Poultry Processing Chemicals Make Workers SickAugust 1st, 2018
Cornucopia’s Take: The story below details the medical horrors visited on poultry plant workers subjected to dangerous antimicrobial sprays at work. The sprays include peracetic acid (PAA), which is used to kill bacteria, like salmonella and campylobacter, commonly found on birds raised in factory farm conditions across the U.S. Many undocumented immigrants work at poultry plants, and their legal status makes them unlikely to speak up about their unsafe working conditions. The USDA appears more concerned with protecting agribusiness interests than human health.
SOMETHING IN THE AIR
by Eyal Press
Jessica Robertson Got Sick Working as an Inspector at a Poultry Plant. Now She’s Speaking Out to Defend Workers Exposed to Chemicals.
Like many people in Sanpete County, Utah, a rural area roughly 100 miles south of Salt Lake City, Jessica Robertson likes to spend her Sundays in church. Unlike many of them, the house of worship she frequents is not a chapel filled with copies of the Book of Mormon, but the landscape surrounding her home, a windswept valley dotted with cedar and aspen groves that she regards as her sanctuary. Originally from Milwaukee, Robertson, who is 47, has lived here for 20 years, in a small house set behind a split-rail fence off a rutted dirt road. When tending to the horses on her property or hiking along one of the trails that twist through the valley, where elk and mule deer roam and bald eagles sometimes circle overhead, she feels at peace.
Lately, though, feeling at peace has been rare for Robertson, owing to the chronic health problems that have plagued her in recent years. In 2002, Robertson began working as a part-time poultry inspector at a turkey processing plant in Moroni, a 20-minute drive from her home. It was a good job in a place where steady employment was hard to come by, she thought at the time, even if it entailed checking the carcasses of turkeys rotating by at speeds that made spotting defects — and avoiding repetitive strain injuries — challenging. By 2008, Robertson had become a full-time consumer safety inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the years that followed, she also had three elbow surgeries and sustained a serious nerve injury in her neck.
After completing six months of physical therapy for the neck pain, Robertson figured her health problems were behind her. But in 2015, she started to experience some stranger symptoms — itchy eyes, shortness of breath, coughing fits. At work, she noticed, her voice would start to cut out by the middle of the week. By week’s end, she could hardly speak. She also started waking up at night with a bloody nose. Robertson wasn’t the only employee experiencing odd symptoms. Another USDA inspector, Tina McClellan, with whom Robertson was close friends, complained to her of headaches, nausea, and respiratory problems. Line workers at the plant confided to Robertson that they, too, were falling ill.
Robertson believes that the source of the ailments were chemicals used at the plant — including a little-known chemical called peracetic acid, or PAA. A colorless bleaching agent with a faintly vinegary odor, PAA has been used to sterilize medical instruments in hospitals. In recent years, escalating quantities of it have also been used to remove bacteria from the carcasses of chickens and turkeys, despite concerns from industry watchdogs that breathing it may put workers at risk, especially when combined with chlorine and other chemical treatments. Back in 2013, the Washington Post published a story noting that poultry plants are required to post Material Safety Data Sheets given to them by chemical manufacturers to warn workers about the potential health risks associated with these toxic chemicals; for chlorine, the risks include “lung damage, emotional disturbances, and even death,” the Post reported, and for PAA, “damage [to] most internal organs, including the heart, lungs and liver.” The Post article appeared two years after an inspector at a poultry plant in New York state where PAA and chlorine were used died after his lungs bled out. In the years since, complaints about chemical exposure at other plants have emerged. Yet as the Government Accountability Office acknowledged in a report last year, neither the Food and Drug Administration nor USDA focus on plant workers’ health or safety when reviewing chemicals used in meat and poultry plants. Nor has the Occupational Safety and Health Administration set a permissible exposure limit for PAA.
Robertson began to file reports, known as Form 4791s, about the hazardous conditions at the plant in Moroni. Tina McClellan, her fellow USDA inspector, also submitted many 4791s. The forms were forwarded to the USDA’s District Office in Denver and led to some cosmetic changes, including placing some sprayers in cabinet enclosures and lowering the amount of spraying on some days. But the problem didn’t go away. On May 6, 2016, Robertson sensed a sharp “spike” in chemicals at the plant. After returning from her lunch break, she felt her chest constrict. She tried to catch her breath but couldn’t. She was soon rushed to the emergency room; on the way there, she was terrified, fearing she might be having a heart attack. Afterward, she was enraged, convinced that the complaints she’d been filing had been disregarded.
In the months that followed, Robertson often thought of quitting. But she knew that finding another job in Sanpete County wouldn’t be easy. She also held out hope that something might be done to improve the air quality at the plant, which was housed in an aging building with poor ventilation and owned by a company called Norbest. As her health continued to deteriorate, Robertson began writing down her symptoms in steno notebooks. “Woke up w/ bloody nose … pillow case was bloody – so was my chin,” read an entry on March 26, 2017. “Throat burning + voice going,” read another a few pages later. “Been coughing all night throat irritated burning eyes,” read a third. Because the health risks of prolonged exposure to PAA have not been studied extensively, establishing with certainty that the chemical was the cause of these symptoms is difficult. But both Robertson and McClellan would eventually be diagnosed with work-related asthma; the doctor they both saw concluded that their condition was triggered at least in part by “chemical exposure at work.”
Last November, the USDA informed Robertson that it had come up with a solution to her sensitivity to PAA: reassigning her to a beef slaughterhouse in Kuna, Idaho. The decision was made without her input, despite the fact that Kuna is roughly 500 miles from Sanpete County, forcing Robertson to leave her home and her husband, who has been recovering from a vehicular accident that has rendered him partially disabled, a matter she says she relayed to her superiors. Earlier this year, Robertson resigned from the USDA, convinced that the reassignment was retaliation for the complaints she had aired.
McClellan was also reassigned after complaining about symptoms from PAA. The two whistleblowers are speaking publicly for the first time about their ordeals, not only for their own sake, but for the health and safety of the workforce at the plant, which they say includes a large contingent of undocumented immigrants whose status makes them too vulnerable to advocate for themselves. Robertson and McClellan are unlikely spokespeople for these workers, and, for that matter, unlikely protagonists in a story about labor abuses in the food industry, where the welfare of plant employees has tended to be overshadowed by concerns about the welfare of animals. Their story is a reminder that, even as consumers have grown increasingly vigilant about buying meat that is naturally and humanely processed — a concern not lost on Norbest, which markets its turkey as “ranch raised” with “no added hormones or steroids” — the inhumane conditions endured by the people who work in America’s slaughterhouses remain hidden from view.
If you’ve eaten a turkey burger or chicken breast recently, chances are the food you ingested had been doused with PAA and other chemicals before it landed on your plate. These chemicals, known as “pathogen reduction treatments,” have been touted as an effective way to protect consumers from dangerous bacteria like campylobacter and salmonella.
This danger is real: According to the Centers for Disease Control, foodborne illnesses cause an estimated 48 million Americans to get sick and 3,000 people to die every year. But spraying poultry with potentially toxic chemicals is not the only way to control these pathogens – indeed, in the European Union, such treatments are prohibited. According to surveys, the overwhelming majority of European consumers don’t want to eat poultry bathed in chemicals. (The Washington Post reported in 2013 that the FDA had not independently tested whether sprayed meat was safe to eat, relying on data provided by industry. The agency did not respond to questions about more recent research.) The EU has embraced an alternative model to food safety, the so-called farm-to-fork approach, which requires every link in the food-production chain to implement hygienic standards. The factory farms that exist in America — crowded, filth-strewn sheds where tens of thousands of birds are crammed together and exposed to an onslaught of disease and bacteria — have no place in the EU system, which is one reason that chemical sprays are viewed as unnecessary there.
For years, U.S. trade negotiators have pressed EU officials to scrap their restrictions that bar the sale of poultry treated with chemicals in the European market. According to Camille Perrin, a senior food policy officer with the Brussels-based European Consumer Organization, resistance on this score has come not only from EU consumer groups, but also from poultry processors concerned that, once U.S. meat is imported, they’ll be forced to spray as well in order to remain competitive. “There is a fear that it would push the standards downward,” she said.
Anti-microbial washes have been embraced in the United States as a cheap substitute for more robust regulation and preventive measures – as well as for human inspectors, who have increasingly been replaced by modern, “scientific” inspection methods that happen to coincide with the meat industry’s drive to maximize profits. For most of the 20th century, inspectors who worked in slaughterhouses examined carcasses manually to detect disease and were authorized to halt production to remove contaminated meat. In the 1980s, a new system of “streamlined inspection” was introduced that slashed the number of inspectors in the name of efficiency, even as line speeds in slaughterhouses increased. The results were described in a 1991 exposé by the reporter Scott Bronstein of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who found that, since 1975, the number of USDA meat and poultry inspectors had declined by 7.5 percent even as the number of chickens requiring federal inspection had risen by 100 percent, with large amounts of contaminated poultry winding up on supermarket shelves.
Six years later, in 1997, the Clinton administration rolled out a business-friendly solution to the problem – the so-called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system, which transferred authority to quality assurance officers employed by industry and reduced federal inspectors to secondary spot-check duty, all while line speeds continued to increase. Some critics jokingly called HACCP “Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray.” A new, updated version of HAACP — known by the acronym HIMP — has since emerged and been given a different label: “Hands In My Pocket.”
If some companies gave little thought to the possibility that workers exposed to anti-microbial chemicals might suffer health problems and complain, it’s no wonder. Immigrants have an outsized presence in the meat industry, and many of them are undocumented and thus vulnerable to exploitation. According to a doctoral dissertation published in 1989 by John Walker, now a labor economist at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Norbest first began recruiting immigrants to its plant in Moroni in the early 1970s and, in the decades that followed, their numbers grew. (Walker did not name the company in his study, but The Intercept has verified that its subject was the Moroni plant.) Not coincidentally, these were decades when the meat industry restructured, shifting from a reliance on domestic laborers, who in many plants earned higher wages than their counterparts in other manufacturing sectors, to a low-wage, high-turnover model that shrank the pool of local employees willing to do the job. Walker’s study drew on a survey of more than two-dozen Mexican workers and found that immigrants were allotted the “dirtiest, most dangerous and physically demanding jobs” in the plant, which he designated as “Mexican tasks.” He also found that Mexican workers were paid less than their white counterparts. Over half of the Mexican workers he surveyed were undocumented.
Accelerating line speeds made working in a slaughterhouse one of the most dangerous occupations in the country, yet if workers voiced grievances to management or sought to improve conditions by organizing unions, they faced the risk of being fired or, in some cases, deported. In a 2005 report, Human Rights Watch found that violations of human rights were “systematic” in slaughterhouses and inextricably related to the industry’s reliance on immigrant labor. “All the abuses described in this report – failure to prevent serious workplace injury and illness, denial of compensation to injured workers, interference with workers’ freedom of association – are directly linked to the vulnerable immigration status of most workers in the industry and the willingness of employers to take advantage of that vulnerability,” it noted.
At the Norbest plant in Moroni, thousands of turkeys arrive every morning by truck, where they are unloaded and hung upside-down on metal shackles. The birds are then knocked unconscious by an electric stunner before having their throats slit and their feathers scalded off. Inside the windowless slaughterhouse, the carcasses circulate along a horseshoe-shaped disassembly line, where workers dressed in hairnets and goggles perform various tasks — harvesting livers, slicing necks, trimming defects — before dumping them into stainless-steel chillers filled with a mixture of cold water and chemicals (including PAA) to cool them down. As the workers prune and gut the turkeys, rivulets of pink, bloodied wastewater run in gullies along the floor, while sprayers dust the air with a mist of anti-microbial agents.
Some of the workers at Norbest did complain about the effects of these chemicals, not to management but to Jessica Robertson. In the notebooks documenting her own health problems were the names of various workers with Spanish names who were suffering as well. Serving as a spokesperson for these workers was the last thing Robertson envisioned when she began working as a USDA line inspector at the Norbest plant. “I never started this as an advocate or a martyr or anything like that,” she told me when I visited her not long ago at her home in Indianola, one of a dozen or so farming towns strung along the main road that cuts through the valley in Sanpete County. I found Robertson on the back deck, dressed in jeans and cowboy boots. She had been living there since 1998, after fleeing a failed marriage in Las Vegas and deciding to head to a place with fewer unhealthy temptations. She was planning to go to Montana, but stayed put after she fell in love with the valley and with Vince, a welder who was leaving an unhappy marriage of his own.
A transplant from Wisconsin who was not a Mormon and who’d spent much of her life in cities, Robertson was an outsider in Utah, yet she had always dreamed of living in the countryside, and, as indicated by the décor of her house, there were aspects of the local culture to which she took a liking. On the walls of the living room were the taxidermy heads of various slain animals — a deer that her husband had shot at Bears Ears National Monument a few years ago; an elk that she had gunned down. Hunting was a big part of their lives, Robertson said.
The guns, the hunting trophies, the TV in the living room tuned to Fox News: All of this suggested that Robertson shared the values, if not the religious heritage, of many of her neighbors in Sanpete County, where nearly two-thirds of all voters in the 2016 presidential election supported Donald Trump. But when it came to the immigrants in the area, Robertson didn’t sound like a red-state stereotype. She sounded sympathetic – and indignant. “These are human beings,” she said of the immigrant workers at Norbest. “They breathe, they live, they eat, they have families like we do. Just because they came here to try to make a better life for themselves doesn’t give you the right to treat ’em like garbage … exposing them to difficult and toxic jobs, knowing damn good and well they won’t speak a word because they won’t dare to jeopardize the money that’s coming in that’s providing food for their families.”
The indignation could be attributed, in part, to common interests: As the entries in her notebooks indicated, everyone in the Norbest slaughterhouse had to breath the same air. It may also have reflected the fact that Robertson didn’t have to stretch her imagination too far to picture how it might feel to try to make a better life but be treated like garbage. She was the daughter of a Vietnam veteran who’d worked for a railroad in Milwaukee before getting drafted and then returned from the war to find his job was gone. Growing up, “there wasn’t a whole lot of money” in her family, she said. An athletic teenager, Robertson managed to secure a volleyball scholarship to attend a small college, but, after injuring her knee, she took time off and then dropped out. Two divorces and a string of dead-end jobs later, she turned up in Indianola, where she and Vince converted a weed-strewn shack in the middle of an empty field into their dream home, thanks in no small part to the steady paycheck she earned as a USDA poultry inspector, which eventually rose to $80,000 with overtime. The job wasn’t easy: Twelve-hour shifts five to six days a week, in a fetid, noisy, viscera-splattered factory where thousands of turkeys were slaughtered every day. But she enjoyed the responsibility and took pride in her work, until it started ruining her health.
Unlike the undocumented immigrants at the plant, Robertson was at no risk of getting deported if she reported the health and safety hazards at her workplace to her superiors — this was indeed her responsibility. But the longer her complaints to USDA went ignored, the more she began to wonder whether this responsibility might lead her to get blackballed. “Starting to feel like perhaps a case is being built against me,” she wrote in her notebook over a year ago. Six months later, she requested a respirator to alleviate her chronic breathing problems. The request was denied.
In February, Robertson drove to Kuna, Idaho, to check in to the hotel near the slaughterhouse to which she’d been reassigned. The receptionist at the front desk informed her that she could not have a key to her room until someone paid for it. The government credit card she’d been promised had not arrived in time. When Robertson heard this, she burst into tears. While in Kuna, she says she nearly had a nervous breakdown. Shortly thereafter, she drove back home and, about a month later, resigned.
Robertson was not the only person in Indianola who’d been through such an experience. A few hundred yards from Robertson’s property is a low-slung ranch house with an American flag planted out front and a pickup truck with the slogan “Cowgirl Cadillac” scrawled on its windshield. The truck and the house belong to Tina McClellan, Robertson’s friend and fellow USDA inspector. McClellan is 50, with a voluble manner and a taste for loud clothing (the first time we met, she was wearing hot pink pajamas.) McClellan moved to Utah as a child and, like Robertson, eventually fell in love with Sanpete County. She and her husband, Karl, bought a house in Indianola thinking they would retire there. But a few years ago, McClellan started coming home from work coughing and red-eyed. “It was killing me,” she said. On August 8, 2016, three months after Robertson went to the emergency room, McClellan was taken to the ER herself, after experiencing breathing problems and blurred vision that triggered an asthma attack. A few days later, McClellan told me she had received a call from the USDA District Office in Denver, to which she’d sent dozens of complaints about the air problems at the Norbest plant, informing her that she would no longer be working there. She had been reassigned to another facility, in the state of Washington, starting the following Monday. McClellan was given all of three days to figure out what to do with her livestock, she said. For the next several months, she was detailed to different plants in various far-flung places, always on short notice.
A spokesperson for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service portrayed the decision to reassign Robertson and McClellan as an effort to protect the well-being of inspectors who were “sensitive to certain chemicals,” and said that the agency had taken “a number of actions to respond to FSIS inspector complaints” at the Moroni plant, including providing supervisors with a “detection meter” to assess air quality and working with Norbest to find solutions. (The spokesperson did not explain why Robertson’s request for a respirator was denied.) I heard a different view from Dr. Mark Reeves, a veterinarian who was Robertson and McClellan’s supervisor at Norbest and forwarded the 4791 forms they filed “up the chain of command” to the USDA District Office in Denver. The forms seemed to “disappear into thin air,” Reeves said in an affidavit, reflecting what he came to believe was Norbest and the USDA’s preferred solution to the air problem: getting rid of the inspectors making a fuss about it. In a memo dated June 8, 2016, Reeves reported that Ryan Johnson, then the processing plant manager at Norbest, told him that the company had indeed made a “business decision” to avoid spending money to improve ventilation at the plant, since “removing a few hypersensitive people would not cost anything.”
Norbest did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. The company also declined to answer a list of written questions about chemical use and worker complaints that were sent by email. In January, the plant in Moroni was bought by another company, Pitman Farms, which also did not respond to requests for comment.
Reeves submitted some complaints of his own to the USDA about PAA and other air quality issues, not least since he, too, felt its effects, experiencing respiratory and kidney problems. Like Robertson and McClellan, he ended up being reassigned elsewhere because, he told me, his superiors at the USDA were “sick of me complaining.” If the USDA indeed put the financial interests of Norbest over the safety of its employees and the public interest, it would not mark the first such occasion. The agency has long had a dual mission: to regulate food safety, on the one hand, and promote the interests of agribusiness, on the other. Whenever these two objectives have come into conflict, “the latter mission takes precedence,” said Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign at the Government Accountability Project, which has represented dozens of USDA whistleblowers who have been subjected to retaliation for exposing unwholesome practices in the meat industry. In the past decade, GAP has collected affidavits from numerous USDA inspectors concerned about PAA. It recently filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal watchdog for whistleblower allegations, on behalf of Robertson, and plans to submit a similar grievance on behalf of McClellan. Both women have also submitted complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that they suffered retaliation for their outspokenness.
How widespread a problem are PAA and other anti-microbials? Some believe that the danger is limited to poorly ventilated facilities such as the Norbest plant in Moroni. But the truth is that nobody really knows, both because poultry slaughterhouses are difficult for outsiders to access and because workers in non-unionized plants — which comprise the majority of the industry — have such a strong disincentive to complain. Robyn Robbins, director of the safety and health office at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents more than one-third of the estimated 250,000 poultry workers, told me that she gets calls “a couple of times a month” from union locals concerned about pathogen reduction treatments. “So many of our members are having problems with chemicals,” she said. She also told me that the problems were likely far worse in non-unionized plants.
None of the immigrants who worked at Norbest were willing to talk to me. I did speak with several former workers, including a woman named Christina who asked that I use only her first name because she did not want it known that she’d spoken to a reporter. She lived in the town of Manti, in a modest ranch house with a jumble of lawn equipment and fire logs strewn across the lawn. Shy and pale-eyed, Christina said she suffered from “massive headaches” when she worked at Norbest. She also developed strange rashes on her arms. Since she’d stopped working there, both the headaches and skin rashes had gone away. Christina had worked at the slaughterhouse for two years. When I asked her why she hadn’t quit earlier, given her health problems, she mentioned the local economy. “Around here, it’s most likely minimum wage that you’re gonna make, and it’s usually part-time,” she said.
A few days later, I spoke to another woman I’ll call Jane who had recently worked at Norbest but preferred to remain anonymous because she and her husband know a lot of people at the company. She, too, had skin problems, strange lesions that surfaced on her chin and face. Working at the plant had a dramatic effect on her voice, turning it into a muted rasp and prompting friends to ask if she’d taken up smoking (she has never smoked a cigarette in her life). “Those chemicals – they burn,” she said. “I always had a sore throat. I was sick more the two years I worked in that plant than ever in my life.”
As the Government Accountability Office noted in its report last year, OSHA does not have the resources to review whether chemicals are safe before they are used in the workplace. The agency does occasionally investigate particular plants where complaints have arisen, and in 2016, it collected air samples from the Norbest slaughterhouse. A USDA spokesperson pointed out that these samples did not show high levels of PAA. But as the recent GAO report on workplace safety in the meat and poultry industry noted, PAA dissipates quickly and is notoriously difficult to measure. According to Robertson and McClellan, Norbest also knew when the OSHA inspectors were coming and shut the sprayers off beforehand.
Documenting what goes on in meat and poultry plants is difficult, not only because agencies like OSHA lack resources, but also because the industry has successfully lobbied for so-called ag-gag laws, currently in place in eight states, which bar anyone from taking videos or photographs inside slaughterhouses. (Utah had such a law on the books until last year, when a judge struck it down.) Last fall, a few days before Thanksgiving, Norbest made the news, after members of Direct Action Everywhere, an animal rights organization, snuck into some turkey barns in Sanpete County and shot undercover videos and photographs showing injured, sickly birds wallowing in filthy conditions. “Animal Rights Group Shares This Undercover Video of Diseased and Mistreated Turkeys at Utah Barns,” announced a headline in the Salt Lake Tribune. The story resurfaced in early May, when six of the animal rights activists were charged with felonies.
Both Jessica Robertson and Tina McClellan saw the stories. Both were disappointed, not because what the videos revealed was inaccurate – the squalid conditions they captured may indeed explain why Norbest felt compelled to use such heavy quantities of anti-microbial sprays – but because no mention was made of mistreated workers. For both the media and for consumers, the treatment of the people who toiled away in the food industry paled next to the treatment of the animals, they felt.
This is a feeling that Nicole Byrne Navarro has come to share. In 2006, Navarro and her husband, Jose, moved to South Fallsburg, New York, where he’d been assigned to work as a USDA consumer safety inspector at a local poultry plant. The owner of the plant was Murray’s Chicken, a company whose website emphasizes its commitment to producing chickens that are certified humane, “consistent with our core value that all animals should be raised with decency and respect.” It didn’t take long for Jose to conclude that these values did not extend to the company’s workers, Navarro told me, recalling how he would come home to tell her how abysmally they were treated by managers who cared only about maximizing profits. “It’s all about line speed,” he would say. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in a poor neighborhood in the South Bronx, Jose felt a kinship with these workers, Navarro said, many of whom were Latino immigrants.
In 2010, Navarro noticed that her husband was coughing a lot after work. He’d had asthma as a child and smoked cigarettes, but the intensity of the coughing was unusual. Murray’s had been cited by the USDA for unsanitary conditions and the presence of salmonella in raw poultry products, and had increased the use of anti-microbial sprays, including PAA. In the fall of 2011, Jose was in the kitchen cooking one night when he started to cough loudly. When Navarro went to the kitchen, she saw that he was spitting up blood. She rushed him to the emergency room, but the bleeding went on. On November 26, 2011, he died of a lung hemorrhage. An OSHA investigation conducted afterward was unable to determine that the death was work-related — establishing this is difficult because of the number of variables involved — but the agency cited and fined Murray’s for a range of health and safety violations, including the failure to inform workers about the potential hazards of PAA and the failure to record injuries and illnesses sustained by employees, from repetitive strain injuries to chemical burns. (The company contested the citations, and an administrative law judge upheld them.) In comments to the Washington Post in 2013, Murray’s CEO said, “OSHA found no connection or causation whatsoever between the unfortunate passing of the USDA inspector and the plant environment.” However, Robert Harrison, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and occupational health specialist, subsequently reviewed the facts of the case and determined that Jose Navarro’s death was “within reasonable medical probability, due to his occupational exposures incurred in the course of his employment as a USDA inspector.”
Navarro told me this story while sitting at a wooden table on the ground floor of her home in Plattsburgh, New York, where she lives with her and Jose’s two surviving children. Spread across the table were various documents she’d collected about Jose’s death, as well as some photographs, including a picture of the two of them sunbathing on a beach in the Caribbean. Next to the folder was a copy of Jose’s USDA badge, which she told me had been a source of immense pride to him. “He loved that badge,” she said. When he was still alive, Navarro said, Jose would sometimes joke with her that he was working in “a real-life ‘Jungle’” – a reference to Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel about the brutal conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking plants. After Jose died, Navarro told me she read the book and reflected on its message – and its popular reception – in light of her husband’s experience. Sinclair wrote the book, she noted, “for the people who were working in the plants – that was his intention, to bring focus to them.” Yet what captivated the public was how these conditions affected their food supply. “The Jungle” helped spur passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, but did little to alter the conditions of packing workers, much to the disappointment of Sinclair, a socialist who later remarked, “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
A century later, not much had changed, Navarro felt. “That’s the exact same thing that’s happening now,” she said. “The public wants to feel good about their food; they don’t care about the workers.”
Since FSIS supervisors were given a “detection meter” to check air quality, “no other complaints have arisen” about air quality at the Moroni plant, an FSIS spokesperson said. An inspector I spoke to, who had worked at the plant in April, contradicted this claim. “I haven’t seen any changes — nothing,” said the inspector, who did not want to be identified.
Since they stopped working at the Moroni plant, both Jessica Robertson and Tina McClellan have been feeling better, at least physically. Their emotional state is another matter. McClellan’s husband Karl told me that, on many days, Tina was listless and depressed, struggling to fill idle hours and figure out how she was going to make up for the $75,000 in income that she’d lost. “We’re just barely hanging on,” Karl said. McClellan acknowledged as much. “I’m in jeopardy of losing my home, my livestock, everything,” she said.
Robertson did find a job, but it paid just $12 an hour, not nearly enough to cover all the medical and personal expenses she and her husband had. On better days, when she was out in the valley searching for elk horns or sipping a beer on her back deck, Robertson felt a calm wash over her. But other times, the calm gave way to fear that she would wind up like her parents, who, she told me, “worked very hard for what they had” but fell on hard times as they got older and eventually lost everything.
In addition to her financial situation, Robertson’s experience has altered her eating habits. More and more, she told me, she finds herself turning away from food that is processed and trying to live off what she and her husband hunt. Before she resigned, she said she was offered one of Norbest’s “ranch raised” turkeys as a gift from a co-worker. It ended up going to someone she knew who “really needed it,” she told me, but Robertson sent it with a warning, telling her acquaintance to wash it really well before preparing a meal.