A Slaughterhouse Nightmare:
Psychological Harm Suffered by Slaughterhouse Employees and the Possibility of Redress through Legal Reform
“The worst thing,, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll. . . . Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them—beat them to death with a pipe. I can’t care.”
—Ed Van Winkle, hog-sticker at Morrell slaughterhouse plant, Sioux City, Iowa
What’s the true cost of a hamburger? To the consumer, it’s anywhere from under a dollar to, say, ten bucks in a fancy burger joint. But to the slaughterhouse workers, as many Americans are aware,1 the cost of your hamburger includes the financial and physical hardships of the slaughterhouse work itself.
However, less publicly discussed or understood is the psychological trauma inflicted on slaughterhouses workers.2 Not only do the employees face serious physical health hazards daily, but they also experience, on a daily basis, large-scale violence and death that most of the American population will never have to encounter.3 This article will discuss the psychological harm caused by slaughterhouse work and will propose several methods, including OSHA reforms, workers’ compensation, and expansion of tort doctrine, by which the legal regime can prevent the harm from occurring and can compensate the employees for their psychological injuries.
Dr. Kim A. Williams, the president-elect of the American College of Cardiology, often sees patients who are overweight and struggling with hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol. One of the things he advises them to do is to change their diets.
Specifically, he tells them to go vegan.
Dr. Williams became a vegan in 2003 because he was concerned that his LDL cholesterol — the kind associated with an increased risk of heart disease — was too high. Dr. Williams wrote about his reasons for going vegan and his belief in the cardiovascular benefits of a plant-based diet in a recent essay at MedPage Today.
Veganism has grown in popularity in recent years, reflected by the explosion of meat-free cookbooks and restaurants, and vegan-friendly products in grocery stores. But the endorsement by the man who is set to become the president of one of the country’s leading cardiology associations, which helps formulate health policies and guidelines, did not strike a totally positive chord.
“I didn’t know it would create such a firestorm of everything from accolades to protests,” said Dr. Williams, who is also the chairman of cardiology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “The response was really loud, and much of it diametrically opposed.”
One person suggested he was promoting a radical diet to his patients based on the experience of a single person: himself. Others accused him of trying to get the college of cardiology to encourage everyone to go vegan, which he dismissed. And some critics suggested that Dr. Williams and the college were “unduly influenced by industry,” which baffled him.
“Who is the industry that promotes vegan dieting?” he asked. “Maybe the people who publish books on it. But that wouldn’t be considered industry, I don’t think.”
Dr. Williams said that his switch to veganism was prompted by a routine blood test about 10 years ago.
The test showed that his LDL cholesterol, which had been 110 a couple years earlier, had climbed to 170. Dr. Williams, who was about 49 at the time, said he assumed that age and physical activity had played a role; his once frequent levels of exercise had fallen, and cholesterol tends to rise as people get older. But he also suspected that his diet was not as healthy as he had thought.
“I was basically eating chicken and fish, no skin, no fried food and no red meat,” he said. “I thought it was healthy. But it was low fat instead of low cholesterol, which is what I needed.”
Researchers have long known that the relationship between the dietary cholesterol found in food and the cholesterol that circulates in the blood is complicated, varying greatly from one person to the next. In many people, the cholesterol in food has only a minor or negligible effect on blood cholesterol levels. But in some people, the effect can be more pronounced, which Dr. Williams said was probably the case with him.
He eliminated cholesterol from his diet by avoiding dairy and animal protein to see if there would be any effect. Instead of eating chicken and fish, he started eating vegetable-based meat substitutes like veggie burgers and sausages made from soy and other plant proteins and nuts. He also switched to almond milk from cow’s milk.
Six weeks later, his LDL had fallen to 90.
“It seems that the response to dietary cholesterol and other changes in diet are all genetically determined and quite variable,” he said. “One person might go from 170 to 150 by going to a plant-based diet. Another person might go from 170 to 90.”
Although LDL plays a role in heart disease, it is not the only factor. The plaque that accumulates in arteries consists not only of cholesterol, but immune cells that invade the artery walls as a result of chronic inflammation. Some researchers argue that this inflammation is the underlying problem in coronary artery disease. But Dr. Williams says he believes that being vegan can lower inflammation, too.
He said his enthusiasm for plant-based diets was based on his interpretation of medical literature. He cited observational studiesof tens of thousands of members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church that found that people following vegetarian diets lived longer than meat eaters and had lower rates of death from heart disease, diabetes and kidney problems. And he pointed to research carried out by Dr. Dean Ornish, who found that patients who were put on a program that included a vegetarian diet had less coronary plaque and fewer cardiac events.
But Dr. Williams said he readily acknowledged that such studies were not conclusive.
Observational studies like those carried out on the Seventh-day Adventists show correlations, but they cannot establish cause and effect. And the study by Dr. Ornish was a small, randomized trial that, in addition to diet, included a number of interventions. Besides becoming vegetarians, the patients also gave up smoking, started exercising and had stress-management training. The extent to which diet played a role in the outcome is difficult to know.
Critics also point out that the Ornish diet restricts not only meat, but refined carbohydrates like added sugars and white flour, which have been implicated in cardiovascular disease in many studies.
Dr. Williams said he thought the research on the benefits of substituting nuts, beans and plant protein for meat was strong, but largely observational. But he was not arguing that the college of cardiology should promote veganism in its dietary guidelines. He said he would like to see large, extensive clinical trials of such diets “that pass muster” first.
Plenty of things that looked promising based on correlations that were identified in observational studies were later found to be problematic, he said, like vitamin E, hormone-replacement therapy, folic acid and, most recently, the HDL-raising drug niacin.
“There is a long list of things that, based on observational trials, we thought were beneficial, and then a randomized trial done for a long period of time showed that it wasn’t,” he said. “So I approach all of this with a sense of humility and an open mind.”
In the meantime, he said, he has made a habit of telling patients who are obese and plagued by metabolic problems like Type 2 diabetes to try exercising and eating less meat. And he discusses some of his favorite vegan foods with them.
“I recommend a plant-based diet because I know it’s going to lower their blood pressure, improve their insulin sensitivity and decrease their cholesterol,” he said. “And so I recommend it in all those conditions. Some patients are able to do it, and some are not.”
The meat industry in the United States is big business: The vast majority of Americans eat meat, and we eat a lot of it–roughly 200 pounds per person every single year (in animals, that’s about 30 chickens, 1 turkey, one-third of a pig, one-tenth of a cow, and dozens of fin fish).
And although per capita consumption has fallen in recent years, we’re still eating far more than our parents and grandparents–including six times as many chickens per capita as were consumed in the 1930’s.
Now, for the first time, we know how much our national meat habit is costing us: Roughly 414 billion dollars annually in external health, environmental, and animal welfare costs, according to a superbly researched new book, Meatonomics, by California attorney David Robinson Simon.
If those costs were incorporated into the price, according to Simon’s analysis, animal products would cost almost three times as much as they do today. With the true costs included, consumption levels would plummet.
Simon stresses that his figures are conservative: Because his estimates are limited to those supported by published research, he necessarily omitted some costs that have gone unmeasured in the scientific and economic literature. For example, Simon’s numbers on health care assign only a fraction of the heart disease tally to meat, even though we know that a low fat vegan diet will reverse the disease for almost everyone who has it.
His numbers on the environment look at lost property values due factory farms destroying local environments and carbon offsets, but of course, the external effects of warming are far greater than the value of the offsets, and property values can’t capture the fact that these industrial farms destroy communities and ruin lives.
Finally, his quantification of the cruelty meted out by these industries discusses just five meat industry abuses–such as cramming pigs and chickens into tiny crates where they never spread their limbs or go outside–and relies on consumer willingness to pay to get rid of them. It’s an impressive analysis, based on work published by Oxford University Press and carried out by agricultural economists from Oklahoma State University, but of course these are the sorts of things that defy valuation.
The fact that $414 billion is conservative is in no way a problem with the book, of course–the real figures are incalculable, and conservative figures are more than adequate to accomplish Simon’s task of explaining that the USDA’s promotion of meat, and the lack of inclusion of external costs, mean that Americans consume vastly more of the stuff than we would if we were paying the true costs.
Simon’s solution comes in three parts: An excise tax on all products that contain animal ingredients, a tax credit for every American (basically giving back most of the tax revenues), and a reformulation of the USDA’s mission away from promoting the consumption of animal products to instead promote the public health.
The tax and subsidies are proposals that should be supported by all sides of the political spectrum: Progressives should love them for their positive impact on human health, the environment, and animals. Conservatives should love the consumption focus, as well as the tax relief and reward of responsible behavior.
Though enacting Simon’s proposals will require a steep climb, Simon makes his case persuasively: The meat industry is harming our health, destroying our environment, and abusing billions of animals annually. As he notes in discussing prospects for his plans: “Change does happen, often in swift and surprising ways.”
Meatonomics deserves a prime spot in the library of everyone who cares about the politics of food.
But living that life as an animal — an insensate brute, incapable of reason, abstraction, perhaps even feeling? Unthinkable. Yes, yes, the animals don’t recognize the difference, and neither would you. If you’re a goat, you possess the knowledge of a goat, and that can’t be much. But there’s more to it than that.
Human beings have always had something of a bipolar relationship with the millions of other species with which we share the planet. We are fascinated by them, often dazzled by them. They can be magnificently beautiful, for one thing: the explosive color and frippery of a bird of paradise, the hallucinatory variety of the fish in a coral reef, the otherworldly markings and architecture of a giraffe. Even the plain or ugly animals — consider the naked, leathery grayness of the rhino or elephant — have a certain solidity and equipoise to them. And to see an animal at what appears to be play — the breaching dolphin, the swooping raptor — is to think that it might be fun to have a taste, a tiny taste, of their lives.
But it’s a taste we’d surely spit right out, because as much as we may admire animals, we pity them too: their ignorance, their inconsequence, and their brief, savage lives. It’s in our interest to see them that way — not so much because we need to press our already considerable advantage over them; we don’t. But because we have certain uses in mind for them. We need the animals to work for us — to pull carts, drag plows, lift logs and carry loads, and stand still for a whipping if they don’t. We need them to entertain us, in our circuses and zoos and stage shows. And most of all, we need them to feed us, with their eggs and milk and their very flesh. A few favored beasts do get a pass — dogs, cats, some horses — but the rest are little more than tools for our use.
But that view is becoming impossible to sustain — as a new TIME book reveals. The more deeply scientists look into the animal mind, the more they’re discovering it to be a place of richness, joy, thought and even nuance. There are the parrots that don’t just mimic words but appear to understand them, for example, assembling them into what can only be described as sentences. There are the gorillas and bonobos that can do the same with sign language or pictograms. Those abilities are hard to dismiss, but they also miss the point; they are, in many way, limited gifts — animals doing things humans do, but much less well.
A better measure is the suite of behaviors the animals exhibit on their own: crows that can fashion tools, lions that collaborate on elaborate hunts, dolphins and elephants with signature calls that serve as names, and cultural norms like grieving for their dead and caring for grandchildren. There are the complex, even political societies that hyenas create and the factory-like worlds of bees and ants. There are the abiding friendships among animals, too — not just the pairs of dolphins or horses or dogs that seem inseparable but the cross-species loyalties: the monkey and the dog, the sheep and the elephant, the cat and the crow, members of ordinarily incompatible species that appear never to have thought to fight with or eat one another because, well, no one told them they had to.
Animals, the research is proving, are creatures capable of reflection, bliss, worry and more. Not all of them in the same ways or to the same degrees, surely, but all of them in far deeper measures than we’ve ever believed. The animal mind is nothing like the wasteland it’s been made out to be. And if it’s not the mind you’d want to have as your own, it’s one that is still worth getting to know much better.