Meat Packing Plant & Slaughterhouse Jobs

The stereotypical image that bounces in to most people’s minds when they hear the word slaughterhouse is not a good one.

Before the thought of being in a hot, blood-drenched warehouse of horrors makes you run screaming from the agricultural industry, it is important to remember that most slaughterhouses are very different. And, with increased interested by the general public of food safety issues, slaughterhouses are actually becoming not only more ethical, but also cleaner and safer. Working at one of the facilities could be a great job opportunity for you if you want to work in the agricultural industry.

Over half of the slaughterhouses in the United States have been designed by Dr. Temple Grandin, who uses pens and curved corrals that funnel into the main slaughtering building to reduce the stress on the animal and prevent panic or resistance, which can be dangerous for workers. By law, animals must be rendered unconscious before they are killed, so workers will secure each animal and stun it before it is hung upside down on a processing line.

Along the line, workers sever the carotid artery and jugular vein while the animal is unconscious, and the blood drains out of the facility. Then animals then pass down a processing line where each employee has a specific task. These tasks include the following, typically done in this order:

  1. Removing the head
  2. Inspecting the glands in the head for signs of disease
  3. Removing the tongue from the head
  4. Removing the feet
  5. Removing the digestive track to prevent fecal contamination
  6. Removing the hide or skin
  7. Removing the other internal organs
  8. Inspecting the organs for disease or parasites
  9. Inspecting the rest of the carcass
  10. Cleaning the carcass with steam, hot water, or food-safe acids

Workers than transport the carcasses to a refrigerated part of the plant, which prevents the growth of microorganisms while it awaits the breaking down process.

All slaughterhouses employ butchers who can cut the meat in the most efficient ways. Many facilities only do primal cutting, which means that the carcass is broken into large chunks of meat that can fit into boxes for distribution. For cattle, this means that the animal is split into four pieces (two front and two back quarters), while hogs are split in half and smaller animals (chickens, goats, calves) are packaged whole. Other parts of the animal that is considered fit for human consumption (such as some of the organs) are typically packaged separately.

There are also workers who remove the waste products from the facility. Bone, lard, and other by-products can’t be used for food consumption in most cases, but they can be sent to plants that use the products to make biodiesel, oil, and animal feed.

For meat, the next step in the food processing line after the slaughterhouse is the meat packaging plant. The major slaughterhouses in the food industry have on-site meat packaging, while smaller facilities send the meat in primal cuts to other companies for further processing and packaging. Some of the major meat packing companies (most of which have exclusive slaughterhouses) in the United States include Cargill, Hormel, Smithfield, Tyson, and Perdue.

Smaller slaughterhouses may employ butchers to further break down the cuts of meat, since most consumers don’t purchase an entire half of a pig or even an entire chicken. The meat is cut into the parts you see packaged in the grocery story, or can be separated for clients who want certain parts for their products. For example, a company that makes lunchmeat may only purchase hams from a hog processing plant, while another company may only want the bacon.

In smaller slaughterhouses, you may also work with one animal from beginning to end instead of working just a single job on a line.
This is a safer working condition, since the movements aren’t as repetitive, but in both large and small slaughterhouses, injury is a very real concern. You’ll be working with knives, saws, and other instruments that could cut you as easily as the animal, and if you work on the front of a line, you’ll be exposed to fecal matter, which could make you ill if you don’t follow safety precautions like wearing protective clothing and washing your hands regularly. There are similar jobs in the Alaska fishing industry, which is profiled separately on JobMonkey.

There are also kosher and organic slaughterhouses, and if you work in either of these kinds of facilities, you’ll be subject to certain rules when completing tasks. Typically, the processing of kosher or organic meat takes longer, so it is more expensive, but these facilities also often offer higher wages for employees, since they can sell the meat at a much higher price.

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