04/18/2013 04:56 pm ET

Harper's Slaughterhouse Investigation Reveals Nasty Secrets Of Nebraska Beef Industry


"The Way of All Flesh," the cover story of this month's Harper's magazine, may be named after a well-regarded 1903 novel by Samuel Butler, but it includes more gory details than a typical zombie movie.

Yet "The Way of All Flesh" isn't "Walking Dead" fan fic -- it's the result of the latest investigation by National Book Critics Circle-award-winning journalist Ted Conover. Conover is well known for going undercover as a rail-riding hobo, a "coyote" of illegal immigrants, an Aspen taxi driver and a guard at Sing-Sing prison for past books. This time, he's targeted the beef industry. He spent several months working undercover as a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector in a cattle slaughterhouse in Nebraska -- and reported on what he saw for Harper's.

What hits hardest in the piece -- at least if you're a meat eater -- are its disgusting visuals from the production line. Conover's lucid prose gives you an even more cohesive sense of the gore of a slaughterhouse than undercover videos from groups like Mercy for Animals. Reading its 17 pages, you encounter pools of blood, dangling eyeballs, green parasites that live in bile ducts, dead fetuses and, memorably, a liver abscess filled with enough pus to cover Conover in green slime when it gets ruptured.

One shocking detail? Conover discovers that the livers of cows that have been fed more antibiotics have more abscesses than those that have been fed less. And the feedlots know it. Conover writes:

Somehow this was worse than seeing shit on the meat or ingesta leaking out of a ruptured stomach. It wasn't contamination from an isolated slaughterhouse mishap: it was deliberate, systematic contamination of the food chain. As much as 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are administered to livestock -- they are a powerful way to ensure animal growth. I knew this had to be a dangerous practice, because overuse of antibiotics leads to resistance on the part of bacteria. It ultimately robs these medicines of their power.

What I hadn't known was that consumption of these drugs makes so many cattle sick. That was morally unsettling, of course. But it was equally unsettling in terms of what we eat.

Not everything Conover finds is quite so grim. He depicts his fellow USDA inspectors as honest and dedicated to making the food system safer. They aren't saints -- they're casually prejudiced against many of the Latin American immigrants who work in the factory, and they're dismissive of animal rights and the organic movement -- but they work hard to prevent contaminated meat from making it to grocery store shelves. And most of them remain enthusiastic meat eaters even after working in slaughterhouses for decades.

This is just a thumbnail sketch of the piece, which is well worth reading in full in the May 2013 issue of Harper's, or, if you're a subscriber of the magazine, on the Harper's website behind a paywall. Think of it as a more literary, emotionally robust companion piece to the Kansas City Star's massive investigation of the beef industry from this past fall.