Skip to Main Content

Meatcutters and Meat Packers


In early America, one merchant usually performed the entire procedure of buying farm animals and then slaughtering, cutting, and marketing meat. Farm families often slaughtered their own food animals, dressing the carcasses and curing the meat so that it wouldn't spoil quickly. The first professional meatpacking businesses were established in the colonies of New England; with the growth of the United States, slaughterhouses were built in the new territories, nearer to the growing numbers of livestock. In the 1800s, Cincinnati, Ohio, became an important center of hog slaughtering. Later, the construction of the railroads led Chicago, with its central location, to become the country's slaughtering capital. Advances in transportation and refrigeration, however, now have made it easier to transport meat than livestock. As a result, packing houses have been established closer to the places where cattle are bred and grazed, especially in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Texas, Minnesota, and California.

At the turn of the century, working conditions at slaughtering facilities often were deplorable. The publication of Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, which described conditions in Chicago's stockyards, led to a great public outcry and is said to have influenced the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, one of the first attempts to regulate the food industry in the United States. Conditions at many slaughterhouses remained a source of public disapproval for many more years, until the passage of the Humane Slaughter Act in 1960, which created requirements for the more humane slaughtering of animals. Today, meatcutters work in more than 7,000 slaughterhouses and meat packing plants, of which more than half are federally inspected.