How to Make the Country's Most Dangerous Job Safer

The power lies with one hamburger vendor

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.

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.

In recent years the leading meat-packing firms have managed to operate with little public scrutiny of the high injury rates in their plants. The three companies that produce most of the nation's beef—IBP, ConAgra, and Excel—are not household names. America's slaughterhouses are now located in rural areas, far from the headquarters of the national media. And the majority of the industry's workers—impoverished immigrants from Mexico—lack the political clout that might bring attention to their plight. For the past two decades the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been an underfunded and often ineffectual agency. Last year's vote in Congress to rescind OSHA's new ergonomics standard, designed to reduce cumulative trauma injuries, suggests that the federal government has little real interest in the nation's most dangerous job.

The McDonald's Corporation has proved that it can force its meat-packing suppliers to make fundamental changes quickly. "If McDonald's is requiring something of their suppliers, it has a pretty profound effect," a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute told a reporter. "Because we have the world's biggest shopping cart," a McDonald's spokesman said, "we can use that leadership to provide more focus and order throughout the beef system." Both were referring to new rules about cattle feed which the company has imposed on its beef suppliers. But the comments apply equally to the issue of worker safety. If McDonald's were to insist that the large meat-packers improve working conditions and reduce injury levels, they would immediately do so. The cost of slowing down their production lines would be insignificant compared with the cost of losing their biggest customer.

If McDonald's can send auditors into slaughterhouses to ensure the ethical treatment of cattle, it can certainly do the same for poor immigrant workers. The company should be held accountable for the behavior of the firms that supply the ground beef for its Big Macs, just as Nike has been held accountable for the behavior of the overseas companies that manufacture its sneakers. And unlike reconfiguring shoe factories on distant continents, making important changes in the slaughterhouses of Colorado, Nebraska, Texas, and Washington wouldn't take long. It wouldn't even take weeks. All it would take is one clear demand that line speeds be slowed down, preventing countless injuries—one clear demand from McDonald's.