Going Undercover In An Industrial Slaughterhouse

Friday, April 19, 2013


In the May issue of Harper’s magazine, Ted Conover, a longtime undercover and participatory journalist, details his job as an undercover federal meat inspector at an industrial slaughterhouse. Conover talks to Brooke about meat safety, going undercover and why it's necessary to bring a hidden world to life. 


Ted Conover

Hosted by:

Brooke Gladstone

Comments [8]

Hi Susannah from NYC - I was a "meat lover" too - for over 50 years. It was the sound of their cries that I couldn't ignore any more that lead me to discover ways of living that aligned my values to my beliefs. At the end of the day, no animal wishes to die - Their lives are violently stolen from them. They resist with everything in their power to not be killed... And if we can live fine and healthy lives without doing so - Why wouldn't we? We can thrive on a plant based diet. It would be better for us, the planet and certainly better for the animals as well. You might want to watch this (non graphic) video that will explain more reasons to eschew those things that cause the innocent to become victims:

Apr. 23 2013 02:47 PM
Julie from East Lansing, MI

I had a very difficult time listening to this discussion about undercover journalism. The notion of providing a false name, participating in activities under false pretenses, befriending individuals and obtaining personal information, and then potentially exploiting these individuals for personal/professional gain is highly troublesome.

I am an anthropologist, and within this field, the activities described by Mr. Conover would constitute "participant observation" research (also known as ethnography). Within an academic or research-based setting, participant observation is considered "human subjects research" and is therefore subject to strict regulations and assessment by the Institutional Review Board (IRB). The role of the IRB is to ensure the protection of the privacy, rights, and well-being of human subjects participating in a research study. Under the IRB protocols, research participants must be made aware that they are part of a study and must provide their consent.

Undercover journalism seems to disregard the privacy and rights of informants and does so in a deceptive manner. While I can appreciate that some information and newsworthy stories cannot be gleaned using formal interviewing techniques, deceiving a group or an individual undermines human rights. In-depth, high-stakes investigations should be left to those trained in undercover detective work such as law enforcement or governmental agencies.

As an anthropologist and a researcher, this story was enlightening yet worrisome, particularly for the informants who are unaware of their contributions to the media. Additionally I can image that these informants are not compensated for their time or their participation which is contrary to the goals of human subjects research. I hope that my comments provide an alternative prospective for the practice of undercover journalism.

Apr. 22 2013 02:10 PM

You have to put a correction on your podcast ASAP. I was listening to it this AM, and I was about to put out a missive to (my few) Facebook friends about the toll that antibiotics are taking on cows, when I see Ted Conover's comment here.

Yes, I should know, that if it is too shocking to believe, then you should think twice before believing it. But I have always trusted OtM.

However, a piece on the effects of grain finishing of cattle--on their health and possibly on ours--perhaps would be interesting (if out of the ordinary for this show).

Apr. 21 2013 05:37 PM
Ted Conover from New York City

I misspoke when I suggested in the interview that liver abscesses are caused by antibiotics. Research suggests that the problem begins when cattle are swtiched from a diet of grass (on the range) to a diet of grain (in feedlots, before slaughter). This is hard on their stomachs; it causes acid buildup, which leads to ulcers. "Then what happens is that infectious bacteria come from the rumen through the ulcers, into blood, and finally into the liver, where they cause abscesses," according to a USDA scientist who was lead researcher on a paper about this in the journal Science. The antibiotic tylosin is used to control these infections, but its use is suspected to promote bacterial resistance to related antibiotics used by people.

Apr. 21 2013 10:23 AM

@Gerard: Yes, she did say "correlated"; but correlations have signs, both positive and negative (i.e. inversely proportional). It seems unlikely she would bite the hand that feeds her by stating that abscesses are caused by antibiotic use.

Besides that, it isn't true: As cited in the link I provided, abscesses result from an overgrowth of indigenous rumen bacteria following the acidosis that some grass-fed cattle experience when given high-energy feed (corn and grain) to produce fat-marbling of the meat.

I have e-mailed Ted Conover directly and hope he will resolve the "he says/she says" attribution issue.

Whether AgBiz has exclusive culpability for the appearance of "Super Bugs" is problematic. They're only "Super" because indiscriminate use of the antibiotic classes reserved for human use in medicine has compromised the effectiveness of the last remaining agents; that coupled with the abandonment of new antibiotic discovery by drug companies.

Apr. 20 2013 09:44 PM
Gerard from Ann Arbor MI USA

@FredK: As I understand it, at the 3:35-4:00 mark, Ted relays the Lilly observer's explanation of the corrolation between liver abscesses and antibiotics in feed. At that point he is not offering his own reasoning or "story".

Whatever the level of awareness of antibiotic usage, it remains the case that "[m]ost antibiotics sold in the U.S. go to animals, mostly in their feed...". http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/02/21/147190101/how-using-antibiotics-in-animal-feed-creates-superbugs

Apr. 20 2013 04:06 PM
FredK from New Jersey

In Ted Conover's otherwise informed and sympathetic interview (and I hope NOT in his article) the statement is made ~3:50 - 4:00 that liver abscesses are common and due to the antibiotics cattle are fed. He then reasons that the liver goes haywire metabolizing all that antibiotic!
His story is backwards! Antibiotics are used to prevent abscesses resulting from bacterial infections (many acquired in crowded feedlots.) The vested interest of the Lily investigator was that her company produces tylosin, an antibiotic that prevents (treats) abcesses. Tylosin use however has a social expense: it promotes cross-resistance to related antibiotics used in human medicine. I recommend that Mr. Conover and others concerned about the real hazards of antibiotic use in agriculture read this example:
showing the awareness of animal growers to minimize use of antibiotics that endanger human health by using vaccines and better animal husbandry. The tone of the article reminds me of the last anecdote Ted commendably relates showing the genuine concern that ag workers often have about doing things the right and humane way.

Apr. 20 2013 12:41 PM
Susannah from NYC

I'm sitting here listening to your program and had to cover my ears when you played footage of cattle moaning because of abuse. I nearly cried. What happened to that slaughterhouse? What steps were taken to stop this cruelty?
I don't understand how these things can still be happening. It is beyond me how people can abuse innocents in this way. I am not a vegetarian, I am a meat lover... but I'm constantly concerned about the treatment of these animals while they live.

- Susannah

Apr. 20 2013 07:52 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.