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What is a Meat Plant?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

A meat plant is a place where meat is cut, handled, packaged, and shipped to homes, restaurants, and supermarkets in local or distant regions. The meat usually comes in as cattle, hogs, or other livestock and slaughtering is handled at the plant. After slaughtering the animals, the meat is then prepared for distribution intended for human consumption. In the United States (US), meat plants operate under governance from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) after decades of controversy and investigation of various practices and conditions within meat-packing plants.

The early years of the 20th century had little oversight in the US on how a meat plant was run, and accordingly there were numerous abuses of workers and cases of unsanitary conditions. When The Jungle was written by Upton Sinclair and published in 1906, readers were shocked and outraged by the details of how the workers were treated and by the unsanitary conditions of the plants. In the years that followed, workers at the massive urban plants unionized and formed the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) under the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The UPWA managed to redress many of the issues that had made working conditions so miserable for the meat plant workers.

Meat department at a grocery store.
Meat department at a grocery store.

In the US, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) within the USDA periodically inspects meat plants to ensure that conditions are sanitary and that the meat that comes out of the plant is safe to eat. This includes testing for Escherichia coli (E. coli) and other harmful bacteria that can sometimes contaminate foods processed at a large meat plant. These FSIS inspections are mandatory and funded by taxpayer dollars in the US. Meat packing plants can also utilize optional grading of meat to indicate quality to consumers at markets or in restaurants. This grading is reliant on the meat plant for funding and involves a licensed federal grader who inspects and grades the meat.

There are also specific types of meat plants, such as kosher meat plants, that prepare meats in specialized ways according to kosher eating traditions. These processes do not include any blessing of the foods or religious ceremony, but instead indicate that the animal is slaughtered in specific ways and that the meat was handled according to ancient laws and regulations. The practices are so sanitary that many such meat plants do not undergo evaluations by the USDA as rigorous as other meat packing plants. To work in a kosher meat plant, someone typically needs a great deal of specialized knowledge regarding the proper handling of the food.

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    • Meat department at a grocery store.
      By: Kondor83
      Meat department at a grocery store.