Critical geographies of meat?

Sean Gillonby Sean Gillon, University of Wisconsin – Madison

Several years ago, I signed up for a meat industry newsletter for research purposes.  I became accustomed to unsettling news about meat contamination and recalls, as well as to sanguine analysis of industry acquisitions and mergers.  A recent headline declaring “Worker found dead at Smithfield pork plant” was unusually startling (Fielding 2012).  While cleaning a tank at a Smithfield pig processing facility in North Carolina, a 26-year-old succumbed to the methane-laced fumes of manure and meat-processing plant waste.  How, I wondered, have critical geographers engaged the meat industry in ways that might help us understand and address this incident?

In one of the few geographical accounts of meat industry labor catastrophes, David Harvey (1996) discusses a 1991 fire in a North Carolina chicken slaughterhouse.  Many of those working in the factory were unable to escape the flames and fumes because fire doors and exits were locked.  25 died and over 200 were injured in a meat industry tragedy that received remarkably little media or political attention.  Harvey suggests this tragedy was, in part, due to an erosion of class-based political power.  Workers were simply not able to protect themselves against the interests of a meat-processing industry grown increasingly politically influential as it consolidated – Smithfield, for example, slaughters one in four US pigs.  Harvey also implicates the dismantling of unions, in step with more general attacks on state social support and industry regulation.  Meanwhile, meat-processing plants moved away from organized urban centers toward rural areas with dispersed labor sources and increasingly rely on vulnerable immigrant labor (currently more than 70% of the workforce).

Imperial Foods plant, Hamlet, North Carolina (from Wikimedia Commons)Meat industry firms have complementarily increased their leverage against farm labor by using less and less favorable contracts and purchasing arrangements as their economic power has consolidated.  To remain competitive, farms have also consolidated: between 1950 and 2005, US pig production increased from 80 to 100 million pigs annually, while the number of pig farms decreased from two million to 73,600.  Jody Emel and Harvey Neo (2011) describe numerous social and ecological consequences of growing industrial livestock production – from greenhouse gas emissions to the economic and ecological costs of meat-processing companies’ continuous search for exploitable rural labor and environments.

With Roberta Hawkins, Emel has also argued that these consequences require response.  They advocate for collective action on meat consumption reduction through institutional mechanisms, like Meatless Mondays, which several universities have adopted as a way to systematically reduce consumption.  They write: “Meat is hegemonic, its pervasiveness deriving from a political order.  Dismantling this political order cannot be done through a sort of Habermasian democratic exercise, but through an agnostic politics” (Emel and Hawkins 2010: 44).  Demonstrating the insight of a critical geographic perspective, the authors focus on the institutional conditions of consumption, rather than explaining consumption as the aggregation of individuals’ market decisions, which apparently legitimize industrial meat.  Cheap, industrial meat is not simply the product of individualized consumer choices, but is mediated by numerous social institutions: livestock feed subsidies; meat-heavy federal nutritional guidelines; brutal slaughtering practices and working conditions making for efficient, profitable meat production; multi-million dollar advertising campaigns; policy support for intensified animal production; and the externalization of social and environmental harms.

Many recent efforts for change, however, are a bit more narrowly focused on improving personal consumption and ecological questions than those surrounding institutions, labor, and the economic heart of meat firms.  This may be of very practical significance: reducing consumption, or paying more for higher quality and potentially less exploitatively produced meat, may be the most feasible and near-term effective option for redressing high-cost but cheap meat production.  Likewise, that ecological questions rank as important is not without cause.  A UN report (FAO 2006) pegs the livestock sector’s greenhouse gas contribution at 18% of the global total and its total land use at 30% of the earth’s ice-free terrestrial surface (cited in Emel and Neo 2011).  Although receiving less attention, meat industry workers continue to labor in unsafe conditions as their economic opportunity diminishes.  The rate of non-fatal injury in the meat industry is two times higher than in all other manufacturing and real wages have consistently declined (see Nebraska Appleseed 2009).

I think critical geographical analysis could contribute significantly in focusing discussion on the persistent marginalization of often immigrant meat industry labor.  Nik Heynen writes about radical geography based in material realities of survival – breathing, eating, and living, or not. He proposes a “radical geography that is back to basics, a radical geography that is about sustained bodily existence at its root, at its core” (2006: 919).  He emphasizes the insights of political economy: “…uneven development has everything to do with the ability of communities to socially reproduce and for individuals to survive” (2006: 921-922).  Unfortunately, meeting the nutritional and economic needs or interests of some with meat has created contradictory biopolitical and economic problems, given an industry that thrives on putting vulnerable lives in life-threatening places.

A radical politics of survival suggests a more direct engagement with the apparently unrelenting pressure faced by meat industry workers (not to mention animals) than a politics of consumption might allow, particularly its manifestation as a politics of individual consumer choice.  Some of those persuaded to oppose the meat industry will reduce meat consumption and some who can afford more ethically produced meat will purchase it, but the production of cheap meat under generally deteriorating working conditions is likely to persist if not directly challenged.  Natalie Purcell (2011) argues that exploitative, dangerous working environments make violent human-animal relationships in the meat industry possible.  This suggests that addressing working conditions may help confront deteriorating animal welfare, as well as the political economic configuration of the industry.  Like Emel and Hawkins she points to institutional change for redress, but focuses more on production, processing, and regulatory frameworks than on consumption and institutional purchasing.

In closing, I’ll point to several recent US institutional and regulatory issues that I think a critical geographical approach might inform as focal points for practicing a radical politics of survival: 1) Debates over immigrant labor, immigration enforcement raids, workers’ wage and rights erosion, and increasingly unsafe working conditions in meat processing plants; 2) Currently undermined efforts to end preferential treatment of large farms by meat purchasers; 3) State laws that restrict corporate ownership of livestock, a precursor to often-exploitative contract farming; 4) State “ag gag laws” that criminalize employee documentation of animal production/processing facility conditions (see Carlson 2012); and 5) US Food and Drug Administration regulation of antibiotic use in livestock production (see Harris 2012).


Carlson C (2012) The ag gag laws: Hiding factory farm abuses from public scrutiny. The Atlantic 20 March (last accessed 15 May 2012)

Emel J and Neo H (2011) Killing for profit: Global livestock industries and their socio-ecological implications. In Peet R, Watts M and Robbins P (eds) Global Political Ecology (pp67-83). London: Routledge

Emel J and Hawkins R (2010) Is it really easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of industrial meat? Human Geography 3(2):35-48

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) (2006) Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options (last accessed 4 April 2012)

Fielding M (2012) Worker found dead at Smithfield pork plant. (last accessed 4 April 2012)

Harris G (2012) Steps set for livestock antibiotic ban. The New York Times 23 March (last accessed 15 May 2012)

Harvey D (1996) Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference. Oxford: Blackwell

Heynen N (2006) “But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only”: Radicalism as survival. Antipode 38(5):916-929

Nebraska Appleseed (2009) The Speed Kills You: The Voice of Nebraska’s Meatpacking Workers (last accessed 4 April 2012)

Purcell N (2011) Cruel intimacies and risky relationships: Accounting for suffering in industrial livestock production. Society and Animals 19:59-81