Last week, I was in Dodge City, KS for a work convention. As part of the program, I could take one of three tours: a dairy farm, community, or meat packing plant tour. The choice was super easy – meat packing plant, duh!
I wanted to go on the tour because I’ve done some looking into where my food comes from. I’ve watched Food Inc., and I’ve read Fast Food Nation. For awhile, I’ve believed in knowing where your food comes from and buying local. I have never lived somewhere with easier access to local meat and produce than Leavenworth County, KS. There are plenty of farmers markets and co-op programs, and most of it is very affordable.
I do not buy beef at the grocery store, but this girl likes all things BBQ, the occasional beef burger, etc., so I probably come into contact with the products of a large processing facility at least a few times a month. Also, I do buy chicken and turkey, and while I’m sure the processes are very different, they are essentially the same as how beef is processed, so I thought that in order to truly see where my food is coming from, I should take this opportunity, as I will probably never have it again.
We took a whimsical trolley to Cargill Meat Solutions in the morning. The moment I stepped off the trolley, the smell hit me. There’s no way I will ever be able to describe it. It was like a hamburger on the grill with a twist of poop and hay.
By the way, for those reading, I’m not going to give a play-by-play of everything I saw. Let’s just say that if A is the cow walking into the plant and Z is the cut of meat ready to be loaded into a truck for delivery, I saw the process with my own eyes from step E to Z, and I saw steps A to D on a closed-circuit TV in the control room. This article has a few graphic photos, and some statistics about the facility. The photos do not capture the action, the verb, happening at that moment.
We toured from “clean” to “dirty,” meaning we saw the process from end to beginning. “Clean” is very accurate for the last portion of the process. I saw measure after measure in play to prevent contamination. “Dirty” does describe the start of the process because of much stuff you are trying to get out/away from the final product. I would say there’s nothing clean about the slaughter and preparation of an animal, but even in those very early post-slaughter steps, they are taking great caution to prevent contamination.
Think of Ford’s auto assembly line. Cargill’s plant can best be summarized as, let’s be real, an animal dis-assembly line. The further along we got into the tour, the more and more the product resembled the animal that it came from until it was a whole cow, hide and all.
Will I Still Eat Meat?
Yep, I sure will. In fact, I had a roast beef sandwich for lunch and several different meats for dinner that evening, although it did have a funny taste because of the smell from the plant that I could not shake (I swear I woke up the next day with it in my mouth, blah). I am worried that the smell of meat on the grill will never be quite the same again.
I am 100% glad I toured the facility and can say that I really do know where that hamburger came from. Dare I say that while there’s nothing pleasant about watching a process like this, it wasn’t as awful/brutal/disorganized as I thought it would be. I have high confidence about the quality/cleanliness of the beef that comes out of that plant. They use every little part of each cow except for the tip of its tail, it’s brain, and the spinal cord, and I can only imagine the long list of products I love that are made from plasma and other bits. To refuse to NEVER eat meat from a plant again would also mean to refuse my favorite makeup and other products, and I’m just not interested in doing that.
I still stand by seeking out and buying local meat and produce, or buying as directly from the farmer/rancher as possible. This weekend, I purchased some pork chops at the farmers market directly from the pig’s owner. He came all the way from Oklahoma, and yes, I get that lots of gas went into that pig coming into my kitchen, but that Cargill plant ships beef to 30 different countries, and the pork at my grocery store was not raised and killed behind the store, so I do feel this is a better choice that sits well with my conscience.
We bought a duck and reserved our Thanksgiving turkey at a local, family owned and operated farm. Ideally, this is how I want to purchase my meat, but due to logistics, it’s not always feasible.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t share some of economic ripple effects I thought of during the tour. I actually thought more about this stuff than I did about consumption of the product. This is a giant plant in the middle of Kansas, an hour or two from I-70. Dodge City is 30,000-ish in population. Around 80 “dead heads” – those are semi trucks that are empty – come into Dodge City every day to haul away the product. In heavier populated areas, fewer or no dead heads are needed because there is enough product coming into the community for consumption. I thought about all the fuel costs of that, plus the fuel costs of shipping product from Kansas to literally, the rest of the meat-eating world.
The plant employs around 2800 people, and a significant portion of those people are immigrants, people who are here legally. Safety rules and regulations are posted on the walls of the plants in over 12 languages. The starting wage is over $13/hour, and the average wage is significantly higher. The employees work incredibly hard, and there is higher turnover the closer you get to the beginning of the process, but overall, turnover is low, and the bulk of employees have been there 5 years or longer. In a world where rich people love their meat but don’t want anything to do with how it gets to their plate, someone has to get it there, and I’m glad they are receiving good wages for doing so. Two people working make $60K – $80K or more a year in a community with an overall low cost of living, pretty damn good for a household. In fact, the plant can’t hire enough people, in part due to a housing shortage. Knowing that in a way, eating a hamburger helps a family way out in Dodge City, I’m more inclined to order it at the restaurant. Also, when it comes to the great immigration debate, I wish people were more aware of how important immigrant workers are in our economy and society.
In closing, I shared this because it really made me think about things that are important to me as a consumer and as an economic developer. The intention was not to make the case for the beef industry, against vegetarianism, or anything else. I just wanted to share the experience and how I’ve been thinking about it. I’m not anywhere near done thinking about it.
My next meat adventure includes a 5 lb. duck, a roasting pan, and a baster. It should be interesting, and please God, let it be tasty.