Classic Roger #4: Food Plant

Food Plant was originally published to kuro5hin.org Tue Oct 26, 2004


There are two ways into any Food Plant that do not involve eventually getting eaten.

Through the front office, if this is an upscale place like a large processing Plant there will be a nice reception area and access controls. There may even be secretary, though you will always wait for her attention because she has to answer the phone and take will-call orders and such as well as figure out why you’re there. Once your purpose is established and you’re buzzed in you’ll pass the sales and accounting offices, crammed with supplies and inhabited by people trying to do three jobs at a time. Sometimes the computers are circa 1987 and sometimes they’re state of the art, but sometimes the latter are perched atop crates or hastily shop-constructed furniture. Lower echelon Food Plants won’t have the secretary, but instead a sign directing you to roughly constructed offices at the back of the Plant or up narrow stairs, and overworked salesmen will figure out who you are and where you need to be. For reasons I’ll get to soon Food Plants are extremely fine-grained social hierarchies, and little symbols of status are everywhere.

One fundamental bit of status information to always keep in mind: Everyone who works in the Office is higher in status than anyone who works in the Plant. Indeed, mere access to the Office is one of those privileges that separate the upper Plant People from their inferiors.

From the back of the Plant you’ll probably go through the truck loading bay which is one of the few parts of the Plant open to the outside world. If you’re a little higher on the status ladder you might be greeted at the Maintenance shop. Almost every Plant large enough has a special area where Truck Drivers are required to wait as their vehicles are loaded or unloaded; in the pecking order of Food Plants Drivers are about as low as you can get. Though the parsing of status can get finer than my short-time senses are able to distinguish, I’d say Company Drivers (that is, those who work for the Plant itself or its owners) are about on the same plane as clean-up workers. Outside Drivers are esteemed lower still.

The Plant itself will be a series of large, high-ceilinged, smooth-walled, climate-controlled rooms. As at a chemical Plant, but for totally different reasons, there is a dress code; and similarly, the requirements vary widely as well as the level of enforcement of the rules that do exist. On days when the Plant is running, the environment in these rooms will vary from “room-temperature” to Arctic.

Nearly all Food Plants are laid out on a single level. Bare metal staircases are common for climbing up or over machinery, but actual architectural staircases leading to a different building level are very rare. In a small facility the offices might be overhead, or there might be a small upper area housing equipment that feeds a tall packing machine or where cardboard boxes are assembled and dropped into chutes feeding the main floor. But Food is heavy, and in many Plants the processing equipment is frequently rearranged. Any place a forklift can’t go is severely purpose-restricted.

There is one exception to this. Sufficiently well-to-do Plants have drop ceilings made of metal-foam-metal laminated panels. From below, these are simply nice clean ceilings through which electrical, hydraulic, and pneumatic services magically drop where they are needed. The panels are suspended from the real ceiling by wire or all-thread, creating a walk-in space where a jungle of pipe and wiring are kept neatly out of sight. One of the most terrifying experiences I have ever had in my job was walking around in one of these ceiling spaces, knowing that just a couple of pieces of sheet metal and six inches of plastic foam were all that kept me from a nasty fall. Those panels are easy to clean and great insulators but they suck as flooring, because they’re very light and move all the time. And oh yes, rats can eat the insulation out from between the panels, invisibly weakening them.

Back on the ground some Plants have hallways, which always seem to end up constricted with supplies like pallets of boxes and packing material. In other Plants you have to walk through a maze of rooms, around all kinds of other processing equipment, often under or over working production lines just to get to some particular job. Some Plants have spacious open areas, while others are so crammed with processing equipment that moving around them at all is a challenge.

The Nature of the Business

The fundamental difference between Processing and Manufacturing was summed up for me some years ago by a Food Plant Manager. In Manufacturing, he explained, you take in many kinds of raw materials to assemble a lot of identical items for sale. In Processing, you take in a lot of very similar source items and, especially if they are animals, you take them apart to create a variety of items for sale which can vary on a daily basis depending on which machines you decide to use in the taking-apart process.

This has all kinds of subtle implications.

The Manufacturer can lay out specifications for his raw materials; even a mine will sort material to a certain grade before feeding it to processing machinery. As a result, manufacturing machinery tends not to change a lot once it’s installed and working. But the raw input to a Food Plant is a series of variable individuals. Despite the staunchest efforts at controlled breeding and factory farming chicken and catfish and pigs and cows arrive at the Plant with variations. Some are larger than others, some are pecked or bitten or abused, some are diseased, and some are already dead (and these can’t be sold to you for human consumption, thus the absurd-sounding requirement that cows be able to walk into the slaughterhouse).

Even when everything goes right a Plant might get a run from a farmer who grew perfectly sized 6.5 lb chickens, followed on by a truck from another whose chickens consistently attained 7.2 lb. Two different catfish farmers will bring in fish averaging the same weight, but the second will yield less meat because they’re older fish that were fed less. You don’t want to pay these two farmers the same if you can help it.

Vegetables are easier at the Plant level; most of the unpleasantness occurs out in the picking fields. Vegetables themselves don’t tend to get taken apart in grotesque ways by their processors, and they sit still better for automated approaches. Nowadays tomatoes are sorted for ripeness by an optical color scanner. It automatically boots an enormous pile of heartbreakingly bright red fruit into the dumpster because it can tell that they will be rotten by the time they get to market.

But this doesn’t automatically mean vegetarian Food Plants are pleasant places to be. Often the characteristics which make plants attractive to our taste originated as defense mechanisms. Imagine being in a room full of cut-up onions or cayenne peppers and you’ll see what I mean. I’ve been there, and unless you’re acclimated to the irritants in the air it’s not pretty.

As they deal with the variability of their source materials, Food Plants also labor under the requirements of their customers, many of whom are manufacturers wanting an unnatural degree of consistency for their own purposes. Fast Food outlet commissaries are particularly demanding in this regard, because nobody wants customer A to feel cheated because Customer B got a monster chicken nugget while A got only lightweights. In fact, one anonymous retailer of chicken parts in red-and-white buckets is so picky that one anonymous Icelandic vendor of processing equipment whose name begins with “M” flatly refuses to even try to meet their accuracy requirements, and says so up-front in their sales pitches to processors.

Meanwhile, for decades a ubiquitous vendor of hamburgers with a vaguely Irish name refused to put tomatoes on its burgers because it could not guarantee a completely uniform experience for its customers both in and out of tomato season. Although they finally relented under intense competitive pressure from a royally-themed competitor, I don’t know whether this was a total cave-in or if some technological advance was involved.

When animals are the source material, those employees that stay more than a week on the job get used to the rankness of pools of blood and the little bits of intestine and occasional small organs littering the floor of the big smooth-walled rooms. Here there are no euphemisms about “taking the source materials apart.” The place where the source materials go from being live animals to dead meat is almost always called the Kill Floor, and the statistic from which all other statistics flow is the Daily Kill. As in,

Hey buddy, your fuckin lyin machine says we only killed two hunnerd twennny thousand but {some guy} back in Debone says we killed three hunnerd thou easy, can you figger that?

From the floor sweepers to the managers, nobody in the Food Plant thinks ill of the idea of Killing (their source animals at least). They do not Kill indiscriminately; and like any predator, they only Kill so that they (and by extension we their customers) may live. Food Plants are in fact perfect Predators on a scale that teeny little drooly or techno-wonk movie Aliens can only think about in bad dreams. Food Plants kill with a ruthless efficiency that is truly awe-inspiring. It is not unusual for a Food Plant staffed by a few hundred human employees to not only kill several hundred thousand chickens in one day but to also render them into halves, quarters, tenders, breasts, drumsticks, wings, and to selectively bread, freeze, and even cook some of those products before pricing, tray-packing, and then bulk-packing the trays for shipment to your grocer. It is an amazing technical feat, and the tiny little desire each chicken or catfish or cow might have to live on for its own purpose has no bearing on it at all.

The Dress Code, Sanitation, and Hazards

If safety is the holy grail of dress and conduct in a chemical plant, in the Food Plant it’s sanitation. Safety figures in too, and is generally regarded as having the higher priority, but most of the hazards are obvious and avoidable. But sanitation is both a regulatory and public relations hot-button. It’s also hard to maintain. You cannot look at a piece of stainless steel that’s about to be touched by someone’s future dinner, and readily tell that it was just touched by a hand that was recently used to stow a flu-germ-laden handkerchief. Everything must be clean, and when it gets unclean or is even suspected of being unclean you have to be able to clean it in a hurry. This requirement drives both clothing and machinery design.

In the US if you want to visit a processing area you will have to wear a hair net and, if you have a beard, a beard net to contain any stray hairs. You are also required to wash your hands, and in most facilities to wear rubber gloves if you actually touch food. You may also be required to wear rubber boots (especially in places that sell to Russia, where this is a particular requirement for some reason). In places some you must wear a smock over your street clothing. And you will have to wear more elaborate impermeable gear in certain jobs.

Unlike the garb required by chemical plants, like Nomex coveralls, these items aren’t for your protection; they’re for the public who doesn’t want to catch your cold from the catfish nugget you filleted.

Corporate altruism isn’t driving this concern for your health. In the United States it’s the USDA, which got its regulatory teeth because of Upton Sinclair’s early 20th-century muckraking masterpiece The Jungle, a thoroughly disgusting account of Sinclair’s experiences working in the slaughterhouses of Chicago.

For your protection you may be required to wear earplugs because the machinery can be ridiculously loud, but most of the danger to you as a worker comes from much more obvious things.

Food Plants are equipped with a lot of equipment designed to slice, crush, and rend flesh; and to do this very quickly in large quantities. There is no way to put a safety interlock on one of these machines that says “oops, human flesh.” Even seemingly benign things like conveyor belts can take a finger or arm if you get caught on them.

The other major safety hazard has to do with electricity. In a place where water gets into everything, it’s bad that “everything” can include electrical plugs and distribution boxes, some carrying 480VAC. If the wet spot happens to reach from a live wire to your body, it can kill you.

The sanitation requirements extend to machinery. After a busy shift of slicing, sorting, crushing, and conveying raw dripping bloody meat, any self-respecting machine needs to be washed. Machines like injectors, deheaders, portioners, and automatic filleters which take animals inside them to do their work must be thoroughly washed both inside and out. This is a fundamental design requirement for any machine in a Food Plant, and every single day machines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars are taken apart to a degree you’d usually consider frightening if you owned something worth that much money.

At the same time, if those machines have electronics or motors or power distribution boxes (many operating at 240 or 480 volts) they must be protected from the very water that is necessary to keep the food-contact parts clean. This is an ever-present tension in Food Plant equipment design, for which there are no truly reliable solutions.

The Pecking Order

If you read my previous Chemical Plant piece you may have noticed I didn’t say much about the workers. That’s because chemical plants don’t really have very many workers; the automation lets a relatively small crew run the place, and this in turn allows the company to pay pretty good wages and look for skilled workers for the positions that do exist. There is a hierarchy but it’s barely visible unless you work there an awful lot.

Food Plants are different. From the smallest shrimp processor to the mighty transnational giants, the variability of living things makes automation a problem. So they have a lot of workers, the majority of whom are at the bottom of the hierarchy.

I’ve already mentioned Truck Drivers, who are widely held in contempt for being incapable of finding “better” work. (I don’t share this view, but it’s one I often encounter.) Getting past the Trucker’s Lounge into the plant proper, there are a few guidelines you can keep in mind if you can’t find your Field Guide to Plant Workers:

  1. All office work is higher status than any Plant work.
  2. The more elaborate protective or sanitary gear your job requires you to wear, the lower your status.
  3. Working night is lower in status than working day, and working odd hours (e.g. almost all non-office jobs) is lower in status than working 9 to 5.
  4. A job that leaves you free to move around is higher in status than one that requires you to stand or sit at a station for hours on end.
  5. If you’re free to visit restricted areas of the Plant such as the Maintenance shop, Parts room, or Quality Assurance lab at will, it puts you above those who must stay out.
  6. If you are free to move from the Plant proper to the front Office at will, you are higher in status than someone stuck out in the Plant.
  7. If you have a workspace to call your own where you can hang pictures of your family, it’s juice.
  8. If you have a private office even out in the Plant, you are almost among the Office gods. If you have a private office in the front Office you are probably getting pretty steamed about this article about now.
  9. Making more money is obviously a status enhancer, but significantly it’s not as important as the other factors.

Keeping all this in mind, let’s start at the bottom.

In the middle of the night, after two busy production shifts, quiet rooms wait with machines that are carefully disassembled in some ways, yet buttoned up in others. The cleanup crew arrives, dressed from head to toe in brightly-colored heavy insulated rubber jumpsuits, hoods, and masks. They make two passes. For the first they are armed with guns that fire disinfectant foam, and their mission is to cover every exposed surface. The foam will be allowed to settle, and they will return armed with 600 PSI hot water jets. Their mission is to get rid of the foam, which remember is supposed to cover every exposed surface.

Sanitation crews are the bottom of the hierarchy in a Food Plant, and they know it; in some places they are even outside contractors. You can’t really blame them for occasionally “accidentally” hosing down a contractor like me (bonus points if I’m using a laptop computer!), or using the high pressure hose to very thoroughly test the sealing surfaces on some supposedly watertight electronic gear. Since they are told very seriously that their mission is to reach every nook and cranny and that they’ll be in big trouble if they miss a spot, sanitation guys are known for climbing on everything, blasting everything in sight, and generally causing a hell of a lot of damage.

Later, after the machines are reassembled and repaired if necessary, the Line Operators will arrive. These are the people who stand at a station all day long cutting breast fillets from chickens on a cone line or finishing the incomplete filleting job a Baader machine started at a catfish plant. These are the most numerous employees at most Food Plants. It’s a low-paying job with no security because people like me are always waiting in the wings to replace you with automation. It’s Repetitive Stress Injury hell, and you get major grief from yield-conscious supervisors for even going to the bathroom at the wrong time. (Until recently a lot of places simply forbade you to take unscheduled rest breaks, a practice which the US labor authorities have sensibly judged to be a bit over the top.)

The major difference between Chemical Plant culture and Food Plant culture has to do with the numerical preponderance of Line Operators. If the Starship Enterprise were to beam up a random worker from a Chemical Plant they would probably get a maintenance guy. From a Food Plant they would almost certainly get a Line Operator. They might be low-paid dead-enders, but their sheer numbers guarantee that you can’t ignore these people if you work in their Plant. If you eat in the commissary, you will be surrounded by them. If you work in the Plant while it is running, you will be surrounded by them. Most of them are nice people; often they are trusted with filleting knives that would make wickedly efficient murder weapons. But if your job leaves you free to move around, much less with the promise that next week you won’t be stuck in a Food Plant, they will watch you with a gaze that reminds you all too much of Oliver Twist.

Line Operators who have put in years of dedicated service or displayed more than completely mediocre aptitude will progress to slightly less boring jobs like taking and measuring samples for Quality Assurance and being “lead” operators responsible for the adjustment of critical machines, and for pre-cleanup teardown and post-cleanup reassembly of those machines.

One other thing needs to be noted about Line people. These are of course shit jobs, and they pay shitty wages (US$7 to $9 an hour, which is a very, very hard wage to live on in the US). Although American towns tend to welcome such Plants for the employment they will bring, it’s not unusual for American workers to turn up their noses at the wages and general unpleasantness of the job. So it’s very common for these Plants to go trolling in the Third World for immigrant workers. The job any self- respecting American would reject because you can’t raise a family on $7 an hour will be eagerly grabbed by a Mexican or Marshall Islander (!wtf?) who figures that with only six roommates he can have money to go barhopping on Friday night, plus send a few thousand a year back home.

Food Plants have thus brought large immigrant communities into such unlikely places as Springdale, Arkansas and Enterprise, Alabama, to the extent that Plants have full-time translators on staff and communities that were once fully redneck-compliant have surprisingly good ethnic restaurants and car dealerships that advertise in languages other than English.

How shitty are the wages? One of the shittiest jobs in any Food Plant is Live Hang, where you physically take live chickens out of arriving trucks and hang them by their feet from the overhead moving racks that take them into the Plant. It’s hard physical work, it’s hot, and it stinks to high $DEITY. It’s also one of the most sought-after jobs in the Plant because it pays US$0.50 to US$1.00 an hour more than being a straight Line Operator.

Over the Line up you have Maintenance, which is approximately the level I operate at status-wise when I have to visit one of these places. Plant Maintenance guys have the ultimate freedom of movement, coupled with crushing responsibility. They are the guys who fix things when something goes wrong, and they’re also the ones who do the refiguring and rearranging when changes are made. They dress out for the Plant but in uniforms that aren’t optimized for food contact.

Long-time Maintenance guys may have their own little workspaces, while newer guys have to use shared work areas. In some plants the tools are communal (with elaborate sign-out procedures) and in others you own (and replace) your own as do many auto mechanics. The environment is brutal and problems are constant. Higher-up Maintenance guys get access to the Purchasing system and get small, dingy, crowded offices to call their own.

At a similar level you get the QA (Quality Assurance) people, who would be higher in status if they didn’t spend so much time out in the plant decked out for contact with food. They are almost white-collar and actually visit the front office on a regular basis. In some Plants their main shared office is even up front. They are the people who take samples, conduct tests, and generally ensure that health and quality goals are really being met. They can make decisions about stopping lines and condemning product that can cost the company big bucks. They tend to be pretty well educated, especially with regard to statistics. If you’re one of those immigrant Mexicans or Marshall Islanders brought in to fill the Line Operator ranks, QA is about as high as you can hope to get in the organization after years of hard work and self-improvement.

At about this point you cross the Office door and reach the accounting and sales people, whose positions aren’t much different than they would be in any other business. They are white-collar 9 to 5 people and so they live on a totally different plane from the Plant People who work a 5 to 3 or 4 to midnight shifts (much less Sanitation from 1 to 4 AM).

There are a couple of exceptions.

It’s usual for the Plant Manager to stay dressed out so he can make the rounds, and even to keep odd hours. It can even be hard to spot this high-ranking official in the Plant because he looks a hell of a lot like a Maintenance guy from a distance, even though he makes five times the money and has fifteen times the authority of the Maintenance guy.

Maintenance guys also break the mold in that they can work very weird hours, because a lot of maintenance stuff has to be done in the odd few hours or off days when the Plant isn’t running. This doesn’t ding their status because of their freedom of movement and the massive amounts of overtime pay they often take home.

Line Down!

Although it’s very hard to automate food processing, a lot of automation is used, especially in the chicken and seafood industries. The reason for this automation is to assure profitability while operating under razor-thin margins. Food Plants will readily pay enormous amounts of money for proven technology, which is one reason companies like mine court their business. But at every corner they are also looking to cut costs. The bizarre consequences of these cross purposes often appear at their intersection in the Maintenance shop.

When a line goes down because a machine is broken, the Plant hemorrhages money. The maintenance guys have to be ready to work on an enormous variety of machines, and to quickly repair them while Line Operators stand around staring at them and product sits unprocessed. I’ve seen Plants where these guys have enormous, unbelievably rich stores of spare parts to draw on; and I’ve seen others where parsimony in this department leaves them frantically calling contractors to have parts air-freighted or even hand delivered at enormous expense when a nasty surprise occurs.

In any case there is a strange juxtaposition at work when you pay US$350,000 for a machine, stock $50,000 worth of spare parts, and pay the people who operate it all day $8 an hour. Even the maintenance guys are not as well paid for their skills and responsibility as they would be in other industries. In a Chemical Plant I understand it’s a given that the operators and even forklift drivers probably make more money than I do; they will often even be unionized. In a Food Plant the reverse is almost always true. The end result of this tension between payroll and automation is workers who are overworked, underpaid, and subject to constant, tremendous stress.

In many Food Plants it can also be hard to find anyone willing to make a firm decision because the pressure from above makes ass-covering a wiser move than neck-sticking-out. I have had to go all the way to Plant Managers on numerous occasions to get authorization for ordering parts which were absolutely necessary to the Plant’s return to profitability.

And unfortunately, in some cases that Plant Manager is a control freak who likes this constant demonstration of groveling and fear. In many ways the Food Plant is a third-world country in microcosm, and this extends to the totalitarian decision-making structure.

Greetings, Comrade!

The largest Food Plant empires don’t just market their products to the outside world; within the Plant they market themselves to their own workers.

  1. The company Credit Union is probably your bank.
  2. At lunch, the company cafeteria is often one of the best and cheapest restaurants in town.
  3. The company store offers you even deeper discounts on bulk purchased items than Sam’s Club.
  4. Posters abound reminding you that Safety comes first.
  5. More posters remind you that it’s your duty to follow sanitation procedures, because “everyone deserves healthy food.”
  6. Still more posters remind you what a great place the Company is to work for.
  7. Some Companies offer bulk purchased vacation deals and other perks.
  8. And just to make you feel at home, everything is posted and made available in whatever languages other than English are commonly spoken within the Plant.

Overall, the impression created is that you aren’t just a citizen of Mexico or the Marshall Islands or even the USA any more; you’re a citizen of the much better, benevolent, and ubiquitous Big Food Plant Company.

Naturally the low-paid worker drones find all this propaganda offensive and stupid, but the nature of propaganda is that you don’t have to believe in it for it to be effective. If your whole existence revolves around the Plant it can be very hard to even imagine leaving for something else. And this is a major, very deliberate way they hang onto those workers despite the thoroughly depressing nature of the job.

Aside: One of my favorite Patriotic Plant posters cries out “Not even good enough for a dog!” In the Plant, any food that touches the floor can’t be sold for human consumption. There’s no five-second rule at work either; if it hits the floor, it goes in the INEDIBLE bin. But this contaminated food is sold to pet food processors who aren’t subject to the same restriction. Under the razor-thin margins of chicken plant economics, this secondary product stream can be an important source of revenue. The purpose of the poster, which shows a forlorn-looking dog eying up a bowl full of rusty parts and old gloves, is not to contaminate the contaminated product stream with stuff that’s really inedible.

Maintenance Day!

At many Plants downtime for doing real maintenance is precious; the bottom line demands that those expensive machines be kept humming, and if one is really thoroughly down in the middle of a row of four, you can’t shut down the other three to create a benign environment for fixing the one that’s hosed.

When that’s done, it can be a major event. At some Plants it can be as seldom as one day in a two week period, or even in a month if things are going well.

When it comes, the Maintenance department gets mandatory overtime all around. It’s not unusual for the whole crew to work 48 hours straight — with overtime on Saturday and doubletime on Sunday — and a hard deadline to get it all working by 1:00 AM on Monday when the cleanup guys will arrive.

It’s a little awe-inspiring to watch a bunch of mostly redneck type guys with no firm engineering background set upon a processing line worth $500,000 in the wee hours of Saturday morning and start taking it apart with cutting torches and carbide saws, all to make room for some new machine. It’s the odd flipside of the pervasive cheapness these places exhibit; for new technology that can impact the bottom line, they will spend and risk much.

I was personally involved at one Plant where the processing machines at the heart of twelve Lines — more than eight million dollars worth of equipment — were swapped out and the Lines rebuilt around the replacements during a single long 72-hour weekend. This required refiguring all the conveyors, all the usual installation hassles of brand new machines of that complexity, new electrical connections, some other smaller new systems (including one of mine) put in at the same time with their own handling considerations.

On Maintenance Day the Plant is a different place; the cavernous rooms are empty except for other Maintenance guys, and you can work in shirtsleeves. Indeed, toward Sunday afternoon the place begins to stink a bit as the bacteria in leftover scraps of meat in the drainage channels and odd corners begin to realize the refrigeration is off. Guys are everywhere (usually there are several jobs going on at once, to take maximum advantage of the down time) using saws, drills, welding torches, and paint guns. Nobody takes even the ordinary considerations as to where the inedible crap is flying because, well, it will be Cleanup’s job to deal with that. The stink of fresh welding is the most prominent smell, though solvent fumes can also build up to an amazing degree in closed spaces that are designed for refrigeration.

Somehow, the boys usually manage to put everything back together in a day or two. It helps that most things are stainless steel and so don’t have to be (and aren’t) painted; you just weld, wire-brush, and walk off. Massive “spare” supplies of raw metal stock, bearings, motors, electrical fittings, and conveyor belting also help.

It doesn’t always work, though, when the Food arrives. It’s common on startup after such a project to see Maintenace guys out there with hair nets on, eyes dragging from days without sleep, fixing bits of stainless steel sheet in place with C-clamps and other quick rigs to correct little problems that will be fixed permanently in the hour or so before the Cleanup guys arrive that night. And sometimes you see guys like me out there for days on end, working out the details of more complicated processes that can only be worked out with a steady stream of real food product to test.

Chow Down.

The first Food Plant I ever visited, on the second day of my employment with the company I still work for, was one of the most benign. It had no Kill Floor; it was a reprocessing facility that bought sides of beef and converted them into hamburger patties for a very prominent fast food chain. By Food Plant standards it was clean as a whistle, state of the art, and mostly free of little bloody gibbets of crap on the floor.

It was still a whole month before I could make myself eat another hamburger. The smell wasn’t offensive, but it was pervasive; it was just the smell of a lot of meat. The smell of death.

What doesn’t come across in this description is the visceral experience of being in a place where there is, literally, so much dead meat all around. People can get used to it; I think people can get used to damn near anything. But it’s about as far removed from the occasional chicken or pig slaughter on Grandma’s farm as a spacecraft is from a horse-and-buggy. I’m not saying it’s wrong; I like the cheap food too. It’s an amazing thing that chicken costs about the same today in absolute (not inflation-adjusted) dollars as it did when I was a child. And we have technology to thank for that. I’m glad it’s there.

But I’m also glad I know what it looks like, even if I didn’t eat hamburgers for a month after I first learned. For one thing it gave me a great appreciation for why the food seems so different when I visit a place like Trinidad or the rural area around Veracruz where they don’t have these economies of scale. It seems unlikely, but just as a cabinet made from hand-selected wood by a craftsman will not be the same as one stamp-constructed out of particle board laminate, the chicken that is raised in a barnyard isn’t the same as one grown from genetically growth-optimized stock in a closed building and trucked to a closed facility to be mass-processed along with 100,000 other chickens a day. I’ve learned to appreciate such food when I can have it.

In the places I live and frequent you can’t get it very often.



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