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What is Meat Packing?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated: Feb 16, 2024

Meat packing is the wholesale slaughtering, processing and packaging of animals into meats to distribute to retailers such as supermarkets. The wholesale meat packaging industry purchases the animals from farms. Meat is considered to be the flesh of pigs, cows, lambs and sheep. The flesh of chickens, ducks and other poultry is not considered to be meat; fish is not considered to be meat either. Meat packing is a worldwide industry that may or may not be inspected and controlled by government agencies, depending on each location.

Safety and sanitation should be important concerns in meat packing since disease and contamination of meats can occur in unsanitary conditions. Since meat is the flesh of slaughtered animals, it must be kept cold as soon as possible after the slaughter so it doesn't spoil. Proper refrigeration and freezing are crucial in the meat industry.

The earliest recorded commercial distribution of frozen meat was in 1874. The meat was shipped to England from the United States. Chicago remained America's largest meat packing region until the 1920s. In the meat industry's early days, packing plants had rooms cooled with ice to store meats. Cattle shipper Gustavus Swift is credited with the development of railroad car cooling systems using ice. This made shipping meat over long distances by railway possible before electric refrigeration systems were invented.

Meat packing plants may specialize in a certain type of meat or product. For instance, some commercial meat packers only pack, process and distribute organic meats. Organic meat comes from animals that aren't given any antibiotics or growth hormones. Governing bodies are formed to routinely inspect farms that raise animals for organic meat. Other packing companies only export frozen meats or just process one type, such as sheep meat from New Zealand.

The meat packing industry tends to have many critics. Issues of sanitation as well as animal cruelty and worker abuse surface from time to time. Diseases such as the mad cow epidemic in the beef industry do occasionally occur in meat plants. Meat industry critics have complained of low pay for immigrant workers as well as butchers getting burned, cut and losing fingers.

Most countries have at least some government licensing, employment and inspection standards, but these may be inadequate in some areas. Those opposed to meat packing practices in some parts of the world have protested to try and change conditions. Some governments have responded with closer monitoring and inspection procedures.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By mantra — On Jun 20, 2011

I recently read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It depicts corruption in the American meat packing industry in the 1900s. American meat packing in the 1900's was corrupted largely by capitalism without regulations.

The book caused quite the uproar and helped lead to the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act along with the Meat Inspection Act. There was a very strong reaction to the book. Purchases in the states as well as foreign purchases of meat fell by about 50%.

Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, written a hundred years after The Jungle, shows things aren’t a whole lot different now. There are many similarities found in these two books. I hope regulations are upheld more than Schlosser’s book would have us believe.

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