Inside Americas largest beef factories
Small plants are disappearing, replaced by assembly lines built for speed and volume.
DAKOTA CITY, Neb.
The Tyson Fresh Meat plant all 26 acres under one roof is the biggest beef plant in the world.
Every workday, thousands of bawling 1,400-pound steers and heifers are stunned, bled, beheaded, de-hided and eviscerated.
Like most large modern-day meat plants, its automated, computerized and roboticized. Still, theres no hiding the telltale odor of the killing floor.
Four thousand people work here, processing as many as 7,100 carcasses a day. From the catwalks above the processing floor, hundreds of multicolored hard hats bob above swinging knives, power saws and grinders.
Each day they pack 50,000 boxes of meat.
This is only one of a dozen large Midwestern beef plants owned by the big four packers, whose operations are spread across Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and Texas.
Data analyzed by The Kansas City Star show that small plants are disappearing. From 2004 to 2009, an average of 19 plants per year ended ground beef production or went out of business.
As smaller plants continue to close, these mega-plants have become Americas primary source of beef.
A persistent and growing movement among consumer and environmental groups in recent years is turning away from so-called commodity beef and factory food in favor of an expanding, but still niche, market for local, organic and grass-fed beef.
Yet the vast majority of meat consumed in America today comes from plants such as Tysons in Dakota City and Cargills in Dodge City, Kan.
The job descriptions in these plants are much the same as they were at the turn of the century featherbone buster, cheek puller, lipper, tongue trimmer, belly ripper and bung dropper and theyre as well-oiled and almost as efficient as an automotive assembly line.
As cattle are herded through a rounded maze designed to keep them calm, they approach their last cognizant moment. This is the beginning of a process the beef industry calls harvesting.
A worker called a knocker uses a captive bolt gun to drive a steel rod through the skull, rendering the animal unconscious.
They are then hung by a back leg onto a rolling overhead trolley, the remaining back leg often still twitching.
With tongues protruding and hearts still beating, they are stuck in an artery just below the neck, and a cascade of blood pours into a trough.
The cattle are then exposed to electrical stimulation when carcasses are pulled into contact with specially designed electrically charged bars, a process Tyson says improves tenderness.
The cattle go through a carcass wash a high-pressure bath much like a car wash, that cleans their hides of dirt and pathogen-carrying manure.
They are de-hided by workers using powerful pneumatic claws; then heads and feet are removed.
They are graded into prime, choice or select, depending on the amount and location of fat and meat. Only about 3 percent nationwide are graded prime.
From start to finish, it all takes about 35 minutes.
However, speed was cited as a contributing factor in the massive recall of E. coli-contaminated meat from a Canadian plant in October.
Every plant is a heartbeat away from some food safety issue, said Doug OHalloran, the union president representing Canadian workers.
Tyson officials said the speed with which animals are processed in the United States is not a concern. The company uses the right number of workers to do the job safely, including giving workers time to sharpen knives and sanitize tools and other equipment.
To prevent cross-contamination with bacteria, cattle carcasses in the United States are split in half using one of two different high-powered saws. One is used on carcasses from cattle less than 20 months old that are exported to Japan a huge importer of U.S. beef. Those carcasses are stamped with a large pink J.
The other saw is used on the remainder of the carcasses, most of which will end up in American restaurants and refrigerators.
The Japanese demand meat from younger cattle because it is less likely to have a disease called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, more commonly known as mad cow disease.
They put the extra procedures in place after several U.S. cattle were found to carry the disease, which can cause degeneration of the brain and spinal cord. There have been BSE cases documented among humans in Europe, but none in the United States.
However, the U.S. beef industry insists the extra procedures are unwarranted, and the industry has been lobbying the Japanese for years to drop them, which could happen next year.
The work at the Dakota City plant is nothing like the turn-of-the-century conditions Upton Sinclair exposed in The Jungle. Tyson and the other big packers have spent heavily on worker safety, and injury rates are down.
But these automated plants have their own hazards, according to a computer analysis of workplace injuries by The Star.
Meat plant employees have died from falling into grinders and augers; asphyxiation; electrocution; and being kicked by semiconscious cows.
At the Tyson plant, 37-year-old Rodney Bridgett, a father of four young boys, was crushed to death March 14 by an elevated work platform he was repairing.
Federal officials in August cited Tyson for two willful workplace safety violations, and the company is facing fines of $104,000.
It is unthinkable that an employer would allow workers in and around dangerous operations without ensuring that sufficient safeguards are in place, said Charles E. Adkins, the Occupational Safety and Health Administrations Kansas City-based regional administrator.
Tyson officials said they were saddened by the tragic death of Bridgett and are working with OSHA to resolve agency concerns.
The Stars Bob Cronkleton contributed to this report.