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Inside Our Nation's Pig Consumption

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Photo:Green Fire Productions/Flickr/Creative Commons License 

 

Here's a fun exercise: For the next 24 hours -- starting whenever you read this sentence -- keep track of every pork product you run across. This means every slice of ham, every bit of pork sausage, and of course, so help us all, good Lord, every strip of bacon you encounter. Every. Strip. You. See.

If you make it halfway through the day-long experiment without throwing in the towel, you're a stronger person than I.

See: We Americans love nothing more than our pork products. We love our spare ribs, our pork bellies, our chops, our rinds, our tenderloins, our casings. And, my goodness, we love our bacon. (Even if it means we no may longer have the need for birth control, because of how much we eat.) In the hipster world of ironic curly-cued mustaches and fixies, there isn't a more hip meat. In the world of testosterone-crazed dudes complaining about the "wussification of America," there's no manlier treat. On average, Americans consume around 50 pounds of pork a year, and it doesn't look like that number's getting smaller anytime soon. Which makes this in-depth piece over at Bloomberg about the safety issues behind our nation's largest pork processing plants such a harrowing read.

As the piece points outs, the pork industry has experienced a 33% jump in production over the past decade alone, most of which can be traced to two subtle changes in government policy: Lowering the number of food safety inspectors, and permitting certain huge pork conglomerates to accelerate the time of their "processing." (As in, slaughtering.) As the piece notes, the idea was a sound one at the start:

If plants hired their own quality-assurance officers to sort out diseased carcasses and parts before they reached government inspectors, then, proponents theorized, there would be fewer carcasses for the USDA to inspect and reject. This weed-out of diseased animals earlier in the process would reduce the chance of food contamination; it would also allow plants the flexibility to devise their own inspection processes, rather than adhering to rigid cookie-cutter requirements; and, best of all, these efficiencies would streamline production, reducing the cost of pork for consumers.

But when you're dealing with any process on that scale, there's going to be mistakes, and mistakes there have been.

The worst offender has been Quality Pork Processors plant in Austin, Minnesota, where, in the calendar year 2012 alone, there were: 60 instances of "contamination," code-word for fecal matter and other, non-edible pig parts being accidentally mixed in; 69 cases of "pre-operational sanitation" problems, meaning the surfaces that contact food aren't all that clean; 46 instances of "operational sanitation," meaning workers are having a tough time following that "wash your hands" rule; and many, many more violations.

But Quality Pork Producers is a bit of an outlier. That company had a total of 223 violations (.61 a day, for you math nerds out there) over the year, which was more than the other four largest pork processing plants combined. More common is a plant like Hormel Foods in Fremont, Nebraska, the place where Spam is created (a little tidbit for all of you trivia buffs out there) and where some 10,500 hogs are slaughtered every day. (To give you some sense of scale, in the five seconds it took for you to read the last sentence, two pigs were killed.) They only had 50 total violations over the same time span. But, again, when you're working with huge scales like that, you're going to come across cases that, frankly, you may not want to know about.

For instance, this:

A Fremont worker, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals in the workplace, describes a recent incident involving a "gut snatcher," the person responsible for pulling innards from the abdominal cavity. One day last year, the snatcher still had one of his hands inside the carcass when a saw cut through the spine of the animal and sliced off four of his fingers. "I think he lose two of these," the witness says, pointing to his middle and ring fingers. Then as if an afterthought, he adds that he too has lost part of a finger--the tip of his left pinkie--to a rib cutter. And his wife also lost her index finger, severed by a fat trimmer. In every case, he says, "they washed it up but never stopped production.

Which isn't meant to get all Upton Sinclair on you and ruin your lunch. It's more meant to show the trade-off when dealing with anything produced on such a mass scale. If you end up getting a computer that was thrown together on an assembly line, every now and then you're going to get one that doesn't work. Buy socks that were produced by Chinese sweatshop labor, occasionally you'll get one with a hole. And if you eat factory-farmed mass-production pork? Maybe, just maybe, once in awhile, you'll be eating part of Fred's finger.

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