In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat industry.

In an excellent muckraking report which underlines the importance of metropolitan newspapers, The Charlotte Observer has shined a bright light into one of the murkiest corners of our food system: poultry-packing factories.

The report focuses on North Carolina-based House of Raeford, the nation’s seventh-largest poultry packer. According to an industry trade journal, Raeford churns out 20 million pounds of ready-to-eat chicken each week, slaughtering 3.6 million birds. And it’s growing fast; its 2006 production represented a 28 percent leap from the previous year.

Chickens aren’t the only sentient beings that suffer from that high volume. Here is the Observer:

The company has compiled misleading injury reports and has defied regulators as it satisfies a growing appetite for America’s most popular meat. And employees say the company has ignored, intimidated or fired workers who were hurt on the job.

According to the Observer, the federal government has systematically looked the other way while poultry giants like House of Raeford repress injury reports on a shop floor characterized by high volume and quick repetitive movements involving sharp knives.

The poultry giants hide worker injuries to preserve their profit margins.

Companies have a financial incentive to hide injuries. Ignoring them lowers costs associated with compensating injured workers for medical care and lost wages.

Also, the government rewards companies that report low injury rates by inspecting them less often. And regulators rarely check whether companies are reporting accurately.

The Observer quotes a whistleblower within OSHA — the federal agency that’s supposed to oversee workplace injuries. According to the official, “OSHA is allowing employers to vastly underreport the number of injuries and illnesses their workers suffer.” For poultry processors, he claims, the real injury rate “is likely two to three times higher than government numbers suggest.”

Interestingly, the official says OSHA oversight began to falter in the Clinton 1990s, not the Bush 2000s.

Early in his career, he said, OSHA looked closely at companies’ injury and illness logs and issued big fines to businesses that underreported such incidents.

But by the 1990s, he said, industry groups and pro-business lawmakers were accusing OSHA of focusing on what they perceived as frivolous paperwork violations. Today, he said, the agency is conducting fewer inspections and issuing fewer fines, leaving businesses to police themselves.

That observation brings to mind the Clintons’ ties to meat giant Tyson, as well as Hillary Clinton’s jaw-dropping recent decision to name a flack for the meat industry as co-chair of Rural Americans for Hillary.

The Observer article — part of a series scheduled to run all week — documents several cases of workers who were hustled back to work or fired after being injured on the job. The great bulk of them are undocumented workers — people whose legal insecurity makes them wary of coming forward with their complaints.

The series exposes yet again the truth that our food system relies on the ability to abuse workers, animals, and the environment in order to maintain profits while churning out “cheap” food.

Mad-man disease

In yet another recent incident of an activist group catching industrial-meat producers inflicting cruelty on livestock as a matter of course, the Humane Society of the United States recently documented animal abuse at a factory-style slaughterhouse in Chino, Calif.

According to the HSUS account:

In the video, workers are seen kicking cows, ramming them with the blades of a forklift, jabbing them in the eyes, applying painful electrical shocks and even torturing them with a hose and water in attempts to force sick or injured animals to walk to slaughter.

Of course, it should be noted that those same workers are almost certainly under severe pressure to keep the kill line running smoothly, by any means necessary. The real villain here is an industrial food system that treats animals as industrial inputs.

It’s also of note that this company is so obsessed with bringing “downer” cows to slaughter. The facility in question “is the second-largest supplier of beef to USDA’s Commodity Procurement Branch, which distributes the beef to needy families, the elderly and also to schools through the National School Lunch Program,” HSUS reports.

Mystery meat of tortured downer cow doesn’t sound like a very wholesome school lunch.