How the Meat Industry Thinks About Non-Meat-Eaters

A conversation with the editor of Meatingplace, a trade publication covering the business of turning live animals into food

A meat-processing plant in Argentina (Marcos Brindicci / Reuters)

When the four staffers at the Chicago-based magazine Meatingplace put together an issue, they do so with a very specific reader in mind: a college-educated, probably Republican, white man in his early 40s who has spent his career in the meat industry.

That target audience may seem narrow and limiting, but specificity is the point. Meatingplace is a trade publication, meaning it is written for a group of industry specialists rather than a general audience. The trade that Meatingplace in particular covers is the business of turning live animals into portioned-out meat products.

It is an industry whose makeup in many ways resembles that of the American economy. A handful of very big companies do the majority of the country’s meat and poultry processing, but there are still a large number of small and midsize operators, many of them family-run. And while Meatingplace’s imagined reader is indeed reflective of much of the industry’s leadership, the work at many plants—especially the ones owned by larger companies—is done in large part by recent immigrants, particularly men and women from Mexico and Central America.

The people who oversee the plants are the ones Meatingplace is intended for. The ads in it are, to say the least, different than those in general-audience magazines. There is one for the PTL-2600 Corndog Machine, an apparatus that can put out 16,000 corndogs per hour (“Corndogs don’t grow on trees … they’re produced on the PTL-2600”). There’s one for something called the Vemag FM250 Patty Former. And there’s another for a piece of “complete pizza topping line equipment”—“complete,” that is, with a “slicer applicator,” a “sauce depositor,” and a “waterfall topping applicator.”

While it’s unlikely that Meatingplace has very many readers outside the industry, the stories (and even ads) within it matter a great deal to what ends up on people’s plates across the country. And for that reason, I called up Lisa Keefe, the magazine’s editor, hoping that her expertise and unusual perspective—covering the industry for the industry—might illuminate something about food production that isn’t otherwise accessible.

I spoke to Keefe earlier this month about what worries meat processors most at the moment, how the industry thinks about the animal-welfare movement, and the snazzy machinery I saw advertised in her magazine’s pages. The conversation that follows is the first installment of “Tricks of the Trade,” a series of interviews with the editors of trade publications, and it has been edited for length and clarity.

Joe Pinsker: What are people in the industry most excited about at the moment, and what're they most afraid of?

Lisa Keefe: Starting with the second question, the most immediate concern right now is trade. As American volume consumption has trailed off over the last 15, 20 years, the U.S. meat industry has done just fine because they're finding ways to export to other countries. Increasingly, meat is working its way into diets in some really impoverished countries; as these countries create a middle class, they start to eat more meat. If there is a disruption in our trade relationships, it's going to be very, very bad for the industry.

A lot of people in the ag industries in general, but specifically talking about meat, would have benefited tremendously from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. There's a real crazy quilt of tariffs and fees and things, and this would have simplified a lot of that for the Asian markets, which are huge markets for U.S. meat these days. And there's a lot of concern for the future of NAFTA. The official line is, “We're not looking to walk away from NAFTA—we're just trying to renegotiate it.” There's a lot of concern that in order to get, for example, more automobile manufacturing back on this side of the border from Mexico, they might be using ag products, specifically meat, as sort of a lever for that.

I think what they're really excited about is new avenues—you have this Millennial generation that's really much more open to different kinds of tastes and cuts, and the industry is kind of giddy about what they can do, and flavors that they can play with, and different presentations that are being sought out by audiences that have not been sought out previously.

Pinsker: Yeah, what trends do you see in how consumers buy and eat meat? What's on the rise, and what's falling by the wayside?

Keefe: What's on the rise is portion control. Consumers still want to go to a steakhouse, but they're not gonna go get a 64-ounce whatever. They're going to get a really good steak at a smaller portion. And, along with that, meat is becoming an ingredient in a dish instead of being at the center of the plate. This is big in the increase in popularity of ethnic cuisines, which often use meat as a part of a dish as opposed to the whole point of the whole dinner. The meat's by no means the dominant ingredient. That's where you get this seemingly divergent statistic where you have the number of meat-eaters at a very steady percentage, and yet you see the volumes declining over time. The way that people are eating meat is different.

Pinsker: This is probably not something that your eyes go to, but when I was flipping through the magazine as a first-time reader, what jumped out at me was the advertisements for a lot of sophisticated-looking equipment. It made me wonder how much work on a plant floor these days is actually done by humans.

Keefe: Yeah, that equipment is really, really sophisticated—I'm a little bit of a factory geek, and I think it's really cool. Increasingly, they’re using robots that are laser-guided—there's a company in Wisconsin and they do mostly portion-controlled pork chops, for hospitals and things like that, so it has to be exactly 3 ounces, and not 3.1 ounces, and it has to be x-amount thick, because it goes through a standardized cooking process. You freeze the pork cut that you get the chops from, and this laser knife goes through and cuts those things the exact same way every single time. And it does at least 25 of these in a minute. A human doing that would take much longer, and there would be a lot more disparity between the slices. So there's a tremendous amount of automation.

Pinsker: How much would that pork-chop portioner cost?

Keefe: I would say that any machine of any size is easily going to be in the six figures. Getting up above $250,000 or $300,000, I think you're getting into a pretty rarefied atmosphere. But every single machine is manufactured for a specific customer, so every single machine has a custom price.

Pinsker: I would imagine that these machines still need humans to work beside them. What has these machines’ net effect been on employment?

Keefe: Well, we don't have to guess at that. A story in our September issue has the data in it. Almost 81,000 people in 2016 were working at some of the higher-skilled positions. Job growth in that category was up less than 1 percent from 2011. There’s a meat-processing category that the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks—“routine cutting and trimming” with “hand or hand tools”—which is, the carcass comes in, and you cut it up and you've got guys just standing on the line and taking it off-conveyor and cutting a certain part of it off and then sending it down to the next guy. In 2016, that was more people, 139,400, but the number in that category was down 8.4 percent between 2011 and 2016. So, slow growth in the more-skilled areas, and a decline in this unskilled knife work. And yet meat production overall was 6.15 percent higher in 2016 compared to the year before. So, productivity: way up.

Pinsker: Can you talk a bit about the work itself? Are injuries common? Meat processing is something I think of as dangerous work.

Keefe: That's a tricky question because the statistics point in a couple different directions. I think that it is a lot safer now than it used to be. At the same time, a meat plant is still an incredibly dangerous place to work—particularly slaughterhouses, but just about any meat plant—because you are talking about sharp objects and repetitive motions.

Pinsker: Are the things making it dangerous now the same as they used to be historically?

Keefe: I think so. It’s not always the knives—it is also the carpal tunnel. But I know there’s a lot of attention paid to safety. Presumably every single plant has an extensive system of checks and balances that is supposed to keep workers from getting their hand stuck in a machine. A lot of times when you have an injury or a death, some of these really horrible injuries, it might be lack of training, but sometimes instead it’s a bit of a cowboy culture—people not making sure that the machine is shut off. Or, a big one is handling anhydrous ammonia in the refrigeration systems, because that stuff will kill you very quickly. When you read about somebody being mauled in a machine, or somebody getting splashed with anhydrous ammonia, a process was probably violated.

Sometimes you have somebody who’s very well trained, and they just kind of take a cavalier approach, and then something goes wrong. But a lot of times the folks who get hurt are sanitation workers, so they’re not even working on the food product—they’re in cleaning when nobody else is there. And a lot of times the sanitation teams are outsourced; they’re not employed by the company. I think the companies by and large take a very conscientious approach from the top down, but I don't know if that conscientiousness is always conveyed through the ranks or to outsourced companies the way it should be.

Pinsker: Where is this work actually happening? A lot of cities have areas referred to as meatpacking districts, but most of them are no longer used for that. Are there parts of the country where the majority of this stuff takes place?

Keefe: Right, they used to do it in the cities because that was where the farms brought the animals, and then it was a short trip from the pen to the slaughterhouse. But they don't really do that—they don’t like to ship the animals that distance—anymore. They've determined it’s not good for the animal, and frankly it's not good for the end product. So starting decades ago, the meat-processing facilities moved out of the cities and moved closer to where the animals are. Now the vast majority of the meat processing plants are going to be way out in some rural area or in a small town.

Pinsker: You started at Meatingplace in 2008. How have you seen the industry change since then?

Keefe: Coming here from a marketing publication was very interesting, because the meat industry has traditionally not done almost any sort of marketing, nor has it had to: Ninety-six percent of consumers in the United States eat some sort of meat at least occasionally, and it used to be that they bought whatever package of ground beef was at the store. That obviously has changed. There’s a whole segment of the industry that has gone very heavily into marketing points of differentiation, whether that’s no antibiotics, or free-range, or whatever it is that these buzzwords mean—and they mostly don't mean what consumers think they mean. Still, the vast majority of products moving through the system and into people's shopping carts are conventionally raised and not particularly marketed to anybody.

But now you have a greater awareness of how communication can make a difference. You still have an industry that says, “We don't have to communicate to anybody, because we haven't done that in 250 years.” And that's the cultural part of the industry that puts it at a disadvantage when faced with criticism from the folks who would say, “You're raising the animals inhumanely,” or “Everybody should be vegan,” or whatever it is the anti-meat folks are saying at any particular time. The meat industry has a difficult time—it's better than it used to be—but it's had a difficult time responding, because culturally it just never has had to.

Pinsker: Can you elaborate on why people in the industry are resistant to responding to these, as you say, anti-meat folks?

Keefe: There are a lot of reasons that there’s resistance. But fundamentally, one thing about people in the meat industry is that they’re not going to be in the meat industry by accident. It’s a self-selecting group. People who work in the meat industry, whether it is on the line or in the small butcher shop, or on the ranches, or in the big processing plants with all kinds of robots and things, they're in the business because they see what they’re doing as something more than just making meat products. They see themselves as feeding people, feeding the world, feeding their community.

I think there’s a stereotype of the laconic farmer who doesn't say much, the Fargo kind of character, and there’s a bit of that in the meat industry as well, because of its ag roots. The folks in the industry tend to be people who let their actions and the work that they do speak for them. There’s been a resistance of feeling like, “Well, I don't have to explain myself,” although this is changing as people are aging out of the industry and younger people are coming in.

And the other thing is that people in the industry know the science. They’re in the barns with the birds, or with the animals, and they know how the birds wind up on the shackles, on the production line. They’ve got degrees in this, and they know what the meat science is, and they know what antibiotics are for, and why they’re used. So a lot of people in the industry wonder why they have to defend themselves when people who do not know as much as they do about the science of meat processing are telling them they’re wrong.

Pinsker: What do people say when they hear what you do for a living?

Keefe: People don't ever ask me about my work! I tell people I work for a meat magazine and the conversation ends. So there’s a little bit of pent-up energy in talking about what we do.

Pinsker: What do you think is at the bottom of that?

Keefe: Well, it’s a squeamish process. Have you ever seen the eyelashes on a cow? I mean, they’re just adorable. Big eyes, and these long lashes—how can you do anything to harm this little creature? I get it. Even people who really love meat don’t want to talk about how it gets to their plate.