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Supermarket Butchers Face Sharp Cuts--in Work Force

Workers in supermarkets have been among the hardest hit by leveraged buyouts, mergers and corporate raids designed by financial manipulators who are concentrating more and more economic power in fewer and fewer hands.

But there is yet another force that is almost inevitably going to take its toll on many supermarket workers. And it isn’t a result of corporate greed.

Extensive use of “disassembly lines” in meatpacking centers could wipe out more than half of the estimated 150,000 remaining jobs of skilled butchers and thousands more meat-wrapping jobs in the nation’s 30,400 supermarkets.

Now, most fresh meat in supermarkets is cut and packaged into retail-sized portions by butchers working inside supermarkets.

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However, it is much more efficient and no quality is lost when lower-paid, less skilled workers are hired to do the job on mass production disassembly lines in large meat factories. It’s the reverse of the way cars are put together in auto assembly plants.

The meat factory system would reduce consumer prices--if supermarket owners don’t pocket all savings from lower production costs. The clear losers, though, will be the nation’s journeymen butchers.

Centralized meatpacking has been technologically feasible for years but wasn’t put into general use--just because of the color purple.

Here’s why: Most consumers want the meat they buy to look fresh, not just be fresh. And it looks most temptingly fresh when it’s a nice pinkish red.

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That attractive color is there when meat is cut into retail portions by butchers in supermarket meat departments. As soon as they cut the meat, it is put on a polystyrene tray and wrapped in plastic, ready for sale in its traditional color.

But when a carcass is cut into retail-sized portions on a moving line in a central packing plant, it has to be vacuum packed or treated in some other way to keep it fresh. By the time the centrally packaged meat is put on supermarket counters, it has turned purple--like the flesh around an eye that has just been punched.

Retailers say too many customers are turned off by the unexpected color and therefore buy much less meat.

So instead of using the cost-cutting, mass-production technique, many of the old-fashioned butchers still do the final cutting in the supermarkets.

Ken Olsen, a Vons vice president, says that before World War II, meat was not prepackaged at all. It was sold over the counter after skilled butchers in each store cut entire sides of meat brought in from slaughterhouses into small retail cuts.

That meant plenty of work for supermarket butchers, who did everything needed to reduce a side of a steer into retail portions.

The butchers’ troubles began just after the war as supermarkets opened self-service meat departments.

Instead of buying entire sides of meat, virtually all markets began buying smaller cuts, such as loins and ribs, from slaughterhouses. These are easier to handle and cut into retail portions than the big sides.

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Fewer supermarket butchers were needed, although there were still many jobs available for them to turn those smaller cuts into customer-ready packages.

More butchers’ jobs were lost when beef sales began plummeting as cholesterol-conscious consumers bought relatively more chicken and fish. Partly as a result, beef now makes up only about 12% of a supermarket’s dollar volume--half the amount sold a decade ago.

Several supermarket chains tried operating their own central packing facilities in the 1970s, but that pushed beef sales down even further because of the discoloration and other problems and almost all of those experiments were stopped.

Supermarket News, a trade publication, recently did a special study on so-called case-ready meat, and the consensus of the experts interviewed was that the arrival of factory-packed beef in most supermarkets is practically inevitable, although nobody knows how soon.

The purple color problem can almost certainly be solved, but if it isn’t, well, as one industry leader said, the public can be taught through advertising that beauty is really only skin-deep and that purple meat can be as fresh and delicious as pinkish red.

That means still more of the highly skilled jobs of supermarket butchers will be lost to meat-factory workers using automated equipment spewing out uniform cuts of case-ready meat.

Some of the supermarket butchers--most of whom are members of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union--might find jobs in the meat factories where many workers are members of the same union.

However, because of floors slippery with blood and water and the use of heavy automated cutting tools, those factory jobs are among the most dangerous in the country. Additionally, the wages have been slashed in recent years, paying far less than supermarket butchers earn.

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Either as a result of corporate mania or technological advances, the ranks of supermarket industry workers continue to diminish.

The union can continue to help supermarket butchers by pressuring the companies to reduce the number of jobs only by attrition, not by firing those now working.

And the union could win public admiration if it pressures supermarkets to share with both consumers and workers the labor-cost savings that come when meat factories replace most butchers in the stores.


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