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.
Working conditions, as I reported in my book Fast Food Nation (2001), have improved greatly since the days of Upton Sinclair. Nevertheless, a beef slaughterhouse offers countless opportunities for serious harm. Despite the introduction of various power tools and saws, most of the work is still done by hand. Hundreds of workers wielding sharp knives stand along a single production line, and the most common slaughterhouse injury is a laceration. In the old Chicago packinghouses teams of workers disassembled about fifty cattle an hour and performed a variety of tasks throughout the day. In modern American slaughterhouses the line speeds can approach 400 cattle an hour, and the new division of labor requires workers to perform the same task again and again. Some workers make the same knife cut up to 10,000 times a day. When workers feel rushed, accidents are likelier to occur. Excessive line speeds have been linked to injuries, inhumane slaughter practices, and food-safety problems. The economics of the industry only encourage faster line speeds: the money a slaughterhouse earns is directly related to the speed of production. A faster pace means higher profits.