In the May issue of Harper’s magazine, Ted Conover, a longtime undercover and participatory journalist, details his job as an undercover federal meat inspector at an industrial slaughterhouse. Conover talks to Brooke about meat safety, going undercover and why it's necessary to bring a hidden world to life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A few weeks ago we discovered the latest wave of so-called ag gag bills that would bar undercover journalists and advocacy groups from publishing images of abuse and illegality at industrial food processing facilities. It’s a conversation that always invokes Upton Sinclair's 1906 book, The Jungle. Here's a bit from the audiobook read by Casey Affleck.
CASEY AFFLECK/READING: What they wanted from a hog was all the profits that could be got out of him; and that was what they wanted from the workingman, and also that was what they wanted from the public. What the hog thought of it, and what he suffered, were not considered; and no more was it with labor, and no more with the purchaser of meat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, Sinclair intended his thoroughly researched novel to be an indictment of turn-of-the-century labor practices in the Chicago stockyards, but it wasn't the plight of labor that horrified the nation. It was the depiction of unsafe food production. In fact, our system of food safety inspectors, including USDA meat inspectors, owes its existence to The Jungle. The Jungle also inspired journalist Ted Conover, who’s previously gone undercover as a Sing-Sing prison guard and joined human smugglers crossing the Mexican border. In the May issue of Harper's, you can read his nuanced account of his latest undercover venture, as a federal meat inspector at the Cargill Plant in Schuyler, Nebraska.
Lest you think that being an inspector offers a critical distance from the butchering of thousands of cattle a day, Conover quickly learned that his job entailed slicing into and laying his hands on the heads, livers and hearts of our beef supply.
TED CONOVER: So these [LAUGHS] are parts of the animal which contain pieces, especially lymph nodes, that can tell about disease. And using a hook, you slice open the cheek and you cut into the lymph nodes, and you're looking for infection. And you do the same on the tongue. And if everything's okay, you wait 10 seconds until the next one comes in front of you. If you're new, it's hard. It’s hard to do the cutting well, it’s hard to keep your knife sharp, it's hard to do it fast. And I was quite inept.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me about livers and plucks.
TED CONOVER: [LAUGHS] Livers was my favorite post because livers are easy to cut. The first cut you make into the liver is into the bile duct, and you're looking for liver flukes, which are shaped like giant Parameciums. They’re like half an inch long, with cilia around the edge, and they’re actually alive, and they get into cows through infected water. And if the liver has one of those, you stamp it and then it goes into cat food. People can't eat that, but pets can. Then you make another cut into the lymph nodes on the other side of the liver, but you also run your gloved hand over it because the thing about livers is they get abscesses inside, and the livers are like 10, 15, up to 20 pounds. And often you feel something bad, and then you’d give it two stamps and then it gets rendered, and that's not suitable for anything. And, you know, two thirds of them have abscesses. It's really horrific and disturbing to look at, and I didn't know what that was about until –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, there was somebody standing there who you hadn't seen before, a, a tall woman with a, a clipboard –
TED CONOVER: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - who was neither an inspector, nor a worker, nor a manager.
TED CONOVER: Right, but she's watching us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Watching the watchers!
TED CONOVER: I know! It made me a little uneasy, and I said to my coworker, I said, who’s that? And she said, oh, she works for Eli Lilly. I said, oh, the drug manufacturer. And I went and talked to her, and I said, what are you doing? And she said, well, there’s a correlation between the quantity of antibiotics in the cattle diet and the presence of abscess in the liver. This medicine to keep animals healthy, it helps them grow really fast, but it's given in such high doses – 70% of the antibiotics made in this country go into livestock - it makes him sick. Their livers get messed up trying to filter it out. That turned me off, meat, I must say.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You and your colleagues took this job very seriously.
TED CONOVER: Yes!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And there’s this incredible moment in your piece when your fellow inspectors in the break room are watching video, that was captured by an advocacy group, of abuses at a different industrial livestock facility. Could you describe your colleagues’ reactions?
TED CONOVER: Somebody was reading the Omaho newspaper and saw that a new hidden video of this farm in Idaho, a dairy farm, had captured all this terrible abuse, and one of the supervisors went and called it up on his browser.
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And we all crowded around to watch.
Cattle hit with plastic canes, cattle with broken legs being made to walk, cattle being kicked. And I was really curious to hear the inspectors’ reactions because, on the one hand, the inspectors tend to be farm people. They’re from this part of the world. A lot of them grew up with animals. They don't have some of the romantic notions about humanely-raised beef that city people sometimes have, and which I have also heard them mock. But they know cruelty when they see it, and none of them pooh-poohed it. I was pleased because Schuyler’s is just 3,000 people and everybody's job depends on the plant, and you worry about inspectors sort of cozying up, right, to the corporate entity there? I was really looking for that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, that’s what I was going to ask.
You said you were really pleased to see how committed they were to the job they were doing, but as a journalist?
TED CONOVER: [LAUGHS] I was disappointed!
But [LAUGHS] that's life. You’ve got to call as you see it, and they were conscientious.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One thing that your piece conveys so strongly, not unlike your experience as a prison guard, is the slow, steady toll of the work –
TED CONOVER: Mm –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - on the inspectors.
TED CONOVER: I feel bad complaining about it because the workers on the floor have it worse. They don't get to rotate their job during the day and do five different repetitive stress motions. [LAUGHS] That's what inspectors get to do, and inspectors got a couple of extra breaks. Even with that, after about ten days, my wrists and forearms got super sore and started waking me up at night. I've never had that happen. And after about two and a half weeks, it was hard to turn the shower with a pinching motion; it was excruciating. And then, four weeks into it, my fingertips were numb.
Guys I worked with and women who'd been there 10, 15 years say, oh yeah, every day I start with three Advil. They live with the pain, and there's no getting around it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why did you quit after six weeks? Was that always your plan?
TED CONOVER: No. Two things happened. I had trouble taking off my socks at the end of the day. I got worried about doing permanent damage. At the same time, after about a month, I was asked to fill out a very detailed background investigation questionnaire, and I knew I had to answer truthfully but I also know at the conclusion of that investigation, I would be out of a job. And I really didn't want to be called in and accused of being a rat and fired in front of people I was getting to like. I wanted them to be able to read my piece and see what I had said, before they passed judgment on me. So at the very last minute, I quit. And I said to the people there who were my friends, you know, I'm going back to New York. I’m gonna write an article about this. And they’re like, okay, good luck with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said you'd rather have them give you a fair shake by judging you on the work –
TED CONOVER: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - to see whether or not they got a fair shake. That characterizes all your work as an undercover reporter. Every piece of yours that I have read never seems to fulfill one's preconceptions. It's always much more nuanced. To do that, do you think you have to be an undercover reporter?
TED CONOVER: I think you need to be a participatory reporter and an immersive reporter. And if there are places you want to spend time, people you want to spend time with, who you wouldn't be able to do that with, were your true identity known, then I guess you have to do undercover reporting. But the part of undercover that intrigues me is not –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Skullduggery?
TED CONOVER: No, and the secret exposé. I'm as much in favor of exposé as anybody else, love to read it but, for better or worse, I think a bigger part of me is interested in how people live and in the question of whether I could do that. Could I work in a prison? Could I figure out how to get by in a slaughterhouse? And how would it change me to do that? What if I hadn't had the privileges I've had growing up, could I do it? Who would I be? It brings me alive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ted, thank you very much.
TED CONOVER: Thanks, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ted Conover's report, “The Way of All Flesh,” is in the May issue of Harper’s. Conover is a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University.