what is called the stick pit table. … At that point someone sticks them right in the vein in the neck and someone else will shackle them. They will put a noose type chain on one of their back legs and at that point they’re hoisted up off of the table where gravity and the heart pumping pump the blood out of the hog into a trough where that blood is sent to the blood plasma room. . . .

When I say chain it’s like a railroad track type device that has the shackles that hang down below it that are constantly moving so as the hogs come down that person that is down there working the table, it’s his responsibility to grab a shackle that is in a location where he can shackle him. Sometimes some of those hogs will go onto the floor, and a hog may need to be pulled to a location where they can be hoisted back onto the line. . . . There is a lot of heavy lifting and repetitive work you know in that environment depending on the weather because it’s right there by the livestock area. It could be hot or it could be cold so certainly that’s not an easy place to work.

[The hog] goes through a zig zagging type portion of the line where that time is given for it to completely drain. From there it goes through a rinse cabinet and into what is called the scald tub. The scald tub it’s approximately a hundred yards long in the shape of what I would call a candy cane. It’s maybe four feet high filled with hot water that the hog is submerged in and that is where the hide of the hog is softened to start to prepare for the dehairing process.

There are people that tend the scald tub and there are times when hogs become unshackled under the water and the only way to get them out of there is with a long steel hook and pull them to one end and reshackle them back to the line again. That’s a difficult job. Heavy lifting, and that is you know always in a hot work environment. . . .

When it comes out of the scald tub it goes up high towards the ceiling on an incline. The shackle releases and it drops it on a slide into what is called the dehair. The dehair is basically like a big washing machine, it has paddles inside of it that take the hair off the hog.

When the hog comes out on the other side it comes onto a conveyor belt type table. At that point again another tough job is that the person that works on that gam table depending on how that hog comes out of there is going to have to flip dead weight, flip that hog from one side to the other if he doesn’t come out with his feet to the right. . . .

After it’s flipped over is where the heel strings are cut. Basically there are two cuts made side by side that expose the heel string where a gam can be inserted . . . A gam is a stainless steel type hanger that is approximately a foot and a half long and it has a hook on each end of it that is pointed. You just take it and slide it. . . . It’s not like you just have a pencil in your hand and you’re just sliding it in there. I mean you’re having to maneuver from the resistance of it being attached to a moving line putting it inside you know one side and then adjust it to put it into the other. Again, it’s a pretty difficult job.

One side of the gam goes through one side and the other side through the other. At that point it is hoisted back up to continue the dehairing process where it goes through a singer and basically what that is is a cabinet that has the line run straight through it. It has propane operated fire that comes from each side to burn any excess hair off the hog at that point. It’s maybe ten feet long.

[The hog] goes through a rinse cabinet where basically there is water sprayed on it to rinse off any loose hairs. It completes that process all in one straight line. It goes through a singeing cabinet again and then a rinse cabinet.

Once it comes out of the second rinse cabinet there are a couple of employees that work on a scaffold that shave any excess hair from between the legs, the body. Basically anywhere that they see hair so it’s the final visual inspection for hair on at least the body anyway. There is also someone that works on the floor that rinses out the mouth of the hog with a hose.

At that point it comes around to the dry side of the kill floor. . . . The dry side is where it’s opened up and really the dismantling of things begins. It starts with employees cutting the hair pocket out from between the hoofs on both the top or back and front feet and trimming the stick hole. Continues on to where the hog is dropped.

The person that drops heads operates a large hydraulic type pair of scissors. When they cut the neck it cuts all the way through and basically they do not cut one piece of skin so it still hangs from the body as far as that bone . . . It still hangs from the carcass.

At that point there are several people that trim the jowl that separate the head from the carcass. They put it in a loop and at that point the head goes to the head room. The carcass continues to go down the line where the bun gun operator drops the bun and basically what that is it looks like a big grease gun. It’s about three inches in diameter. Basically what it does is it just cuts a circle around the rectum where it drops the rectal cavity down into the carcass without breaking it.

At that point it continues to go down the line where the chest is split open. It’s done with a saw and basically the sternum is cut as well as the stomach or when I say the stomach I’m talking about the skin on the stomach area is cut where you don’t cut any intestines. You’re just cutting a layer, a thin layer of skin and a layer of fat where you’re just basically opening—beginning to open the hog in preparation to remove the inside.

It’s basically a circular type saw. It’s electrical and it looks just like your circular saw at home. It has a handle on it like a chain saw where the folks that split chests or the sternum . . . there is another job further down the line called the back splitter. That person operates the same type of equipment.

At that point the hip bone is broken and that’s again with a hydraulic scissor type device that looks a lot like what you would see in the hardware store that you cut thick branches with around your home. Basically, they separate the hips and at that point there is someone that takes a piece of stainless steel with a hook on each end that holds from carcass to carcass to carcass. They’re hooked together where it opens up the chest area where somebody can get in there and pull out everything from the esophagus to the rectum basically one motion. It all comes out at the same time.

At that point the esophagus, the lungs, the heart, liver they’re all separated as one piece from intestines and put on a hanger. The intestines, we pipe those. Somebody takes those intestines and runs them into a vacuum type system that depending on which pipe they put it in it will send it to either Casings, or it will send it to our chilling area.

The pancreas is something that is put in a vat at that point. Also, sometimes in the past we’ve sold uterus and that has been separated. . . . You’ve got really three different portions of the line. You have a line that’s in the middle with pans that hold the guts of the hog, and then you have another line that there is the carcass of the hog. And you still have the heads that are coming down that are being inspected. That’s only one side of what’s going on. All this that I’ve told you so far and there are two of all these things.

With the inspection of the heads the USDA checks those for tuberculosis and any other diseases. They will pull those off just like at any part of the process they can pull anything off. As far as the carcass continuing to go down the line basically it goes through the back being split and basically what that is is a saw operator with the same type of saw that I described earlier, a circular type saw, splits the back bone and again doesn’t completely split the hog in half but there is still skin that holds the carcass together.

At that point the kidneys are still inside the carcass. They’re inside a layer of fat that is cut open. The kidneys are turned out so the USDA can inspect them. That’s called popping kidneys. Probably the easiest job on the kill floor is popping kidneys. Just turning them to the outside so inspectors can see them and cut them off after they’ve been inspected.

At that point if there is anything wrong with the hog because that is another USDA check point if the hog has bug bites, if it has any type of skin rash, if it has—if any part of it is contaminated it is pulled off. At that point there is corrective action taken prior to it being put back on the line so there are several people that work on the pull off stations.

As the hog continues on down the line it finishes out on the kill floor. It’s basically where all the interior fat which is on the inside of the ribs and basically inside of the carcass is manually pulled out. Again, one of the—a very tough job. A job that requires a lot of upper body strength you know to pull that fat out. It’s pulled out by hand.

There are several people that pull fat out and some of them pull fat from fat. Some of them pull small fat that wasn’t pulled out that would normally come out with the guts when they came out. The very last job on the kill floor prior to the fatometer is we have someone that scrapes out the spinal cord. It’s just somebody uses a small spoon type device and just scrapes it out. At that point it goes around to the fatometer which two people work there. The fatometer is where we monitor the hogs that have been processed. It’s where we get a fat to lean reading on each hog. . . .

At that point it goes into the portion of the cooler that’s called the snap chill. The snap chill is like a wind tunnel that is minus fifteen, minus twenty degrees. I’ve only been in there one time. It was so cold I haven’t been back. Basically what happens is that when the hogs go into that they go down a long tunnel and at the end of the tunnel they turn around and come back and by the time they complete that process it’s exactly what it sounds like, a snap chill. At least the outer layer of the carcasses is frozen or very cold anyway.

At that point it goes into the cooler bays where several people move hogs to one bay or another depending on what is going on that particular day. They stay in there overnight until the next day. The next day they go out onto the cut floor.

[Question]: Can you give an estimate of the amount of time it takes from the time a hog is first stuck in the stick area when the throat is cut to the point it gets to the cooler? Approximately how long does that entire process take?

It could vary but probably on average I’d say maybe ten minutes. It may be quicker than that but I’m just taking into consideration that normally coming out of the dehair there is hogs backed up. From the time that a hog comes out of the dehair and is actually put on the line we’re only talking about a couple of minutes before it completes the whole process going all the way down the line into the cooler so between five and ten minutes depending on if it was backed up, or the speed of the line that day.

The cut floor is where we have two lines that run down the cut floor, two main lines. When the hog comes onto the cut floor it’s separated where one half of the hog goes down one line. The other half goes down the other. Lines that run directly off of those two major lines process individual product.

Basically it starts with the hog being separated with the feet and the knuckles being cut off. From there there is a line for each one, each product. Everything from hams to butts to picnics to loins to ribs to bellies to fatback. As that particular product is separated from the carcass it’s put on the line that runs at a ninety degree angle from it where for the most part people that work on the cut floor trim that product. We don’t do any deboning in that area but we do a lot of trimming and trimming to customers’ specifications.

Some of that product is packaged there on the cut floor, and sent to our Shipping Department. Some of it is sent to our Conversion Department where we do some further processing, where we debone hams. We debone loins.

[Question]: How long is process from when a carcass gets to the start of the cut floor to the time it gets to the end of the cut floor? How long is that process approximately if you know?

Depending on which product it is we’re not talking about a very long period of time. . . . It could be as quick as maybe five, six minutes. It could be quicker. It could be a bit longer, but it is a very fluent process.

Now most of the product is sent from one department to another on a conveyor belt. Both of those departments are between thirty and forty degrees cold in comparison to the kill floor.

Casings is a department where they take the intestines and they clean it. The first part of the process there is people whose job title is a puller. What they do is take the intestine and stretch it or straighten it out, untangle it. They’re rinsed off. They’re fed into a machine that cleans the inside of the intestines. They go into a vat of water to soak and then they’re bundled, tied off. Tied off in bundles and packed in salt. They’re used for making sausage. You know you see on some hot dogs that have a thin skin on the outside of it. That’s what it is.

There is the head room and variety meats. Basically that department shares the same work area. The head room is basically where they take the head. They cut the jowls off, detach the skin, temples, jowl from the skull, trim any head meat. It’s where they open the skull and pack brains. Variety meats is the separation of the lungs, the heart, the liver, and esophagus. Most of that is used for dog food so it’s just basically separated.

We have the Chittling Department where the intestines are piped from the kill floor. In the Chittling Department they take the intestines. They clean them. They pull the fat off of them. They wash them. They pack them in bags, sometimes buckets. Also in that room we used to pack stomachs, actual stomach itself.

Basically all the waste or inedible product from any area of the Plant is either piped or carried to rendering. Rendering is a cooking type process that inedible waste is cooked into a dust almost like cremation, and it’s used in dog food. It’s used in fertilizer. It’s used in animal feed. 349

Poultry Plants

Poultry processing line workers typically make thousands of knife cuts per day in close quarters with one another using the same hand, arm and shoulder motion as birds pass their work station from forty to seventy per minute.

A poultry processing expert says:

The processing plants themselves are organized so that birds enter one end of the plant and trucks carrying packaged and priced products leave from the other. In the receiving, or “live-hanging” area, workers wearing paper gas masks pull live birds from plastic crates. The rooms are dimly lit with blue light bulbs because the dark is thought to calm the birds. From here the birds are mechanically stunned, plucked, killed, and partially eviscerated. Entering the plant floor, workers and USDA inspectors further eviscerate and inspect the birds, usually standing on wet mesh platforms, wearing rubber boots, gloves, layers of clothing, and aprons. From this point on the plants get progressively cooler; the temperature drops from normal room temperature to freezing in the huge walk-in coolers where the birds are stacked for shipping. The floors follow the drop in temperature by becoming wetter and slipperier, coated with chicken fat, and constantly hosed down. As the birds leave the eviscerators and inspector, they are routed to stations where quality-control personnel check them for imperfections and send the least bruised birds to a station that weighs, packs, and prices whole birds. Imperfect birds then enter the further-processing sections of the plant.350

More detail emerges from the testimony of a poultry plant manager responding to an attorney’s questions in a 2003 trial:

I would like you to briefly describe, based on your experience at Tyson, what’s involved with processing a bird all the way through the plant to chicken products that are produced for sale. Let me ask you some questions to sort of get you going.

Yes, sir.

Who provides the live chickens?

The grower.

And are those contractors or are those Tyson people?

At the facilities that I was at they were contract growers.

And who provides the eggs?

Tyson Foods.

Who provides the feed?

Tyson Foods.

After the chickens are grown, how do they get over to the plant?

They are caught by what’s termed a live haul receiving crew where the birds are collected by hand and put basically in a ten-per-cage slot, and then they are delivered to the plant.

And the folks that catch the chickens, based on your experience, are they Tyson employees?

Sometimes and sometimes not. Some of the live haul catchers were Tyson and some of the live haul catchers were contract employees.

And then—after they are caught, how do they get over to the plant?

They are loaded onto a cage and that tractor-trailer is driven to the facility where they are weighed and then put into the holding shed waiting to be sent to the receiving department.

After they get to the plant, the processing plant, what’s the next step in the process?

They go to what’s called the receiving department where the chickens are hung upside down to allow the blood to drain towards the head. Later the jugular vein is slit to allow the chickens to bleed out. It is stunned before that process. The chickens go through what’s called a scaler to remove the feathers from the birds. Then they go through what’s called a picker, and then through the final process, which is like through a flame to kind of singe off any remaining feathers that are on the bird. Usually by that time the heads and the necks and possibly the paws have already been removed.

For those of us who aren’t familiar with chicken terminology, what are paws?

Paws are the same thing as feet. It’s just the poultry term is paws. Then they go through an evisceration process where the viscera is removed.

What is viscera?

Viscera is the internal organs of the animal, of the bird, and they do this process to allow the USDA to determine which birds are quality standards, which birds may contain disease. After that, they are totally eviscerated, they are put into what’s called a chiller where the temperature is lowered on the bird. Then the birds come out on the line again and are rehung. Then the birds go to what’s called a halving wheel to be split into front halves and back halves. The back halves of the birds, which we call the saddle, which is basically the drum sticks and the thighs, go to what’s called a leg room. And the front halves go to a machine which basically harvests the wings and the breasts of the chicken.

What part of the chicken is the most profitable for Tyson?

The chicken tenders followed by the breasts.

And what’s the least profitable chicken product, based on your experience?

The pet food products are.

And what part of the chicken becomes the pet food?

Mostly the—a lot of the viscera. When the viscera is removed we do harvest the gizzards and the livers. However, the viscera, the lungs, all of that goes into pet food, the blood, the feathers, and other parts are in the pet food, product that falls off and hits the floor that cannot be rewashed.

What happens with the carcass?

The carcass itself also goes into pet food. The breast shells after - - what I mean by that, that is the empty breast shells after the meat has been removed.

So do you try to remove the most amount of meat off the carcass?

Yes, we do.

Well, describe generally what the working conditions are like in the chicken plant. Let’s start with the people who catch the chickens after they get to the plant, what’s that called? What are those people called?

Those positions are live hangers because the chickens are alive and they are being hung upside down.

Is that pleasant work?

No, sir.

What is it like?

It is very cold. It is dusty. The chickens are alive and they are scratching and pecking. With the live birds defecation occurs on a random basis. Workers are encouraged to wear masks to protect fecal matters from getting into the facial areas.

And generally, what’s it like on the plant floor?

The working conditions are very intense simply because you have got hard floors that usually contain an amount of water. It is very labor intensive due to line speeds.

Is it cold?

Yes, it is.

Is it smelly?

Yes, it is.

Is it generally an unpleasant place to work?

Yes, sir, it is.

Other than the live hangings, what are some of the other undesirable or least desirable jobs in the plant?

By far sanitation is because it’s extremely hazardous.

What’s hazardous about sanitation?

When you have got a cold plant most of the days and you put hot water on a cold plant you’re going to generate steam. And when you’re asking people to clean machinery that is not completely locked out and tagged out, it is—can cause fatalities. It’s very dangerous on sanitation because the people cannot see.

When you say locked out and tagged out, what do you mean?

The machinery is supposed to be locked out and tagged out completely so the equipment can be cleaned, but in order to meet all USDA specifications and get the entire machine clean, people in the industry know the machine has got to run to meet that time schedule and to meet the cleanliness standards. So it is a very hazardous job because you cannot—visibility is reduced. 351

[348] See Bjerklie, “On the Horns of a Dilemma: The U.S. Meat and Poultry Industry,” in Any Way You Cut It.

[349] See Smithfield Hearing Transcript, p. 3826-3850. This portion of the transcript is edited to remove “you know,” “basically” and other linguistic distractions.

[350] See David Griffith, “Hay Trabajo: Poultry Processing, Rural Industrialization, and the Latinization of Low-Wage Labor,” in Stull, Broadway and Griffith, eds., Any Way You Cut It: Meat Processing and Small-Town America (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995).

[351] See Tyson Trial Transcript. p. 1112 ff. Tyson Foods and three corporate executives were acquitted by a jury in the case, successfully defending on the grounds that the recruitment scheme was the work of individual company managers, not a corporate-wide plan.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2005