'Slaughterhouse Blues,' professor's book on meat industry features Garden City

Fifteen 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 media. … 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 writes.

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 settle down?'"

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 similar challenges.

"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 industrialization."

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."

Contact Us | Privacy Policy | KU Home Page | Kansas Alumni Association
KU Endowment | KU Athletics | KU Bookstore