I didn’t know what to expect, walking into a Russian slaughterhouse. The fact that Miratorg, a large corporation, had agreed to give me access was surprising. “We have nothing to hide,” said Miratorg’s PR manager.
I wanted to take pictures, so could I bring a camera?
Miratorg is proud of its gigantic, gleaming plant, which rises up from rolling cropland in the countryside of Bryansk, a province 250 miles southwest of Moscow. If it was in America, it would rank among the top 15, capacity-wise.
But getting access to these facilities in the U.S. can be difficult. And ag-gag laws have created a hostile environment for anyone who might audit a meat processing facility. And I understand why, because the slaughtering industry is caught in a difficult situation. Collectively, they have made good strides in improving sanitation, animal welfare, and worker safety. Plants today are a paradise compared to those portrayed in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, about conditions in Chicago’s packing houses. Once the novel was published on this date in 1906, it led to a number of reforms.
However, popular perception just won’t let the industry off the hook. It’s a reality Bill Rupp, president of JBS packing in Colorado, has grappled with. In an effort to create greater transparency about what it does, JBS hosted a press day last year. You can hear the sincerity in the voices of the plant managers via this NPR radio story as they give their tour. But it’s tough for a reporter encountering butchered animals not to fixate on gory details, like heads lying on a conveyor belt.
“I think it’s part of the evolution we’re going through on transparency,” Rupp tells NPR’s Luke Runyon. “We’ve seen it so many times, where there’s been a photo allowed, and then they zero in on the piece of meat on the floor. And then it becomes ‘Deplorable Conditions At Local Packing House.’”
Inside Miratorg, I meet two Russian versions of Rupp: Natalia Lomako, director of quality, and Ilya Yatsenkov, a senior technology assistant. They genuinely want to show off their facility. But to do that, first we change into white pants, rubber boots, hat, and insulated lab coats. I feel like a Stormtrooper.
Our first stop is at a wall-size schematic of the plant. Every room and chamber is color coded according to its function, with arrows indicating the flow chart, as animals enter on one end and packaged meat leaves from the other.
The storyteller in me wants to see that process from steer to sirloin. But the sanitation expert demands that we go in reverse, from the clean zones of the plant (packaged meat) into the dirty (whole animals). We pass through a sanitation chamber, a room whose design looks a bit like airport security. First, we wash our hands and dried them in turbocharged air dryers. Then we walk across platforms with rotating bristles to clean our boots. Then we wash our hands again, this time with an antibacterial liquid. Finally, we enter the halls of Miratorg’s jungle.
An overhead conveyor belt shuttled beef halves through a cavernous corridor. Workers stood in a line, each working with a knife to break down their designated spot on the next carcass to pass by. They wore chainmail gloves and vests to protect against errant knife cuts.
Similarities and Differences
As we walk along the line, the row upon row of beefs did seem forest-like, perhaps a clue as to what Sinclair meant by titling the book The Jungle. (Though, he mentions the word only once in his novel, in reference to a brothel.) The bodies are stretched long like tree trunks, between which I could just glimpses the killing floor. The air is humid and the tall ceilings created an auditory environment like that of a tree canopy.
But Miratorg’s slaughterhouse is also different in ways that show how far the meat processing industry has come since Sinclair’s book was published.
Miratorg’s plant was designed by the Austrian company ATP, and features state-of-the-art technology. Nearly all the machinery and infrastructure were imported. The building is air conditioned, with temperatures hovering around freezing, to ensure against spoilage. Miratorg’s plant was windy, too, with pressurized air flow going from clean zones to dirty, reducing the chances of airborne contaminants contacting the finished meat. And vis-a-vis the chainmail, worker safety is clearly important.
In fact, everyone seems to love their job. Miratorg brought 3,800 jobs to the Bryansk region, between its livestock farms, feedlots, and this processing plant. When we bump into the lead engineer, he tells me that because Miratorg’s meatpacking plant is one-of-a-kind in Russia, it attracts the best of the best workers. And it’s a place where they could meet, and learn from, colleagues from Europe and America. Likewise, on the corporation’s 51 ranches, Americans have trained 1,000 Russian herdsmen in the cowboy trade. (See: Going Home, Home on the…Steppes of Eurasia.)
Yatsenkov is giddy with with excitement to show off the plant’s bells and whistles: the shock-freezing chambers where a fresh carcass is brought down in temperature to make for easy disassembly (cold meat is easier to cut); the octopus-like robot arms that sorted and bagged different cuts of meat as they passed down the assembly line; and the dry-aging chamber where Miratorg makes the specialty steaks served at restaurants in Moscow. (See: Russians Raise the Steaks By Demanding Blood.)
The facility was built for future growth, and ran under capacity when I was there. In the U.S., such a plant would run around-the-clock. Slaughterhouses are expensive to operate, making it difficult to be profitable when one stands idle. But Russia doesn’t yet have the cattle population to support such an economy of scale. The current estimate is that Russia’s beef herd has grown to around a half million animals. (See: A First-Generation Russian Bull Comes of Age.) Miratorg owns 365,000 of them (of which 145,000 are mother cows), but that’s not yet enough to keep the plant fully operational. That may be a good thing, because by only running one shift in a day, workers can develop the attention to detail required for meeting sanitation, worker safety, and animal welfare standards.
Miratorg is experiencing growing pains. The Western food ban, the Russian government’s retaliatory sanction over the conflicts in the Ukraine and Crimea, has outlawed imported beef from its biggest suppliers. On the positive side, Russia’s food industry is becoming less dependent on imports, the stated goal of the Food Security Doctrine, a 2010 law whose subsidies brought Miratorg into existence.
Like many Russian food producers, Miratorg has benefited from sanctions by signing contracts with restaurants and grocery stores desperate to find a Russian supplier for the beef they once imported from Europe, Australia, and the United States. (See: For Some Russian Farmers, Trade Sanctions Never Tasted So Good.)
To keep all those Russian menus and shelves supplied with beef, however, Miratorg has had to ramp up production. The plant opened in September 2014, and produced 3,000 metric tons (MT) of meat that year. In 2015, its first full year of operation, Miratorg produced 40,500 MT. And in 2016, it expects to produce 62,100 MT. When operating at full capacity, the plant can produce 130,000 MTs of meat.
The corporation is designed to be “vertically integrated,” meaning it controls every step of the supply chain: breeding, growing, fattening, processing, sale, and even distribution at their own name brand grocery stores. But the sharp increase requires that Miratorg process more cattle than its herd can supply. To fill periodic gaps in the supply of animals arriving at the slaughterhouse, Miratorg has resorted to buying stocker cattle from Australia (live animal imports are allowed under the Western Food Ban). They also push breeding-quality animals into production.
And as the ruble decreases in value, Miratorg is now exporting its meat to more lucrative markets in the Middle East. It is a corporation after all, and one with US$1.6 billion in government-backed loans to pay off. It is unfortunate, though, that the outcome effectively takes meat out of Russia, the opposite intention of the government’s food security initiatives that made those loans in the first place.
As we walk onto the killing floor, I see a hangar-sized room with scaffolding going nearly to the ceiling. This is the “dirty” part of the plant, a transition made obvious by the change to green worker uniforms. This room marks the instant cattle became beef. The smell is not as overpowering as I’d expected. In fact, the odor took me back to a pleasant experience in my life.
For the second half of my slaughterhouse experience, check back here on Monday.
Ryan Bell is a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow traveling through Russia and Kazakhstan. He’ll report about food topics for The Plate, and his travel adventures for Voices. You can also follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Storify. His project website is Comrade Cowboys.