Slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants throughout the country employ a lot of people. About a quarter of a million workers in the U.S. stun, kill and eviscerate the animals we eat. Most of those jobs are physically demanding and require few skills.
So why haven’t we started using more robots to cut up our beef?
The answer to the lack of meat processing robots gives insight into the limits of the technology and the economics of what it takes to put meat on American tables. Because meat processing makes up a huge portion of Great Plains communities’ rural economies, what happens inside meat processing plants affects not only the companies involved, but the very culture of rural America.
Many manufacturers have gone to automated machines to process and package food, or to make cars, pencils, furniture -- nearly everything around us. Robots have revolutionized manufacturing across the globe. Yet it still takes thousands of workers with knives and meat hooks, and very little automation, to keep a modern beef plant up and running.
The beef industry has stubbornly held on to its workers. In fact, U.S. meatpacking plants are expected to add jobs in the next decade, as the appetite for pork, chicken and beef grows in the developing world.
Disassembly is the name of the game on the fabrication floor at the JBS beef processing plant in Greeley, Colorado. Each worker holds a knife in one hand, sharpening steel to the side. Like a medieval warrior, every person is dressed in chainmail, a protective mesh lining under blood-spattered white jackets. Deft cuts cleave bone and meat, turning a whole cow into neat and trim cuts like tenderloins, steaks and roasts.
“There’s right at 850 people out in this building alone,” says plant manager Bill Danley as he weaves through the maze of conveyor belts, stainless steel slides and bone bins. Passing one line, a slight man in a hard hat pries a small opening on what will be boxed up as a chuck roast and slams his elbow in to pry the bone off.
Workers stand along conveyor belts on raised platforms, adjustable based on each person’s height. Those platforms were a big step in improving ergonomic conditions for workers, Danley says.
The plant is a far cry from the butcher shops of yore, where a single person would need to know how to turn an entire animal into cuts of meat. Large beef companies like JBS, Cargill and Tyson have turned each minute step of the process into a job. Danley lists some of the titles: a chuck boner, tender puller, back splitter, knuckle dropper, tail ripper.
“There’s a lot of jobs out here that prep for the other person,” Danley says, pointing to a line of men.
Each year this plant pays out more than $100 million in paychecks to its 3,000 employees. It’s a huge chunk of the company’s operating costs. So why not robots?
“It can’t do the fine cutting that you see on the fab floor,” says Bill Rupp, JBS Beef Division President. “That’s one of the big challenges right now.”
Robotic technology doesn’t have the fine motor skills that come easily to humans and there isn’t room for error. Some of the cuts being boxed up bring upward of $14 per pound, Rupp explains.
“So the key is being able to leave it on the meat and not on the bone. I mean that’s how our business works,” Rupp says.
Some workers even hold on to the bones they’re especially proud of as trophies. They stack them on a post, sliced clean of meat, ready to show management how adept their knife can be.
JBS has looked at robots that use vision technology to slice and dice, but the key to butchery is touch, not sight, Rupp says. Robots today can’t feel how deep a bone is, or expertly remove an intact filet mignon.
“When you get into that detailed, skilled cutting, robots aren’t there yet. Some day I’m sure they will be,” Rupp says.
The various breeds of cattle brought into the plant also complicate the future of robots in meatpacking. Some days the plant breaks down the long, lanky bodies of Holsteins. Other days they’re working on sturdy, thickset Angus and Hereford. Robots would need the ability to adjust to the spectrum of cattle breeds.
The technology isn’t ready for the fabrication floor, but could the economics of widespread robotic use in the beef industry ever work? Probably not, says Don Stull, an anthropologist who studied the cultures of meatpacking towns for 30 years at the University of Kansas. He’s the author of Slaughterhouse Blues.
“Workers are really cheaper than machines,” Stull says. “Machines have to be maintained. They have to be taken good care of. And that’s not really true of workers. As long as there is a steady supply, workers are relatively inexpensive.”
There’s a stream of immigrants and refugees, most from Somalia, Rwanda, El Salvador and Guatemala, ready to put on the chainmail and pick up the knife, Stull says. JBS officials tout the plant as a “melting pot” and “a business of immigrants.” At any given time a dozen or more languages are spoken inside.
In large, modern plants, companies pay less because the skill-level needed to work on the fabrication floor is so low. Some jobs take less than a week to fully master. It’s been a nearly century-long process of butcher “deskilling,” Stull says. The median annual pay for a worker in meatpacking is $23,320, according to 2012 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s $11.21 per hour.
Turnover in the industry is high Stull points out, because of the physical demands. Slicing meat all day can lead to repetitive injuries. JBS's Greeley plant employs an athletic trainer to keep employees limber and fit. Stull says it’s still common for workers to transfer jobs at the same plant to make better money or to just avoid falling apart.
“After you do the same thing thousands of times a day, six days a week in the summertime when beef plants are running at higher capacity, your body wears down,” Stull says.
Meatpacking jobs consistently rank among the most hazardous in the country. While the industry says it’s dramatically improved on worker safety over the years, it still ranks highs for repetitive trauma. Increased automation could ease some of those injuries, Stull says, but companies see little incentive at this point to make a big technological shift.
Until technology catches up in both skill and costs, meatpacking companies will continue hiring low-skill workers to cut up your meat.