The Actual Cost of the Dollar Menu: Empathy, Self-interest, and Exploitation of Meatpacking Workers
by Jacob Snell, Monroe Community College
Abstract: The United States meat industry reports billions of dollars in sales, and fast food restaurants, particularly, numbered over 230,000 in 2019. In contrast to these profits, however, countless studies point to the exploitation of meatpacking workers, whose lives go unnoticed by fast food consumers. Cohort studies report high rates of injuries like laceration, carpal tunnel syndrome, Musculoskeletal pain, and depression. Despite these hazardous conditions, wages within this industry remain low, and workers (especially immigrants) are prone to intimidation from employers. Furthermore, work in cognitive brain science, specifically investigating limitations to human empathy, helps explain the lack of reaction from consumers to these conditions. Factors such as distance of actual processing facilities, lack of exposure to information, and in-group/out-group biases narrow peoples’ empathetic response by making people, groups, or entities abstract. Therefore, meatpacking workers, being alienated from consumers, do not elicit empathy. Business like GrubHub and DoorDash, moreover, reduce the steps a person must take to receive fast food meals, and further abstracts the product’s origin. As some scholars point out, empathy is fundamental for ethical consumer-behaviors, and unless consumers learn to avoid the hindrances to human empathy—which easily emerge when considering meatpacking workers—then future reforms will be difficult.
On August 8th, 2019 the Human Rights Watch reported on recent raids by U.S. immigration enforcement, which resulted in hundreds of workers in Mississippi meatpacking plants being detained (McConnell). Because of such raids, Matt McConnell argues, immigrant workers are afraid to report hazardous working conditions or injuries, which makes governmental protections difficult to prescribe. Countless studies report abnormally high injury rates in meatpacking plants in the United States, ranging from laceration to depression. At the same time, the industrialized meat industry shows large profits. The fast food industry is especially fruitful, nearing 256 billion dollars in sales, and having over 230,000 establishments open in 2019 (Lock). But why haven’t consumers reacted to the countless worker-related problems of this industry? Research in cognitive brain science, by revealing the limitations of the brain’s capacity for empathy, helps explain why most fast food consumers (perhaps excluding those forced towards fast food restaurants by limited options or poverty) seemingly “don’t care” about where their food comes from. Moreover, the lack of process by which consumers receive their meal obscures any conception of the product’s origin. Because consumers lack information about and exposure to the lives of far-off meatpacking workers, the industry sidesteps empathetic response. Since empathy operates as a fundamental component of morality, narrow empathetic responses hinder ethical decisions, and lead to consumerism driven only by self-interest. Although likely skewed from underreporting, a vast literature on meatpacking working conditions exists; however, barriers to human empathy like group dynamics, lack of exposure, and distance hinder the ethical consumer-behaviors necessary for change or reform.
Exploitation of Meatpacking Workers
Within the meat and poultry industry, few companies dominate the market. Journalists sometimes point to “the big four” companies, referring to Cargill, Tyson, JBS USA, and National Beef (Ostland). Among these giants, however, Tyson and JBS USA are the clear leaders of the industry, one statistic citing more than 38 billion dollars in sales for each; the next most profitable was indeed Cargill, but with the more modest 20 billion (Shahbandeh). While the overall manufacturing industry has declined in recent years, meatpacking shows growth (Gaston and Harrison 60). As a result, the context within which meatpacking workers face numerous abuses is one of robust financial capability. Gaston and Harrison cite that three predominant characteristics which emerge within this labor force are high injury rates, “fear” of reporting injuries, and “low wages” (59). Some document an average wage as low as $13.69 per hour for “slaughterers and meatpackers” (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). When juxtaposed with the lives of meatpacking workers, the financial success of these companies clearly does not translate to adequate, let alone beneficial conditions for workers. Furthermore, when we consider the interests of those involved with the meat market—the worker, the consumer, the corporation, etc.—we find a clash of self-interest. The corporation wants to make a profit, the slaughterer wants a living wage, and the consumer wants low-cost food and expedience. When comparing all these stakeholders, meatpacking workers have the most to lose, with the others capitalizing on their expense. When corporations and consumers, especially, do not regulate their self-interest, exploitation easily arises.
It has long been understood that the meatpacking industry contains some of the highest rates of injury,1 and some researchers cite a current rate as high as triple the United States “average” (Leibler and Parry 23). One study, focusing on a beef packing abattoir in Nebraska, investigated rates of “carpel-tunnel syndrome,” “musculoskeletal injuries,” and (primarily) “laceration” (23-24). The findings, revealing a high risk of laceration, suggest that a major predictor of severe injuries is “rushing” (24). Rushing seems to be the logical outworking of what is perhaps the most worrisome feature of meatpacking jobs: excessive line-speed. Leibler and Parry point out that frequent laceration occurs because of the use of hand-held “carbon steel” knife sharpeners (24). Whereas the alternative “mousetrap” (a fixed sharpener) requires that workers leave the line, the hand-held device allows them to maintain expedience (25). The carbon steel sharpener in relation to injury rates, reflects a prioritization of speed over safety. Clearly, speed is the only justification plant managers have for making such a device available in the first place. Efficiency at the expense of safety, while profitable for the companies, is still exploitation. As Gaston and Harrison note, workers often perform thousands of “cuts” every day, and some plants currently move roughly 400 cattle per hour, nearly 7 a minute (57). The sheer amount of cattle processed testifies to the tremendous strain placed on the meat industry to satisfy consumer demand and incidentally leads to countless injuries. Sped-up assembly lines reflect two influences: consumer demand and profit maximization. It is in the best interest of a corporation to output as much product as possible, as fast as possible; this speed is also in the self-interest of the consumer, who wants the supply for their demand, at the lowest cost. Although expedience benefits some, it is at the expense of a marginalized group with limited options.
The frequency of injuries in this industry is severe as workers lack multiple protections, and unfortunately, documentation of injuries only accounts for the reported injuries. Leibler and Parry find “underreporting” to be especially worrisome for populations of Hispanic workers—many of whom are immigrants (26).2 This finding suggests that immigration status may put workers at an even greater risk, especially if they do not seek treatment. When meatpacking workers conceal their injuries it prevents those who are concerned with the wellbeing of meatpacking workers from having access to adequate information, including organizations like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Gaston and Harrison, revealing that specifically undocumented workers make up “25-50%” of meatpacking employees in some Midwest plants, suggest that employers may even exploit vulnerable workers through “intimidation” (59). “Fear of reporting,” for instance, arose in nearly 40% of workers (67). Anxiety over reporting injuries not only makes existent injury rates erroneous but reduces the likelihood that these workers are receiving sufficient care. Oftentimes, companies do not actively inform workers of protections or legislation, e.g. the Nebraska Meatpacking Workers Bill of Rights, and in many cases “discourage” unionization (57). Gaston and Harrison found that nearly fifty percent of employees not only recounted employer disparagement of unions, but also had no knowledge of the “Nebraska Meat Packing Workers Bill of Rights” (57). The unequal availability of these protections makes them all but illegitimate—worker protections must be equal in order to be considered sufficient. The reality of reporting anxiety makes already problematic industry practices more difficult to justify, especially considering the financial capabilities of the dominant corporations.
The injuries meatpackers face does not stop at physical injuries.3 Psychological ailments, especially depression, are rampant in this industry. Researchers note that depression rates in meatpacking near 13.8% compared to the 3.4% United States average (Lander et al 309). One study found that rates of depression for poultry-working women in one plant—the majority being African American—rose as high as “47.8%,” more than double the “19.7” of other low-wage occupations in contiguous areas (Lipscomb et al 290). When juxtaposed with the low quality of life produced by depression, the resources of big corporations, as well as consumer indulgence of cheap fast food meals, comprise a severe imbalance: one group clearly capitalizes on the suffering of another. An important contributor to the significant depression rates found in Lipscomb’s study was a feeling of “low social support at work” (290). This finding is especially worrisome because more than fifty percent of workers in one facility did not share a language with their supervisor (Gaston and Harrison 67). However, the Nebraska Meatpacking Workers Bill of Rights stipulates that “supervisors should be provided with opportunities to enhance their language skills in order to be conversant in the identified non-English language” (Pena). Language barriers create problems for social support, and the apparent lax adherence to this important legal requirement therefore becomes a threat to workers’ mental health. Regardless of whether the causes of these injuries—both physical and psychological—may be definitively identified, these ailments continue to place an unnecessary toll on meatpacking workers, who lack sufficient compensation.
In addition to more easily diagnosable injuries, the nature of meatpacking work itself imposes a psychological toll on workers. Jennifer Dillard, who reviewed a less investigated aspect of the meatpacking industry, looked at the workers’ mental states in relation to the work of slaughter itself (7). Butchers engage in a process akin to moral disengagement (a phenomenon discussed in the next section) when conducting their work—empathizing with the animals they slaughter would make their job quite difficult; however, it is less certain whether they retain long-lasting psychological distress from it. The major problem with this concern, as Dillard admits, is the lack of “discussion” within the available literature (3). In short, Dillard applies the theory of “perpetration induced traumatic stress” (PITS), where the “perpetrator” of traumatic circumstances develops the symptoms of PTSD, to slaughterers (6). Although PITS traditionally applies to veterans, PITS also threatens the meatpacking workers’ mental health (7). Unless meatpacking plants guarantee humaneness, the slaughterer may be forced into committing a cruel act, e.g. if there is a malfunction with equipment or mechanisms. Unfortunately, increased speed in this industry reduces the likelihood of humane slaughter; Dillard references several cases where expedience prevented humane slaughter for some workers (11-13). Exposure to cruelty adds onto the already colossal stress of slaughterhouse work, perhaps even creating an additional risk factor for injury. Any increased stress, when seen in light of the other hazards workers face, exacerbates the problem. Some scholars also worry about the effect of slaughterhouse work on the employees’ empathy, suggesting that meatpacking employment may even influence crime rates (Fitzgerald 173). Not every worker will suffer from each injury that threatens them, but the sheer amount of risk and stress makes it unlikely that any worker will escape unscathed. The harsh reality of the meatpacking industry is that meatpacking workers, being exposed to unjust working conditions, comprise an exploited class of workers.
Empathy, Self-interest, and Consumerism
Adam Smith, in his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, remarked that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest” (14). If we read “butcher, brewer, and baker” as the contemporary food industry, self-interest is not only the motivation for economic enterprise, but also the mechanism of success; if a business does not look after its own interest, they may fail or be out-competed by a more self-interested company. Most groups involved with the industrialized meatpacking industry have their self-interest in mind—the line worker must pay bills, the plant manager must produce profit, the consumer must eat. With morality in mind, the question arises as to whether some of these stakeholders have taken their self-interest too far and have not done enough to consider the interests of others.
Some researchers define a chief component of “ethical consumption,” as concern for one’s effect on the world around them (Sebastiani et al. 473). This approach to consumer ethics asks one to suppress his self-interest for the sake of another person, group or entity. Varying degrees of this outward concern arise in consumer decision, with product labels like Grass-Fed, Free Range, rBGh Free (a growth hormone), or Certified Organic. Additionally, some consumers abstain from meat entirely, citing the industry’s worrisome contribution to global climate change. These or other concerns ultimately derive from the consumer’s self-interest. One person, for instance, may desire antibiotic-free beef insofar as it prevents a threat to their own health; indeed, most product labels are marketed in this way. On the other hand, climate change, as a more global threat, directly threatens the wellbeing of consumers, and it is in their best interest to prevent it. If climate change merely posed a risk to a small, marginalized population of meatpacking workers, then perhaps there would be less reaction to it. Meatpacking workers, although not on the scale of global climate change, do face hazardous working conditions which warrant concern from demand-creating consumers. Movements like Certified Humane, being concerned primarily with the wellbeing of animals, indicate less self-interest. When considering an industry filled with unjust labor conditions, this concern over the welfare of animals seems misplaced; should we not first ask: are the workers of the meat industry cruelty free? In this regard, movements like Fair Trade—showing concern for human injustices behind luxury products like chocolate, coffee, flowers, etc.—do reflect a more ethical model of consumption, where choices are not solely motivated by self-interest, but by concern for others. The industrialized meat industry seemingly lacks this type of other-centered thinking. Sebastiani et al. support the notion that consumers may indeed affect change “through social and collective action,” e.g. boycotting (474). After all, if consumers generate demand for goods produced through ethical practices, then companies have no choice but to respond; Sebastiani et al. note that companies are indeed “reactionary” (475). It is simply not the case that consumers have no power over companies. Fast food consumers, comprising a major portion of the demand for meat, are responsible for their purchasing power, so long as they possess the financial or geographical means to make such decisions in the first place. Without consumer reaction, the major meatpacking corporations will continue to profit, and will have no impetus to reform their exploitative labor conditions.
Empathy, the feeling of shared experiences, emotions, or circumstances, etc., with another individual or group, operates as a major driving force for moral decision making (Merriam-Webster). Rafi Chowdhury and Mario Fernando, for instance, suggest that an overall increase in empathy would stimulate ethical, e.g. “prosocial,” behaviors (690).4 Tending to suppress self-interest, these behaviors are other-focused, and make empathy (the means by which people care about others) essential. Therefore, despite the undeniably unjust labor conditions in meatpacking facilities, unless this meatpacking workers engage consumers empathetically, ethical response is unlikely. Chowdhury and Fernando also point out that “moral disengagement,” guiltlessly indulging in morally-suspect behaviors by “suspending self-regulatory processes,” obstructs ethical decisions (678). As a result, moral disengagement seems utterly opposed to empathy; obviously, moral disengagement would be especially tough if one was “stuck” empathizing with an injustice of which they would rather not be aware. For example, it is often easier to ignore a panhandler standing at the offramp of a highway by avoiding eye contact; once we view a person as human, giving empathy room to work, we make moral disengagement difficult. Thus, if the fast food industry facilitates a narrow empathetic response, then moral disengagement would be easy. This problem does not seem to result from peoples’ capacity for empathy, but from a lack of exposure and information—ultimately responsible for enabling empathy. Another consequence of confined empathy is the so-called attitude-behavior gap—the disparity between a person’s ethical conviction and an actual change of habit (Sebastiani et al. 476). One simple manifestation of this barrier to ethical consumerism is the failure to adhere to one’s “New Year's Resolution.” Although distinct, the attitude-behavior gap and moral disengagement relate in that empathy influences both. Seemingly, the stronger an empathetic response, the more likely the attitude-behavior gap will decrease; one can also only justify non-action when they are able to morally disengage. As a result, if injurious working conditions do not elicit empathic response from consumers, there will be no force to oppose moral disengagement and the attitude-behavior gap, making ethical decisions (and therefore future policy change) unlikely.
Fast food, being true to its name, is easy, and this expedience threatens to impede consumers’ empathetic response. That is, a cheap meal from a McDonald’s or a Burger King requires very little engagement from the consumer. The rise of businesses like GrubHub and DoorDash, continue to shrink this process, and increasingly alienate the consumer: one merely presses a button on his phone and his food shows up. Any notion of the origin of his meal becomes entirely abstract. Before this fast food patrons had to see the restaurant or may have even had to see the raw meat being prepared in the back kitchen; now, they no longer even have to leave their couch. This unacknowledged process allows the injustices of the meatpacking industry to evade empathetic response. As a person who flips a light-switch does not consciously acknowledge the electric mechanisms and the source of the power which make the action possible, the consumer does not tally up the amount of lacerations it took to create their meal. In addition, even the location of meatpacking plants is distant, with most having transitioned out of urban regions and into “rural” settings (Gaston and Harrison 59). This physical distance, combined with a lack of information, makes the lives of meatpacking workers wholly abstract and confines empathy. Simply put, consumers (who do not have to leave the comforts of their homes) do not think about potential injuries of workers, however severe, in some far off “meatpacking plant.” As a result, the more distant and alienated the process becomes, the less chance arises for empathetic response among consumers, and by extension ethical decision-making and change.
Research in cognitive brain science attests to the impact of abstraction on the brain’s empathetic response. For instance, in his Moral Tribes, Joshua Greene emphasizes the effect that the mere “physical distance” has on our “intuitions,” altering our moral convictions (261). Acknowledging this otherwise arbitrary “distance,” Greene rhetorically concludes that “nearby drowning children push our moral buttons; faraway starving children don’t” (261). Greene’s point is that the more visible a problem is, the more likely we are to react empathetically; physical distance, unfortunately, decreases such moral clarity. Since the injustices of meatpacking workers are not sitting next to the GrubHub user on their couch, empathetic response will likely be limited. Cigarette packages exemplify the opposite side of this process, where health warnings work to increase consumer attention; some countries even force cigarette packages to include vivid images of diseases which remind shoppers of the health risks. This increased exposure means to deter more potential smokers than would a merely printed warning. Greene also draws on additional studies which find people to be more charitable (at the expense of their self-interest) to definitive individuals, rather than to larger abstract crisis, e.g. “[…] a poor seven-year-old Malian girl named Rokia—rather than […] the larger cause of poverty in Africa” (264). This phenomenon is the so called “identifiable victim effect” (262). Because “meatpacking workers” form a “broad” group, they lose the individuality which stimulates empathy. Until the stories of individuals like Virgil Butler—whose anecdotes Jennifer Dillard showcases—receive attention, emotional reactions are limited (7). The current consumer, therefore, has ample opportunity to morally disengage, allowing for guilt-free patronage of fast food restaurants. It seems that in addition to capitalizing on a marginalized group of meatpacking workers, large meatpacking corporations also benefit from the brain’s empathetic limitations, which contribute to consumer non-action.
In-group/out-group dynamics,5 responsible for much of human conflict, restrict the brain’s capacity for empathy. One consequence of this type of tribalism, pointed out by Ken Fuchsman, is an “indifference” to others (184). Certainly, disinterest in the burdens of distant, abstract, meatpacking workers occurs naturally; our brains are simply ill-equipped to empathize without exposure. It is more than mere abstraction that contributes to the callousness of consumers: they also view the abstract line-workers as others. This tendency does not mean all consumers are callous, unsympathetic, or fiercely opposed to out-groups; but, as Fuchsman qualifies: “anything might trigger our empathy, but we are partial toward “those who are in proximity to us and with whom we have affinity” (178). A major component of the lack of care, or even slight curiosity among consumers concerning meatpacking labor conditions, stems from the fact that such workers are simply not in the in-group. These impediments to human empathy explain the lack of reaction among consumers against unsafe conditions, despite the vast literature on the topic. It has been over one hundred years since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, but the meat industry’s labor conditions remain unnecessarily hazardous. Perhaps documentaries like The Dark Side of Chocolate, which aided the Fair-Trade movement, could generate consumer reaction. As visual creations, documentaries have more power to elicit empathy than writing, and are second only to direct experience. As things stand, consumers lack information about meatpacking injustices and are blind to the origin of the products they purchase.
The meatpacking industry, being difficult to access, poses a frustrating challenge for those who seek to report on injustice; different plants show different levels of injury, and different demographics are afraid of reporting. Without knowing the extent of the problem, it becomes challenging to prescribe sufficient protections. Moreover, the major meatpacking corporations possess enough resources to ensure worker safety and compensation. Any reform would come down to suppressing self-interest in the form of financial sacrifice, e.g. slowing down the assembly line, or increasing wages. There is no reason that one of the most profitable industries in the United States should have an underpaid and injury-prone workforce simultaneously. Perhaps the total mechanization of the meat industry—replacing human workers with machines—would sidestep the myriad of injustices dealt to this marginalized group; however, corporations already seem to treat their workers as little more than machines. Of course, plant managers and company leaders probably fall prey to the same moral disengagement as consumers; but they still must learn to treat their workers as humans, and not as an exhaustible labor force. The harsh truth is that when companies abuse a workforce, the consumer by extension capitalizes on this exploitation as well. It is important for those who have means (especially consumers) to consider how their decisions affect others, and not to chase only their self-interest, risking the perpetuation of injustice.
1. Published in 1906, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, was one of the first attempts to raise awareness for the worker exploitation of the early meatpacking industry, and detailed the severe workers, especially immigrants.
2. For similar findings, see Culp, Kennith, et al. “Traumatic injury rates in meatpacking plant workers.” Journal of Agromedicine, vol. 13, no. 1, 2008.
3. In addition, for a discussion of meatpacking workers’ vulnerability to antibiotic-resistant bacteria (although the causes are yet to be determined), see Leibler, Jessica, et al. “Staphylococcus aureus Nasal Carriage among Beefpacking Workers in a Midwestern United States Slaughterhouse.” PLOS One, vol. 11, no. 2, 2016, pp. 1-11.
4. For similar conclusions, see Detert, J. R., et a. “Moral disengagement in ethical decision making: A study of antecedents and outcomes.” Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 93, no. 2, 2008, pp. 374-391.
5. For discussion of additional facets of group dynamics, such as in-group bias/favoritism, and out-prejudice/aversion, see Greene pp. 69, Fuchsman pp. 184, and Banaji, Mahzarin and Anthony Greenwald. Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. Delacorte, 2013. (esp. pp. 123-45 and 158-63).
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