- Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America
In the late 1980s Donald Stull and Michael Broadway launched a remarkable collaborative project on the contemporary meatpacking industry, on which Slaughterhouse Blues is based. With research funded in part by a massive Ford Foundation grant, Stull and Broadway brought a basketball team of social scientists to small towns in the Midwest where today's huge packinghouses are located. The astounding productivity of this group runs to more than fifty articles [End Page 546] in journals such as Urban Anthropology and several book collections, if one includes essays by collaborators such as Janet Benson, David Griffith, Lourdes Gouveia, and Mark Gray. Scholars interested in American food industries and in contemporary business practices will find the collective oeuvre of Stull, Broadway, and their colleagues invaluable. Slaughterhouse Blues is a welcome introduction to their research, as well as a concise description of the contemporary red meat and poultry industries.
The volume is published in the series Case Studies on Contemporary Social Issues, and it combines ethnographic accounts with contextual historical narrative. Early chapters open with powerful first-person descriptions of slaughtering facilities and farming operations before moving to the historical development of the beef, pork, and chicken industries. Later chapters are almost entirely contemporary and consider current working conditions, the impact of firms on rural communities, and the controversial use of concentrated animal feeding operations (dubbed CAFOs) to raise chickens, pigs, and beef cattle.
The book's most effective sections are the ones based on personal observations by the authors and their associates. These are sophisticated, well-trained ethnographers with an excellent eye for detail and superb analytic skills. Through their stories we walk through several beef and pork plants, learn about the detailed division of labor, and hear the observations of company executives and supervisors, along with extensive testimony from workers. Farming and agriculture are treated extensively as well.
At times the authors' dispassionate ethnographic language struggles with the politically charged subject of the contemporary meat industry. Stull and Broadway are openly critical of the industry's practices, scorning firms for mistreating workers, creating social problems in small communities, despoiling nature through CAFOs, and loading Americans with a fat-laden diet that contributes to obesity. Yet this is not a polemic similar to Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (2001), for Stull and Broadway have a far wider research base and more sophisticated analysis. Their criticisms are delivered in careful, measured tones and balanced by competing information and interpretation.
Their chapter "Not In My Backyard: Community Opposition to the Meat and Poultry Industry" reflects their struggle to combine balanced ethnography with criticism of the meat industry's practices. In this section Stull and Broadway chart a number of local struggles against CAFOs, principally chicken farming in Kentucky and enclosed hog farms in Alberta, Canada. The authors clearly side with the resistance to CAFOs, but they also spend considerable energy [End Page 547] ensuring that arguments favorable to enclosed farming are presented fully and favorably. In Kentucky we hear not only the critics of the ecological impact of concentrated poultry raising but also the farmers who find it an excellent source of revenue. Moreover, Stull and Broadway explain the reasons that firms prefer these methods as well as the powerful economic incentives for farmers to participate—for example, the declining demand for tobacco that was once Kentucky's staple crop. The authors' views are clear, but it is a credit to their diligence as scholars that the debate is so faithfully presented so that students reading these sections can grasp the rationale for both sides of the argument.
In a book of fewer than two hundred pages there are limits. Historians looking for a comprehensive history of these industries will need to go elsewhere, for the authors deal with the antecedents to contemporary trends quickly, omitting many details and nuances. At times I felt some contemporary issues were conflated—for instance, there is a big...