The Anthropology Of Meat Production
Industrialization is the process by which an economy is changed from being mainly agricultural to one based on the manufacturing of goods. However, industrial meat production is different from making products such as cars or computers. It is impossible to view it in purely economic terms. The huge amount of death associated with meat production automatically sets it apart, along with the effect that it has on people involved in turning live animals into meat, as well as on the environment.
This article is a fascinating review of anthropological research around various aspects of industrial meat production over the last 30 years. It has global relevance, as large scale animal farming and killing become common in many countries across the world.
The review looks at three strands of anthropological research – what industrialization did to farmers and other workers; how meat became a political issue, with problems around violence and changing animal biology; and new ways of viewing meat production, including the people and animals involved.
The authors begin by noting how the industrialization of meat production was, in many ways, a foundational aspect of broader industrialization: meatpacking plants and their “disassembly lines” served as inspiration for assembly lines in car manufacturing. Examples are provided to show how large companies consolidated the industry, pushed butchers out, reduced the power of unions, and lowered reliance on skilled workers. We also see how these companies changed rural communities, which came to depend on the work provided by these firms. The companies then used contractors and migrant workers to lower wages, avoid paying benefits, and counteract the huge number of people leaving the industry. The authors make the case that meat production is being further industrialized in different ways, depending on the social, political, and religious situation of the region, including mass consolidation of the industry.
The review goes on to explore studies that discuss the ethics of undercover research at slaughterhouses. One study examines slaughterhouses in France from a view other than pure financial gain. It points out that such places deal with how a society thinks about death, with people wanting to believe that meat is just another product, not something obtained by killing a live animal. A U.S. study highlights how filming in slaughterhouses has been criminalized, showing how intensely events at slaughterhouses are monitored. This study also highlights how slaughterhouses and their processes are set up in a way that allows workers to avoid thinking about the killing they do, and their responsibility for these deaths.
The review further outlines research that covers new and changing issues around turning animals into meat at industrial levels, showing how ever-larger numbers of animals, and more species, are being used for potential mass production. The author explores one theory that proposes treating animals as workers as well, which would then take into account their feelings, injuries, and biological changes, enabling research and policy changes along the same lines as human exploitation issues.
The review explores another line of research focused on the diseases caused by intensifying animal farming, including diseases passing from animals to humans. Viewing industrial meat production beyond the usual focus on meat itself shows us that the industry’s profits also come from other products made from animals, such as glue, drugs, biodiesel, and pet food.
Looking at meat production from these angles, or others such as the land used for animal feed, or antibiotic resistance, can provide us with an understanding of the different ways in which industrial meat production changes the world. This type of scholarship can provide animal advocates with new ideas, allies, and methods of campaigning, beyond a focus on reducing or eliminating meat from the consumer’s diet.