Why Isn’t Meat Processing Done By Robots?

And why answers to questions like that could become a big problem for American workers…

Look, we admit we know next to nothing about the meat packing industry, and little about what’s involved in processing meat from the time it’s a live animal until it gets into your supermarket. But most chickens we’ve seen look like pretty much every other chicken we’ve seen. Especially those produced by large corporate farms and processors, which are often bred for uniformity.

In that context, having people working in processing plants: long hours in close quarters, which has led to thousands of Coronavirus infections, and numerous plant shutdowns, has made us wonder why that’s the case.

And it’s not just those workers in that industry. It’s something Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell just said that set us down that path. What he said was:

“Long stretches of unemployment can damage or end workers’ careers as their skills lose value”.

And he’s right: because if we were corporate executives right now, while the first thing we’d be thinking about is how to get through this current economic disaster, the second thing we’d be thinking about is how, in the long run, do we do what we do now with fewer people and more machines that don’t get sick?

Not only because we may not be able to afford to pay employees, but because people, while generally dedicated and durable, are usually still more fragile than machines and can become ill more easily than machines break down. If machines were doing the jobs during this or another pandemic, they could just keep on working, virus or not.

The American workplace was already heading in this direction: this may just speed it up. A lot. Also, a lot of people may not be that excited about commuting to work on crowded public transportation and being crammed into crowded office spaces or warehouses or factories for a long while. (How do we socially distance on elevators in a skyscraper?) Especially if they can afford not to, or figure out some way to add some flexibility to their work routine. But there’s a danger in that too. If you’re not physically around your workplace, it’s easy for your employer to start feeling like maybe you don’t really need to be around.

So why haven’t more industries become even more automated? After all, in the long run, robots will be cheaper than people.

Some possible reasons:

  • Even though more robots and more automation may save money in the long run, it costs a huge amount of money to put them into place, and requires a commitment to completely re-engineer workflow, which could substantially interrupt current business (albeit temporarily). So why do it if there’s a cheap, steady supply of labor with no end in sight?
  • People are usually more flexible than machines. While robots should be able to work 24/7 with no complaints, if business suddenly slumps they can be shut down for a while, but still have major maintenance costs for some very expensive machinery, and companies still need to pay for a place to keep them. With people, just add shifts if business is good, lay them off if it’s bad, and either way they leave and go home when they’re done.

So let’s get back to those meat packing plants. Thing is, there is technology that could do a lot of that work. Why isn’t it already widely being used? The most common reason given by the industry is waste. Several news stories we found quote industry executives saying knife skills of human workers result in far more precise butchering than a machine could currently do. And it’s in the interests of meat processing companies to get every last bit they can sell out the door and not left on the factory floor. Fair enough.

Also, because of capital investment and upkeep costs for robot butchers, it’s still less expensive to hire people and put them on the job.

At the same time, we found an article in Business Insider, which describes a New Zealand company’s technology being used to butcher lamb:

The first robot takes X-rays and a CT scan of the carcass, which generate a 3D model of its shape and size. Based on what the system sees in the model, another bot drives rotary knives between the ribs and cuts through the hanging carcass, using the spinal chord as a reference point.”

Kicker is, one of the biggest U.S. meat packers, JBS, couple of years ago bought control of that company, and has been developing similar technology to process beef, as you can see in this company-released video below, which emphasizes how using robot butchers improves the safety of humans working in its plants:

Click on the photo to watch

Which leads us to believe a lot of why things are done the way they are right now in that industry is because it’s the way they’ve always been done, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But now it’s broke. By a disease. That kills humans.

Now back to the Federal Reserve. Which also finds that:

Among people who were working in February, almost 40 percent of those in households making less than $40,000 a year had lost a job in March.”

Which is shocking, though not surprising. But there’s another thing interesting about it: the Federal Reserve, which is essentially a bank, is going to great lengths to assess and address the real human toll of this health and economic crisis, and and is expressing a lot of concern about its impact on families. And Fed Chair Powell has been notable for his empathy and understanding.

Contrast that to the White House, which seems more hung up on bickering over how to count numbers of tests, and, cases, and deaths. And demanding governors separately run and finance most of the response efforts, but at the same time so far refusing to help them with funds, even though most of the most common ways states raise money (sales tax, gas tax) are plummeting. So the Fed is stepping in there too, buying up bonds issued by state and local governments.