New York City January 2002

How to Make the Country's Most Dangerous Job Safer

The power lies with one hamburger vendor
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In September of 1990 the McDonald's Corporation sued five members of London Greenpeace for libel, claiming that one of their leaflets ("What's wrong with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know") contained false and defamatory statements. Three of the activists quickly apologized to McDonald's and were dropped from the lawsuit, but the other two, Dave Morris and Helen Steel, decided to battle the company in court. The case turned into the longest trial in British history, and also a worldwide public-relations disaster for McDonald's—years of testimony about corporate greed, deceit, and misbehavior. Although the judge's verdict in 1997 and an appellate court's decision two years later found that many of the leaflet's statements were libelous, both rulings acknowledged that some of its accusations—about low pay, cruelty to animals, and exploitative advertising—were not. A libel suit designed to silence a pair of unknown activists instead brought a great deal of attention to their anti-corporate views.

Ever since the debacle of the "McLibel" trial the McDonald's Corporation has tried to improve its public image and at times to behave in a more socially responsible manner. Last spring it began to offer discounts on health insurance and other benefits to employees at company-owned (as opposed to franchise) restaurants, which make up about one seventh of the chain nationwide. In the summer it disclosed the basic ingredients of its natural flavors, admitting that in the United States its french fries get their distinctive taste from beef additives. Perhaps out of deference to Hindus, the company no longer uses beef extract in the manufacture of Chicken McNuggets (McDonald's has never used beef flavoring in India).

More important, McDonald's now requires that its meat suppliers handle and slaughter animals humanely. This new policy did not arise in a vacuum. For years excessive line speeds and improper stunning at American slaughterhouses resulted in the dismemberment of cattle and hogs while they were still conscious. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal-rights groups staged protests at McDonald's, asking the company to seek changes from its suppliers. Whatever the true motive, in 1999 McDonald's acted decisively and hired Temple Grandin, one of the nation's foremost experts on animal welfare and proper livestock handling, to devise an auditing system for the slaughterhouses that provide the chain's beef and pork. According to Grandin, the threat that McDonald's would stop buying meat from suppliers that mistreat animals changed many of the industry's practices within a year. The auditors who check compliance work for the companies that make McDonald's hamburger patties, but Grandin says that they seem genuinely committed to the new policy—making unannounced visits to slaughterhouses, for example, to observe whether animals are properly handled and stunned. Animal-rights groups had gotten nowhere by advocating such an inspection program; demanded by McDonald's, it received the enthusiastic support of the meat-packing industry and the American Meat Institute.

Having demonstrated a strong commitment to the ethical treatment of animals, the McDonald's Corporation should now demonstrate the same level of concern for the human beings who work in the nation's slaughterhouses. Nearly a century after the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, meat-packing is still the most dangerous job in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than one out of four meat-packers suffered a job-related injury or illness in 1999—a proportion higher than that in any other U.S. industry. The rate of serious injuries in meat-packing (as measured in lost workdays) is also the highest: more than five times the national average in private industry. The rate of cumulative trauma injuries, such as back problems and tendinitis, is about thirty-three times the national average. And these extraordinarily high rates of injury are based on the meat-packing industry's own reporting. In an industry where the unions are weak, the workers are often illegal immigrants, and some of the leading companies have been caught falsifying injury records, the actual number of injuries is likely even higher.

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A contributor to The Atlantic since 1994, Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness, and Chew On This. He has also written for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and others.

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