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World's Largest Meatpacking Company Tests Out Robot Butchers


About a quarter of a million people work in slaughterhouses to prepare the beef, pork and chicken that ends up in America's dinner tables. Some of those jobs could eventually be replaced by robots. Luke Runyon from member station KUNC reports the world largest meatpacking company is looking at ways to automate the art of butchery.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: We're walking through a meat-cutting line and through JBS here in Greeley, Colo. There are workers in white frocks and white hats using hooks and knives to trim up some of the meat and get rid of the fat.

BILL DANLEY: There's right now 850 people right out in this building alone. We're go down through some of the tables. We won't go in between them, but you'll get a good view of what we do out here on the floor.

RUNYON: That's the plant's manager, Bill Danley. He's on the floor - short for fabrication floor - where whole cattle carcasses become the neat and trim cuts of beef you get at the grocery store. Hundreds of workers in blood-spattered white jackets and protective chain mail stand along conveyor belts. Carcasses inch along, hanging from a track above.

DANLEY: That is a split carcass - that's a whole beef. And then we start the disassemble process out here on the fab (ph) floor.

RUNYON: The plant is a far cry from your grandfather's butcher shop, where a single person needed to know how to turn an entire animal into cuts of meat. Large beef companies, like JBS, Cargill and Tyson, have turned each minute step of the process into a job. Danley lists some of the titles - a chuck boner, tender puller, back splitter, a knuckle dropper.

DANLEY: There's a lot of jobs out here that prep for the other person.

RUNYON: Each year, this one plant pays out more than $100 million in paychecks to its 3,000 employees. It's a huge chunk of the company's operating costs. And while robots have revolutionized the manufacturing industry, meatpackers have stubbornly held on to workers. But that could be changing. Late this fall, JBS bought a controlling share of Scott Technology, a New Zealand-based robotics firm.

CAMERON BRUETT: This is a very innovative and exciting company that we invested in, and we're excited to see what they come up with.

RUNYON: That's JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett. He says the world's largest meatpacker is looking at how robots could fit into their lamb and pork plants first. Sheep and pigs tend to be more uniform than beef cattle.

BRUETT: Now, when it comes to beef packing, beef processing, the fabrication of the animal, it's very difficult to automate beef processing.

RUNYON: The meatpacking robots of today use vision technology to slice and dice. But the key to butchery is touch, not sight. And the company's beef division president, Bill Rupp, says right now, robots just can't feel how deep a bone is, or expertly remove a filet mignon.

BILL RUPP: When you get into that detailed, skilled cutting, robots aren't there yet. Someday, I'm sure they will be.

DON STULL: Workers are really cheaper than machines.

RUNYON: Don Stull studied the cultures of Midwest meatpacking towns at the University of Kansas for 30 years.

STULL: Machines have to be maintained; they have to be taken good care of. And that's not really true of workers. As long as there is a steady supply, the workers are relatively inexpensive.

RUNYON: Stull says turnover in the industry is high because of the physical demands. And there's a stream of immigrants and refugees to put on the chain mail and pick up the knife. Meatpacking jobs consistently rank among the most hazardous in the country. Increased automation could ease some of those injuries. But until technology catches up, meatpacking companies will continue hiring low-skill workers to cut meat. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colo.

CORNISH: That story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.