Of The Jungle Upton Sinclair famously observed, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Workers in the Chicago stockyards may have been his heroes, but readers cared more about the sausage. Finding the public’s heart, when it comes to slaughterhouses, has never been easy. In Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser includes a chapter about injuries suffered by meatpackers, but other books in the current wave of food writing scarcely mention workers. Their concern is the impact of the industrial food system on waistlines and water tables. Possibly the most affecting testimony of our new century of factory farming comes from a new breed of chroniclers—animal rights activists deploying hidden cameras to devastating effect. Mercy for Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and PETA have used secret video to create stomach-turning agitprop, and to such good effect that legislatures in Iowa and Florida nearly passed bills last year that would have criminalized the unauthorized filming of agriculture. But in these latest documents, our hearts go out to the animals—not the workers, who are generally the ones caught abusing them.
Academics and university presses, increasingly open to publishing narrative nonfiction, have also been claiming territory that might once have belonged to journalists. Steve Striffler’s Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food, published by Yale University Press in its Agrarian Studies Series in 2005, contains a chapter that is a favorite among my students—Striffler’s first-person account of his undercover summer employment at a slaughterhouse in Arkansas. The description of his factory job breading chicken parts has scenes—machines breaking down on the line, a supervisor rewarding workers one day with a lunch of… fried chicken!—that would have pleased Sinclair.
With Timothy Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, Yale has taken a bet on a book-length first-person account of slaughterhouse work. Pachirat moved with his wife and daughters to Omaha and found work in a slaughterhouse, where he did not announce himself as a researcher. Now a professor of politics at the New School, he sets his explanatory narrative within a theoretical framework of “the politics of sight,” drawing on the writings of Michel Foucault and Jeremy Bentham to discuss power relationships related to surveillance and concealment. Fortunately these passages, with their arid and obligatory feel, are mainly limited to the beginning and the end of the book. The fascination of Every Twelve Seconds lies in the meaty main chapters, which recount Pachirat’s passage through the hiring process and then into the factory and abruptly out of it, five months later.
His first assignment, lasting several weeks, is “hanging livers”—lifting big beef livers onto hooks inside a refrigerated room. Pachirat then works a few days in the killing chutes, helping move cattle toward their date with death—the worker on the line known as “the knocker,” who fires a hydraulic bolt gun into a cow’s forehead. Finally, he is promoted off the line to a job as a quality control officer, one of the corps of people who oversee production, essentially trying to keep “excreta” (feces) and “ingesta” (straw) off the meat, and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors in the plant from seeing same.
A lucid writer, Pachirat excels in explaining how a slaughterhouse works. He recounts how he applied for jobs, what employees are given to wear and, in great detail, how the facility is laid out and functions. There is a clean zone and a dirty zone, for example, and the line between them is the area where an animal’s hide is removed. The hide is dirty with “feces, vomit, and ingesta”; the big food-safety challenge for a slaughterhouse is to minimize “the transfer of these contaminants to the flesh underneath.” Pachirat’s description of hide removal is not for the squeamish: