Author and journalist Ted Conover has built his reputation through first-person accounts from inside sectors of society that receive little recognition from the mainstream. His writing has taken him across the U.S. on trains with some of the last classic hobos, across the Mexican border three times with illegal border-crossers, and into New York’s Sing Sing prison, where he spent nearly a year undercover as a correctional officer.
In the fall of 2012, Conover set his sights on the food industry when he left his home in New York City to spend six weeks as a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector at a Cargill beef plant in Schuyler, Nebraska. Through his first-person narrative, he describes his trials inspecting cattle carcasses, the shifting demographic of meat plant line workers, and the pervasive joint pain that plagues most people working the line.
The resulting article, “The Way of All Flesh,” was published in the May 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Conover took some time last week to speak with Food Safety News about the experience, as well as issues of food safety, ag-gag laws and the response he’s received from former USDA coworkers and Cargill since the article’s publication.
Food Safety News: Thank you for speaking with me. All of us at Food Safety News read the article and were impressed, so we appreciate getting to ask you some questions.
Ted Conover: I’m delighted. I’ve been a reader of Food Safety News since I started preparing for this project.
FSN: How long did the application process take to become a USDA inspector, from when you applied to when you got the job?
TC: It was time-consuming. It took over two years to get the job. Part of that is because there are two ways to qualify – either experience in the industry or a four-year college degree with sufficient math and science credits. A few months after I applied, they got back to me and said that my transcript did not reflect enough math and science credits. I thought it had, but they said ‘No.’
So then I had to go get them. I took a distance learning course through the University of Illinois – just because it was the quickest way I could see to get the credits – and that delayed me another four or five months. A little less than a year after that, they notified me there was a job available in Schuyler, which I had put at the top of my list. Then it was less than two months before I started work.
FSN: By ‘top of your list,’ you mean you were able to list preferences of where you wanted to work?
TC: Yeah, you’re given the ability to list five places you’d like to be. I knew I wanted to do beef and I knew I wanted a smaller town because part of my story is the demographic shift of meat-packing populations – the move from big cities to little towns and the move from Euro-Americans to Latin Americans as the bulk of the food workforce. So I just wanted a place where that all came together and Schuyler was one of many places that fit the bill.
FSN: Did you use your real name and all your real information when applying?
TC: There’s no way around using your real name and that’s important to me anyway. You can get in lots of trouble by lying on these applications. Everything on my applications was true. I really thought it was 50/50 whether I would get the job. I even listed NYU [New York University] as my employer and I thought that would be the kiss of death.
But I think that’s not really what they’re looking for. They’re looking for criminal record and other things that have caused more problems with inspector hires. They wanted evidence to see if you had any carpal tunnel.
The basic application doesn’t go into that much detail about one’s personal life or work history. But after about a month on the job I received a much more detailed questionnaire, and that point I knew they were going to figure me out, if nothing else than by talking to my supervisor at [NYU]. That’s a reference I had to list, along with a neighbor and a good friend. I didn’t want those people to have to say anything untrue, so I told them, ‘Let me know when [the USDA] gets in touch with you and I will quit so that you don’t have to go through that.’
FSN: Did that end up happening?
TC: Yeah, that’s exactly how it happened. That was in about my sixth week.
FSN: When you were working there, were your USDA coworkers aware you were an author?
TC: No. I got around basically by being not that willing to talk about my personal past. I really liked the people I worked with and they were definitely curious about why a guy in his 50s from New York would show up for a $15 an hour job. But I just basically said I wasn’t comfortable talking about it, and most people respect that.
When I left, I mentioned to Stan and Carolina and Herb [fellow USDA employees whose names were changed for the article] that I thought this would make a great subject for an article and I had written articles before. They agreed that a lot of people would be interested, and then I sent them early copies of the magazine so they could be the first to see what I had written about and said about them.
With a project like this, it’s uncomfortable because you get to know and like people, so what I tried very hard to do was not talk about certain things. Most people are fine with that after a certain point. They figure you have your reasons and they leave you alone.
FSN: Did your coworkers give you any sort of feedback once they saw the article? What about the USDA or Cargill?
TC: The other inspectors said things like, ‘You told the true story,’ and, ‘Thanks for giving us credit for doing a job that’s challenging.’ No one from the inspector corps has faulted me.
Cargill had some unkind things to say in the Lincoln Nebraska newspaper [linked here]. They somewhat amusingly likened my article to what they call another work of fantasy, Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” Of course, being compared to “The Jungle” is the highest praise a journalist can imagine when it comes to writing about food.
I say in the article that another inspector told me the cost of shutting down the [meat plant’s production] line was $10,000 per minute. I have no idea if that’s true, but I say it’s what an inspector told me, and Cargill of course wouldn’t cooperate with [Harper’s] fact-checkers, so we had no way of knowing if that’s true or not. That’s one thing they criticized as being false — without saying what the real number is.
So, Cargill wasn’t happy with it. But I’ve got to say, looking back on it, I don’t see where I singled them out for criticism. I think, among companies that do what they do, they’re one of the more open, and the place is run in a fairly sanitary fashion. They disputed my observations that cattle prods were used on the ramps outside the facility, but I saw it with my own eyes. They say it’s against policy, so I couldn’t have seen it.
The meat industry as a whole has been hyper-sensitive to criticism in recent years. I think the videos by animal rights activists have really hit them hard. Even if their company wasn’t singled out, it does kind of make the industry look bad. Every time an activist gets in somewhere with a button-hole camera, they seem to find animal abuse. Just by quoting ["Fast Food Nation" author] Eric Schlosser, I was accused of bias by MeatingPlace, the industry publication.
I think they feel unfairly persecuted. It’s too bad because I don’t think I was unfair to Cargill at all. I just told what I saw. Slaughtering animals is not pretty. You see frightening things, like the fetus that I describe on the viscera table. That’s not a slam against Cargill. It’s just the way it is.
It’s like the whole phenomenon of ag-gag laws that seem set to shoot the messenger instead of fix the problem. The first company to really embrace this persistent and growing public concern about the production of meat is going to come out on top. I really think it’s time for them to embrace a new mindset about it.
[Update: Michael Martin, Director of Communications at Cargill, told Food Safety News that before publication Harper's sent Cargill several pages of Conover's article for fact-checking purposes. Martin said he and a manager at the Schuyler plant made numerous corrections for accuracy and improved context, but the majority of those changes were not reflected in the published article. Martin said Cargill was not contacted by Conover directly, but the company cooperated fully with the Harper's managing editor and fact-checkers. Had Harper's approached the company with Conover's story idea from the beginning, Cargill would have let them tour the plant, Martin said, though he recognized the style of journalism involved more first-hand experience.]
FSN: As a reporter who went into a meat facility, can you elaborate on your opinion of so-called “ag-gag” laws meant to criminalize photography or video recording of animal agriculture?
TC: I just think they’re shortsighted. They’re not going to persuade many people that it’s worth it to silence first amendment rights. These are scary laws. Most people have never even heard of them and they can’t believe it when you tell them that taking a picture at a plant is a felony in six states.
FSN: You describe the knocking of cows early in the article, and at one point you mention some knocked cows that continue to kick violently after being hoisted up on the production chain. You say this can be partially intentional on the part of the plant, as the pumping of their hearts will help drain blood faster once their necks are sliced. I’ve never been in a slaughterhouse, so I don’t know — do inspectors raise concern that the cattle aren’t properly downed when this happens?
TC: No one ever mentions it. I guess the inspectors take the point of view that these animals are insensate – that they’ve been stunned. After having a metal bolt thunked into your brain, you’re really not aware of what’s happening anymore and these are reflexes. I was told it’s like being brain-dead. Your muscles will continue to twitch for a while and that’s what we see. If you approve of killing animals, this is just part of what that entails.
FSN: You mentioned an inspector earning a $3,000 bonus for catching a cow that was later confirmed to have tuberculosis. Did that kind of thing happen very often?
TC: No. Believe me, everybody was wishing it did. I think it is a good incentive to look a little harder for TB and other conditions we’re supposed to be looking for. On the most basic level, a newbie like me can tell that a big swollen abscess is a problem. But beyond that, inspectors who are better trained than me recognize all kinds of things like TB to something called ACTI, which is a kind of swollen node. There’s pericarditis, when the heart will be covered with this yellow-looking, fat-like substance. There’s something called steatosis, which is a kind of muscular dystrophy that also presents with lots of extra fat.
If you’re a new person like me, you notice this thing looks weird and you should take a look at it, but if you’re a more experienced inspector, you know immediately that certain things need to be looked at by Doc, which means the supervising veterinarian. The veterinarian decides if this is a systemic problem in which the whole carcass should be condemned, or if it’s just limited to this particular part you’re looking at. You’re part of this whole diagnostic structure.
The break room [for USDA inspectors] has a whole wall of these overnight boxes to send bacteriological samples for testing. As far as I know, they go out every day. I don’t think this is in the article, but one question about the nation’s meat inspection right now is whether the USDA is paying enough attention to tenderizing processes that can push bacteria into the meat from the surface. The inspectors did what they were supposed to be doing, but I think a problem lies in the question of what they’re supposed to be doing, and why tenderized meat isn’t getting the same kind of bacteriological testing it apparently needs.
It seems the inspection regime is slow to evolve for various political and practical reasons. Right now, the big deficits are especially in fresh produce and seafood and things that are imported from places where we have no idea how they were inspected or whether they were inspected. Everyone reads my article and says, ‘Well, except for ground beef, I feel pretty good about eating beef,’ and I do still eat beef myself, though I make sure it’s pretty well-cooked. But I don’t extrapolate from that that all food inspection is OK. In fact, the more I read about it, the less I feel it’s OK in the bigger picture.
FSN: In one passage you speak to a representative of antibiotic manufacturer Eli Lilly and Company. She says that the liver abscesses seen in some cattle were caused by antibiotic use. The USDA and other experts say that antibiotics prevent liver abscesses. Do you think she had it right?
TC: No. What she said was wrong. I don’t know if maybe she misunderstood the question because we were having this conversation in a room with really high decibels. What I quote her as saying is wrong, and Harper’s is going to note that in the next issue and it’s already on the web version.
I wish that had all come out sooner, and in fact we asked [Eli Lilly and Company] for clarification before the article came out and they did not respond. It’s too bad. I don’t like to be the conveyor of misleading information.
FSN: You describe the pain you experienced in excruciating detail and how this was likely the main cause of line workers quitting. How long ago did you leave the job and are you still experiencing any pain?
TC: I had the job in October and November 2012. I’d say the pain in my hands, wrists and forearms was gone by February or March. I still have it in my elbows. The inside of my elbow still hurts when I lift something heavy. I hope it goes away – I’ll be sad if it stays with me forever. But I always think I’m lucky compared to someone who does this for months or years and has to live with the pain and whatever disabilities come with it. It’s real. Those injuries are real and I feel bad complaining about my own very minor versions.
FSN: How has your perspective of USDA inspections and meat plants in general changed since working as an inspector?
TC: I guess I went in expecting more dirt and explicit unwholesomeness. In everybody’s mind, there are flies swarming around inside the slaughterhouse and all sorts of impurities being added to the meat. I did not find that to be the case. This is a highly rationalized, industrial process. All the way along, it’s sort of designed to eliminate E. coli and other bacteria from the final product. Of course, Cargill has no interest in producing unwholesome meat.
Another surprise, however, was the question of what happens to the cattle who are killed 5,000 a day at this plant. When you see the unhealthy condition of a lot of their bodies, it makes you less interested in eating meat. I’m speaking personally. This is not necessarily because I think it’s going to make me sick, but because you can see from looking at their bodies, from the bruises to the infections, that not all of them have had a nice life. They haven’t been fed the things that would have made them healthy. These abscesses in livers get started when their diet gets switched from grass to grain in the feedlots. That’s obviously an unhealthy thing and that’s how they spend the last weeks of their lives – gaining weight at an unhealthy rate. And you don’t have to read too far to know that antibiotics are used to help them gain that weight. It’s somewhat nauseating at one level and upsetting on another because we need these medicines to keep us healthy and they’re being abused for the sub-therapeutic dosing of cattle.
The third thing is that I hadn’t appreciated how much pain goes into making this product. There’s the cattle’s pain I just spoke of, but there’s also the pain for the people whose labor produces it, and it’s considerable. Beef is delicious and I still eat it – less than I used to, but I still eat it. I do not deny how much I enjoy a good bite, but I can’t eat it without being mindful of the production of it and the human and animal costs of that production.
FSN: What inspired you to take this project on?
TC: It just seems wrong to me that it’s not easier to witness the production of meat. As an example, you [the interviewer] write about food safety every day, and yet you told me earlier in our conversation that you haven’t been inside a slaughterhouse yourself. Why shouldn’t anyone who’s curious be able to say, ‘Excuse me, can I spend half an hour and see what goes on in there?’ I think there’s such a clear public interest in transparency when it comes to food production. [Beef] is something that most people put in their bodies, and it has the potential to harm or kill you. Why should it be so hard to learn about that or understand the process in a close-up way? That’s something I wanted to do.
At first I thought of getting a job as a line worker. That would have given me access to all those labor issues behind meat processing – the whole story of repetitive stress [in workers’ joints]. But first, I thought I probably wouldn’t be able to keep that job very long because I’m not as good at it as those people – I’d probably get fired. And then I also thought ‘That’s been done,’ but I don’t know that anyone has looked into the world of meat inspectors. I discovered by law they have to be in all these factories, and that was quite fascinating to me. Nobody knows that among the general public. So I thought that might be a worthwhile approach. It ended up becoming a long process, and it’s too bad that it did, but a lot of my ideas end up working out that way.
FSN: So you still eat beef, just less.
TC: (Laughing) What’s that mantra Michael Pollan has?
FSN: ‘Eat food, not too much, mostly plants’?
TC: Yeah, I endorse that.
Photos courtesy of Ted Conover. Cover story photo by Spike Johnson.© Food Safety News