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OM in the News: The Bone Factory

October 3, 2013

meat factoryBlood is everywhere in JBS’s vast slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colo., reports BusinessWeek (Sept. 23-29, 2013). It’s puddled on concrete floors, smeared on workers’ smocks, gushing from cattle knifed on the killing floor. The smell hangs on the air in a high-ceilinged room, where JBS employees toil at chopping tables along a conveyor belt. With hooks in one hand and knives in the other, they trim fat and pare as much muscle from the bone and vertebrae as they can, turning raw slabs into tenderloins and New York strips.

“Disassembly” lines like this one, relying not on robots but humans, are where JBS and other meatpackers make money. Profit margins are slim in the meat business. Rivals buy essentially the same livestock, fatten them on the same feed, and hope to whittle extra scraps of profit by being the most efficient at turning carcasses into salable cuts. “Humans have not invented a machine that can debone a cow or a chicken as efficiently as a human being,” says a JPMorgan analyst.

Each day, the Greeley plant’s 3,200 workers can slaughter and debone 5,400 head of cattle, producing 3.3 million pounds of meat. Beef expertly cut from the bone can fetch $10 a pound at retail, while leftover scraps get 1/10 of that, quickly adding up to a lot of lost profit.

JBS spends heavily on training and equipment to improve the yield. A steer or heifer can yield 72% of its gutted weight. Further, the company also installed overhead screens that flash numbers indicating whether workers are meeting yield targets. Progress is also measured in bones: the clean, white skeletal fragments are tossed into baskets behind the disassembly line, where supervisors count how many each line worker is detaching. Top producers wear black hats and get paid more.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. How does the disassembly line differ from an assembly line?

2. Why is productivity so important at JBS?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Nigel permalink
    October 3, 2013 6:16 am

    Time to reach for your copy of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to see how things haven’t changed since 1906.

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