William Heffernan, a professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri, says that America’s agricultural economy now resembles an hourglass. At the top there are about 2 million ranchers and farmers; at the bottom there are 275 million consumers; and at the narrow portion in the middle, there are a dozen or so multinational corporations earning a profit from every transaction.

We allow Tyson Foods to control one-forth of the entire United States market for chicken, beef, and pork, and we do not object to just four meat processing firms to slaughter 8 percent of all beef cattle and 50 percent of the hogs. But concentration and power in the meat industry should make you think of many issues related to the realities of meat production. One is the issue of humane treatment of people as well as animals. Workers in this industry are hired at minimum wages and perform their duties under difficult and often dangerous conditions. Feedlots, batteries, and barns are large and dirty, and animals are confined and crowded into small spaces for virtually their entire lives. Another issue has to do with the environment and the use of natural resources. Raising cattle is a good way to turn grasses that we humans cannot use as food into high-quality meat protein, but feedlots instead use enormous quantities or perfectly edible corn and soybeans to feed animals, not people. Raising cattle also consumes vast amounts of nonrenewable energy. According to figures in the June 2004 National Geographic, it takes more than 200 gallons of fuel oil to raise a 1,200 pound steer on a feedlot. The cost of feed, fertilizers, and machinery, and the fuel to produce or run them, get factored into the price of meat, but the “externalities”—the costs of cleaning up animals wastes and pollutants in air, land, and water—do not. You pay the costs of loss of environmental quality in taxes, not at the grocery store.


Meatpacking is the wholesale packaging of meat, which includes slaughtering, gutting, skinning, butchering, and further processing such animals as cattle, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and sheep. Most meatpacking today is done in large-scale slaughterhouses that are highly mechanized for fast and efficient processing.

The Smithfield plant, for example, processes 32,000 hogs each day, or 2,000 hogs per hour. By using machines and other technologies, companies are able to employ unskilled, low-wage laborers for many tasks, which reduces their cost. However, the risk of both accidents and meat contamination are high when so many animals are processed and workers must work at a high speed.

At the turn of the 19th century, the industry was unregulated, which meant little to no protection for workers or consumers from unsafe or unscrupulous meatpacking practices. After Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was published, worker conditions slowly improved through antitrust laws, labor unions, and tighter regulations. By the 1950s, meatpacking plants offered skilled jobs at a good wage.

The industry has undergone a lot of change since the 1980s, as the fast food industry has demanded more meat at cheaper prices. To cut costs, meatpacking companies lowered wages, sped up production, and had workers perform the same task again and again to increase efficiency. They moved operations from big cities to rural communities closer to feedlots and began contracting primarily with large farm operations that raise huge numbers of animals. In addition, the companies became more consolidated so that today, just five companies control over 83 percent of the beef packing market and 66 percent of the pork packing market. These changes have had a profound impact on the workforce. Most of the jobs are low-paying ones, and an increasing number are filled by Mexican immigrants.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a treaty among Mexico, Canada, and the United States, has been in effect since January 1994. The aim of this treaty was to promote greater trade among the three countries, and, toward that end, it eliminated tariffs on goods shipped between them. NAFTA is just one example of the ways in which our food choices can affect workers. Some argue that NAFTA has been good for Mexican workers because Mexico has seen poverty rates fall and real income rise, but others argue that it has been bad for Mexican workers because it has caused larger income disparities within that country. NAFTA has caused prices to drop, thus hurting small farms with little resilience to such changes. In fact,
an estimated 1.5 million farm jobs have been lost in Mexico since 1994. Although NAFTA is only one factor in this decline, the trade agreement has forced small-time Mexican farmers to compete with U.S.-subsidized corn producers. Many of the displaced farmers and farm workers are making their way across the U.S. border in search of work, some in response to active recruiting by meatpacking corporations and other companies.


Robert Kenner

In Food, Inc., filmmaker Robert Kenner lifts the veil on our nation’s food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that has been hidden from the American consumer with the consent of our government’s regulatory agencies, the USDA and the FDA. Our nation’s food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and our own environment. We have bigger-breasted chickens, the perfect pork chop, herbicide-resistant soybean seeds, even tomatoes that won’t go bad, but we also have new strains of E. coli—the harmful bacteria that causes illness for an estimated 73,000 Americans annually. We are riddled with widespread obesity, particularly among children, and an epidemic level of diabetes among adults.

Featuring interviews with such experts as Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto) along with forward thinking social entrepreneurs like Stonyfield’s Gary Hirshberg and Polyface Farms’ Joel Salatin, Food, Inc. reveals surprising—and often shocking truths—about what we eat, how it’s produced, who we have become as a nation and where we are going from here.