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:

At last, the cow reaches the down puller, where a worker uses a hook to pull the draping hide into a long circular piece of metal that at once functions as clamp and roller. Once the length of the hide is caught in the clamp, the worker throws a lever and the roller spins furiously, ripping the rest of the hide down off the head of the animal. When the hide is completely off, the worker pulls a second lever, and the roller spins back the other way, depositing the hide down a chute directly below. Now the cow’s appearance is surreal: a pearly white creature with bulging eyeballs, broken teeth, and perforated head, which drags along the metal roller that has just stripped it of its hide.

Pachirat thinks about the larger issues of killing in a satisfying, comprehensive way: how people in the plant handle it, and how he did. He discusses repetitive stress and other common physical injuries, but also injuries of the psyche that are harder to describe. With ethnography as his model, he tries explaining the killing area from the participants’ point of view: nobody can believe it, for example, when he says he wants to learn how to be a knocker and even volunteers to kill a few cows. A co-worker named Tyler urges him to reconsider:

“Man, that will mess you up. Knockers have to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist or whatever they’re called every three months.”

“Really? Why?”

“Because, man, that’s killing,” he says; “that shit will fuck you up for real.”

Pachirat observes that only a few workers “see the cattle while they are alive or are in the process of being killed, and an even smaller number are actively involved in the killing…space and labor on the kill floor, itself a department isolated from the rest of the slaughterhouse, are organized to segregate and quarantine the killing.” Yet the essential nature of a slaughterhouse remains a problem, at some level, for almost everyone involved with the enterprise. Pachirat hears it in conversations on the kill floor: people say that a cow will “come in to die” rather than to “be killed,” he writes, and even live cattle are referred to as “beef.” (“Hey, guys, that beef has fallen down in the pens.”) One day a cow awaiting her passage to the “knocking pen” gives birth—a fluke that shakes everything up, if briefly. Pachirat spends only four days amid the violence of the killing area before being reassigned to liver-hanging after an unsuccessful performance moving cattle through the chute. Instead of feeling like he has taken a step backward, he writes that returning to the “hypnotic rhythms” of the cooler was a relief, a place “of safety and sanity even here in the heart of the slaughterhouse.”

But his reassignment leaves him grappling with the morality of killing, and fortunately he shares his struggles: “I argued with a friend over who was more morally responsible for the killing of the animals: those who ate the meat or the 121 workers who did the killing.” The friend says the workers bear the greater share of responsibility. As Pachirat explains,

I took the opposite position, holding that those who benefited at a distance, delegating this terrible work to others while disclaiming responsibility for it, bore more moral responsibility, particularly in contexts like the slaughterhouse, where those with the fewest opportunities in society performed the dirty work.

He considers the words of philosopher John Lachs: “The responsibility for an act can be passed on, but its experience cannot,” and follows up with a question of his own: “What might it mean…for all who benefit from dirty work not only to assume some share of responsibility for it but also to experience it: seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, touching what it means…?” This is the book’s project in a nutshell—to bring the reader/meat consumer closer to the circumstances of meat production and thus involve him in that question of right or wrong.

* * *

A narrative needs characters, and Pachirat obliges by introducing those around him: Ramón, with whom he shares liver-hanging and early morning drives to work; his superiors Javier and Ricardo; and Jill in quality control, who cynically manipulates the federal inspectors and, with other managers, pressures Pachirat to remain “loyal” to the company, as though it were his “family.” There are scenes and re-created dialogue—some of it lasting for more than a page—and vivid description.

Pachirat narrates his interview for the quality-control job in a particularly satisfying fashion, deftly describing the moment when he almost blew it. The boss had mentioned “this lady named Temple Grandin,” and Pachirat just can’t help himself; he allows how he’s been reading a book.

“One of the chapters is about Temple Grandin and the slaughterhouses she designs so that the cattle move up to be killed without getting stressed out. The design is called the stairway to heaven, I think. Anyway, it’s a really good book, I think it’s called An Anthropologist on Mars or something like that. I can get you the exact title and author if you’re interested.”

There’s a silence in the room. I am on dangerous ground, but the conversation is intoxicating. It is more than just the desire to impress them so that I can get the job. After working in the complete silence of the cooler, I have an uncontrollable urge to show the management that we are not just stupid, mindless machines turning our gears day after day, to show them that we too have thoughts and feelings.

Or at least to show that he’s not stupid. Anyway, he gets the job, and though he feels a bit guilty moving over to the surveillance side of the operation, the work is an ethnographic bonanza, because now, instead of repeating one task and motion all day, he can roam throughout the plant, looking at the entire operation.

Quality control involves keeping tabs on quality, of course, but Pachirat quickly grasps that it’s more about keeping an eye on the inspectors. Inspectors report to work at slaughterhouses just as employees do, except that the company is not their boss—the USDA is. The chief inspectors are veterinarians. Those under them mainly stand side by side with workers on the line, checking for wholesomeness, and a few others roam the floor. Pachirat and his “QC” colleagues use their hand-held radios to keep tabs on an inspector’s location, and to run interference if they think the inspector could encounter a problem and decide to issue an “NR”—a noncompliance report, which costs the company time and money to address. “I learned quickly that my performance as a QC was measured by whether we received NRs, not by the cleanliness of the plant or the healthiness of the meat,” writes Pachirat. One target of his work is a roaming inspector named Donald, a stickler whose movements the QC staff tracks assiduously. “We AAARE walking,” says the voice on the radio when Donald is about to leave his office for the kill floor.

Pachirat’s mentor in QC is Jill, whose method of handling Donald consists of “engaging him in conversation, reaching out and touching his arm at key moments to distract him, and laughing obsequiously at his jokes and asides, many of which carry sexual undertones.” Yet “despite this surface conviviality, it soon became apparent that a fierce undercurrent of animosity existed between Jill and Donald.” Pachirat tries a more collegial approach in his exchanges with Donald, but after he lends Donald a flashlight one day, Jill berates him. “If his flashlight doesn’t work that’s his problem, not ours. This guy is not on our side, and it’s not our job to help him.”

Pachirat spends three months as a QC and meditates on how a focus on food safety and hygiene often seems just another way to deflect attention “away from the work of killing.” Sometimes jargon fogs his reflections: he is “deeply uncomfortable with the simultaneous concealment (of food safety and humane handling violations) and surveillance (of kill floor workers) required by the job.” But the bottom line is clear: the work is ghastly, and he’s ready for a way out.

He eventually quits, and his description of what spurred the decision, which unfolds over two brief pages, is the least satisfying part of the book. Pachirat recalls Donald approaching him in confidence, saying, “We’ve been watching you…and we think you’re a pretty good guy,” and inviting him to become a whistleblower. Donald proposes to meet that night at a bar to discuss what’s really going on at the plant, and Pachirat agrees.

Holy mackerel! This is incredible news, and the reader wants to know exactly what transpired. But here the narrative falls short. Instead of recounting the details of the meeting—where it took place, how much beer was consumed and what a tremendous unburdening it must have been for the author to finally switch sides and come clean—Pachirat briskly summarizes. He reveals his identity as a researcher. Donald, incredulous at first, eventually believes him. Pachirat then spends “several hours” telling Donald about quality control from the company’s point of view, “hoping to provide him with concrete steps he might take to increase the effectiveness of his food-safety monitoring.” When Donald asks whether Pachirat will testify about what he knows about the plant (in what sort of forum is unclear), Pachirat refuses, “noting that from the start my decision to access the kill floor…without informing the management of my intention of writing about my experiences has included a commitment not to directly expose a specific slaughterhouse or individuals.”

It’s an opportunity missed. Most likely, Pachirat told Donald everything he has just told the reader about the company’s cat-and-mouse game with USDA inspectors, much of which Donald probably knew already. So why not spell it out? Pachirat strikes me as thoughtful and ethical, and the conflicts he must have felt over meeting with Donald would be fascinating to parse—for him, I would imagine, as well as for us. Narrative writing suggests beginning, middle and end, but Pachirat has shrunk the vital part of the final chapter into two pages.

The other problem here is what Pachirat calls his “commitment” to the granting of anonymity. I understand his desire to protect the identity of workers, because they are powerless. But why not name the slaughterhouse? Meatpacking, a big business and a bigger public safety concern, deserves no anonymity. In a footnote, Pachirat describes arriving at the “commitment” in discussions with his oversight committee, where it was decided that “the goal of the research was never to expose any one company or set of persons but rather to create a portrait of slaughterhouse work as it might take place in any number of industrialized slaughterhouses.” This seems like a dodge. If you are serious about speaking truth to power, journalists will tell you, then identify the powerful. Pachirat’s research is so strong, his project so ambitious and difficult and brave, that he could have named names and trusted that his one vivid example had the power to indict an industry.