The U.K. doesn't want "dirty" American meat

meat at supermarket
CC BY 2.0 Anthony Albright

An investigation reveals shocking hygiene failings in major U.S. meat plants, heating up the controversy over an impending trade deal between the two countries.

If you have ever considered going vegan, this news story might be the tipping point for you. A joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Guardian found numerous incidents of hygiene failings at major American meat-processing plants. While some breaches are to be expected when meat is being processed rapidly in great quantities, the errors described by these investigators are inexcusably numerous and severe. As reported last week, these include:

  • Diseased poultry meat that had been condemned found in containers used to hold edible food products;
  • Pig carcasses piling up on the factory floor after an equipment breakdown, leading to contamination with grease, blood and other filth;
  • Meat destined for the human food chain found riddled with faecal matter and abscesses filled with pus;
  • High-power hoses being used to clean dirty floors next to working production lines containing food products;
  • Factory floors flooded with dirty water after drains became blocked by meat parts and other debris;
  • Dirty chicken, soiled with faeces or having been dropped on the floor, being put back on to the production line after being rinsed with dilute chlorine.

The Bureau and the Guardian conducted its investigation by reviewing previously unpublished documents relating to 47 meat plants across the U.S. These included Pilgrim's Pride, one of the country's biggest chicken producers, and Swift Pork. From the news story:

"More than 16,000 non-compliance reports on Pilgrim’s Pride operations detail 36,612 individual regulatory violations -- an average of 1,464 a month -- at the 24 plants during a 25-month period between 2014 and 2016."

These findings come at a particularly sensitive time, since the United Kingdom is in the process of establishing a trade deal with the United States that would allow U.S. meat to enter the British market, post-Brexit. But many Britons are concerned about the low quality of U.S. meat and low hygiene standards, at least relative to British meat processing plants. Far more Americans get sick each year from food-borne illnesses than Britons. The rate is estimated at almost 15 percent (one in seven people), with 128,000 hospitalized and 3,000 dying; whereas, in the UK, the annual illness rate is only 1.8 percent.

The trouble is, the lack of U.S. regulations allows producers to skip investment in systemic sanitation throughout an animal's life. No matter how filthy conditions are, U.S. meat workers can simply bathe a carcass in chlorine to kill bacteria. In Britain and the EU, that's not allowed; it is expected that animals be raised and slaughtered in such a way that a chlorine bath is not required for meat to be safe for consumption. The problem is only going to get worse in the U.S., if pig slaughter times are sped up, as the industry plans to do.

While the Bureau and the Guardian point out that their research is not a "comprehensive portrait of the sector," the documents do "provide a snapshot of issues rarely detailed in public which has rung alarm bells with campaigners in both the U.S. and U.K."

It is easy to lambast meat processing plants, but we must remember that the market is also driven by consumer demand. Everyone buying cheap, factory-raised meat is part of the problem. Unless people are willing to pay far more for meat -- and eat considerably less of it -- producers will continue to seek ways to cut corners while maximizing output and profits. While meat producers definitely need to improve their standards (and the U.K. should refuse to allow U.S. meat into the country until then), the onus is on meat-eaters to demand better by supporting small-scale farmers whose animals are raised humanely and cleanly.

Or, you could just go one step further and skip the meat altogether. Veganism has never looked so good.

Related Content on Treehugger.com