Journalist goes undercover at Cargill plant

by Meat&Poultry Staff
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SCHUYLER, Neb. – A journalist writing for Harper's Magazine spent two months as a USDA meat inspector at a Cargill Meat Solutions plant in Nebraska.

Ted Conover, an investigative journalist and author, wrote the piece "The Way of All Flesh", which appears in the April issue of the magazine. In an explanatory essay, Conover said he waited two years to get a job with the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service. He was hired at Cargill's Schuyler, Neb., beef processing plant in October 2012.

"Given its intimate connection to my body and my health, I'm interested in how meat is made," Conover wrote. "This seems natural enough in an age in which farmers and feedlots and meat companies fill animals with hormones and antibiotics, and grow animals in factories in order to maximize production."

He also expressed concern about so-called "ag-gag" laws which seek to criminalize whistleblowing on slaughter plants and other facilities. The laws can vary across states, but in general the laws impose a time limit to report videotaped animal abuse and prevent animal activists from lying on job applications to gain access to farms or processing facilities. Conover wrote that meat producers worry that meat consumption would decline if consumers knew how meat is produced.

"They make it all but impossible for journalists and members of the general public to visit production facilities, be they poultry plants, pork factories, or beef slaughterhouses," Conover wrote." Animal-rights groups, dissatisfied with this secrecy, have made it their business to send operatives inside with hidden cameras, to devastating effect."

But Cargill refuted the claim, and said the article was not fact checked.

"Cargill has a track record for cooperating with news media to provide access to our meat processing plants for the purpose of writing articles or producing broadcast segments on subjects such as food safety, animal welfare, employee diversity, sustainable meat production, workplace safety and other topics touched upon by Harper’s," said Mike Martin, Cargill spokesman, in a statement. "Therefore, it is unfortunate that they chose to not contact us until after the article was written."

Martin said Harper's asked the company to fact check portions of the article, but didn't correct inaccuracies that were pointed out.

"After Harper’s told us how they gained access to our plant for the article, we declined their request to enter the plant for the purpose of shooting photos to accompany the piece. Harper’s proceeded to hire a new York-based photographer who showed up at Schuyler, Neb., and according to documented accounts, apparently trespassed onto Cargill property and shot photos of cattle being unloaded," Martin said. "This type of “hit-and-run” journalism is something the article’s author has done before, and is a disservice to the entire profession, especially for journalists who knock on the front door before entering."

He added that Cargill would have provided Conover access to the plant had Harper’s contacted the company before the article was written.

"We believe the author’s reference to the 1906 novel by Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, in his Harper’s article is an apt one given the fable-like tale told on the pages of the magazine," Martin said.

Conover is known for his investigative reporting. He has been a “coyote” of undocumented immigrants, a hobo and a prison guard. He has won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and was considered for a Pulitzer Prize for his book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, a first-person account of the 10 months he spent as a prison guard in the notorious prison.

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