Meat inspectors in a Chicago plant in 1906. Upton Sinclair’s landmark novel “The Jungle” detailed the inhuman conditions in turn-of-century U.S. abattoirs. It also inspired a contemporary study of the links between slaughterhouses and rates of violent and sexual crimes in adjacent communities.
by Sarah Barmak
To author Upton Sinclair, the hellish world of factory slaughterhouses was as dangerous to human beings as it was to pigs. He filled his 1906 novel The Jungle with meat-packing images that seem ripped from a slasher movie:
“… and as for the other men, who worked in tank-rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting — sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!”
Sinclair’s abattoir labourers get so desensitized to violence that rates of murder, rape and brawls among them rise. The book cemented the link between slaughterhouses and crime for decades to come — long before pig farmer and serial killer Robert Pickton haunted headlines.
More than a hundred years later, a University of Windsor researcher may have proven the literary classic right. Criminology professor Amy Fitzgerald says statistics show the link between slaughterhouses and brutal crime is empirical fact.
In a recent study, Fitzgerald crunched numbers from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report database, census data, and arrest and offence reports from 581 U.S. counties from 1994 to 2002.
“I have a graph that shows that as the number of slaughterhouse workers in a community increases, the crime rate also increases,” she says. Fitzgerald says she was inspired by The Jungle to study crime records in U.S. communities where slaughterhouses are located.
She became fascinated by studies of the environmental effects of slaughterhouses that mentioned crime rates, without explanation, seemed to go up when the factories opened in communities.
Fitzgerald carefully weighed the figures in order to see whether a link really existed. She found that an average-sized slaughterhouse with 175 employees would annually increase the number of arrests by 2.24 and the number of reports by 4.69. The larger the abattoir, the worse the local crime problem.
She controlled for factors such as the influx of new residents when slaughterhouses open, high numbers of young men — even the number of immigrants.
“Some residents started to recognize that the crime rates were going up and started complaining, and the slaughterhouse companies were quick to blame the immigrant labour pool they were relying on,” Fitzgerald says. She found that abattoirs still seemed to raise the crime numbers when she controlled for these factors.
Nor can the violence be blamed on factory work itself. Fitzgerald compared slaughterhouse communities to those with comparison industries — dangerous, repetitive work that did not involve killing animals. These were not associated with a rise in crime at all, she says. In some cases, they seemed to bring the crime rate down.
“The unique thing about (abattoirs) is that (workers are) not dealing with inanimate objects, but instead dealing with live animals coming in and then killing them, and processing what’s left of them.”
More studies are needed to determine if crimes were being committed by factory workers or by others in the community, she says, and how exactly that kind of work could cause crime to go up. But the numbers leave few other explanations other than the slaughterhouses being somehow to blame.
It’s a case of science catching up to what has been folk knowledge since industrialized slaughterhouses began to appear in the 19th century: workers exposed to the killing of large numbers of animals on a regular basis become disturbed and appear to lose empathy.
The Jungle made such anecdotal tales a mass scandal, galvanizing readers and prompting President Theodore Roosevelt to order reforms to the meat industry. Within months of publication, the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act were signed into law. Sinclair’s book advocated socialist ideals as an alternative to the exploitation of labour epitomized by the factory abattoirs.
Buts the etiology of the problem remains something of a chicken-and-egg puzzle. Do slaughterhouses desensitize workers to killing? Or, could the work attract people who are less sensitive to begin with?
Fitzgerald suggests a similarity between slaughterhouse communities and military communities, which have been studied for higher incidence rates of partner abuse.
“One of (the explanations) is the violence they witness and sometimes have to participate in might result in some kind of desensitization,” she says. But the correlation was not as strong for smaller farms where animals were killed.
“It seems like there’s something about the industrialization process,” says Fitzgerald. “you have people who are actually responsible for slaughtering thousands of animals a day.”
Canadian slaughterhouses were left out of the report, and Fitzgerald says she wants to do a similar study here in the future. In Toronto, where abattoirs have been nestled in quiet areas such as the Junction (before it burned down in 2006) and King Street West, the violence seems hard to spot.
Residents of the pretty, tree-lined Garrison Creek neighbourhood say the only time they notice Toronto Abattoirs Ltd. and Quality Meat Packers Ltd. factory at the bottom of Tecumseth St. is on warmer days, when a putrid scent wafts over the patios and the nearby baseball field.
“On good days it’s like a farm,” says Antonio Ferreira, a 15-year resident of a red-brick highrise at King St. W. and Niagara St. “On a bad day it’s like a rotting carcass.” He couldn’t recall any violent incidents at or near the abattoir, however.
Workers trickling out of Toronto Abattoirs’ revolving turnstile simply said that they liked working there “fine,” but wouldn’t say more about what their jobs were like.
Although slaughterhouse conditions have improved immensely since Sinclair published his scathing descriptions of disease-ridden equipment and slave wages, they still exist to do one job: the methodical butchering of animals on a massive scale. And that job still requires people to do it.
“There is something unique about the slaughterhouses,” says Fitzgerald. “There’s definitely a need for further research to figure out exactly what that is.”