The appalling exploitation and brutalization of workers in the meat industry is well documented – from brutalization in the Global North to slavery in the Global South – but what is the best response? Should we boycott the industry, or just call for reforms? After all, the clothing industry exploits workers in the developing world, and the appropriate response seems to be to improve and regulate the industry, not call for its destruction.
Unfortunately, there is startling evidence that the vast majority of the modern meat industry is unreformable. More and more academic studies are showing that the animal abuse that is inherent in an industrialized meat industry will inevitably lead to human abuse.
What is the inherent nature of the modern meat industry? We might get a clue from Bill Haw, CEO of Kansas City’s National Farms, which operates one of the US’s largest feedlots, where thousands of animals are slaughtered everyday:
‘Animals come there to die, to be eviscerated, to be decapitated, to be de-hided – and all of those are violent, bloody and difficult things to watch. So your first and foremost impression of at least the initial stages of the packing house are a very violent, very dehumanizing sort of thing.
‘As you progressively go down the chain… it becomes a less violent, a less bloody, a less difficult thing to watch, and really becomes kind of a miracle of efficiency as that live animal is reduced to a carcass and the carcass is reduced to parts that we’re very familiar with in eating. […] The economies of scale, the mobilization of capital – all of those things that drive businesses are very much at work in the packing industry… It’s essentially very dehumanizing work.’
I admire this man’s honesty, if not his business model. His words give a clue as to one possible explanation for the terrible treatment of slaughterhouse workers: perhaps the very nature of the industry is having an effect on the people who run it.
This theory is termed ‘the Sinclair Hypothesis’, and an academic study from 2010 appears to confirm it. The study shows that when slaughterhouses are introduced to communities as a source of employment, domestic abuse and child abuse increase. What is interesting about the study is that it shows the same effects are not observed when a different type of factory is introduced. Another recent study shows that slaughterhouse workers are more likely to suffer from somatization, anxiety, anger hostility and psychotism than other workers. Other studies have come to similar conclusions, but the subject attracts little interest.
At first I found these studies surprising, but the more I thought about it, the more obvious it became that witnessing the killing and dismemberment of hundreds of animals a day might affect people.
It is well-documented that people who torture animals for pleasure are more likely to turn out to be psychopaths who pose a threat to humans. There are also studies that show there is a link between the abuse of family pets and domestic violence. In other words, the kind of person who is willing to abuse an animal is more likely to abuse a human. And, as the studies linked to above show, if you force a human to desensitize themselves to the suffering of animals, they become desensitized to the suffering of humans.
What the industry has become is a sector where the employers abuse their workers, and the workers themselves are more likely to abuse their families. Then, of course, there is the appalling abuse of the animals: up until 1999, many of the slaughterhouses used by companies such as McDonald’s would begin the dismemberment of animals while the creatures were still conscious. It was only undercover footage and a media campaign that managed to decrease the frequency of this abuse. But unspeakably cruel animal abuse continues to be discovered by undercover investigations.
The levels of abuse and violence that saturate the meat industry are astounding. No matter how profit hungry an industry is, the dismembering of live, suffering animals is something you would expect decent human beings with a basic moral conscience to refrain from. But something about the meat industry changes the people who work in it. And this is why the majority of the industry is unreformable: if you institutionalize violence, a systematically ethical industry becomes impossible.
For the sake of the exploited workers, the abused children, the beaten wives, the slaves in the developing world and the tortured animals, we have to stop this industry.