'Slaughterhouse Blues,' professor's book on meat industry
features Garden City
years ago, over a lunch of juicy hamburgers in Wichita,
a KU anthropologist and a social geographer launched
a collaborative study of today's meat and poultry industry
and its impact on employees and the communities where
they live and work.
"We have hungrily studied the people and places
that produce our meat and poultry ever since,"
write Don Stull, KU anthropologist, and Michael Broadway,
Northern Michigan University social geographer, in their
new book, Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry
Industry in North America (Wadsworth). Published
this summer, Slaughterhouse Blues is written
for a general audience and is the first comprehensive
treatment of the industry by social scientists. Eric
Schlosser, author of the best-selling Fast Food Nation,
wrote the foreword.
When they met for lunch in Wichita in 1986, neither
Stull nor Broadway, then teaching at Wichita State University,
knew much about the meat industry. But that would change.
Their luncheon host, a mutual friend from Garden City,
had invited them to consider a study of Vietnamese refugees
who were coming to western Kansas to work in beef plants.
After participating in a two-year study of Garden City
funded by the Ford Foundation, Stull and Broadway conducted
similar research in Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, Oklahoma
and Canada. Today their work is recognized for its depth
of research experience and geographic range.
Schlosser says, "Slaughterhouse Blues looks
at how the North American meatpacking industry has been
transformed since the early 1970s-without most people
realizing it. Slaughterhouses are now located in rural
areas that rarely get much attention from the national
Most Americans live in cities or suburbs
and have little idea where their food comes from."
Slaughterhouse Blues demonstrates that "much
like industrial polluters in the days before environmental
laws, today's meatpacking companies are now imposing
their business costs on the rest of the nation.
When all the social costs are tallied, our cheap meat
is much more expensive than we can afford," Schlosser
The book includes a historical perspective on the meat
industry and industrialized agriculture. Separate chapters
explore the development of modern beef, poultry and
pork production. The authors tour a beef packing plant
in Kansas and take part in a branding on the Flying
V ranch in western Nebraska. They explore how chickens
moved from the barnyard to the factory in western Kentucky,
and they attend hearings on whether massive hog farms
should be allowed in Alberta, Canada.
The authors examine the wages and working conditions
in meat and poultry plants in a chapter titled "The
Human Price of Our Meat." Recent salaries for line
workers range from $18,720 to $23,296 a year in a southwest
Kansas beef plant and from $14,144 to $16,120 in a Kentucky
chicken plant. Since the 1970s, occupational injuries
and illnesses among meat processing workers have been
three times greater than the rate in manufacturing overall.
Interviews with poultry line workers candidly expose
the risks of work on meat and poultry lines and how
workers cope with difficult and dangerous working conditions.
The scholars' research reveals that corporate meatpacking
plants bring not only rapid population growth to rural
communities but also increases in poverty and crime
and new demands for housing, education, and social and
health services. In a chapter titled "Garden City,
Kansas: Trophy Buckle on the Beef Belt," the authors
note, "Towns such as Lexington, Neb.; Guymon, Okla.;
and Brooks, Alberta, look to her and ask 'Will it ever
Based on Garden City's experiences in the 1990s, Stull
and Broadway say the answer is no. Yet they believe
Garden City not only is "the grand dame of meatpacking
communities" but it also offers hope to towns facing
"We have learned much from the people of Garden
City and been inspired by them," say the authors.
"By offering to its new immigrants a positive context
of reception, Garden City has shown other communities
how to meet the challenges of rapid growth and rural
In the book's final chapter, "Food for Thought,"
the authors offer perspective from another country.
They explain that New Zealand's meat industry is now
dominated by "a new generation of small, technologically
advanced firms that owe their success to higher worker
productivity, better designed plants, lower employee
turnover, and an ability to produce, market and export
high-quality safe products."
Stull and Broadway say: "We may or may not be
what we eat, but what we eat has real consequences for
workers, communities and the environment. And whether
we eat meat or not, knowing more about the meat industry's
impact on our diet and our lives behooves us all."