KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Food companies are starting to pay close attention to the groundswell of support for food transparency. Call it the know-where-your-food-comes-from movement. Large multinational corporations that run animal slaughter facilities are opening up a bit. But as Luke Runyon of member station KUNC reports, meat packers are in a tough spot trying to tell consumers about their business without dwelling on the gory details.
LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Conveyor belts snake through the JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colo. But it's not an assembly line. Workers in blood-spattered smocks disassemble cattle, breaking down whole animals into cuts of meat. Bill Danley is the plant's manager.
BILL DANLEY: We're going to walk through here. I'm going to shut the chain off real quick.
RUNYON: You can smell the manure. We're just about to head into the harvest floor where they actually kill the animals before they send them into the rest of the processing plant. Danley weaves through a maze of hanging carcasses, placing his hand on a swinging steer to halt the line. There are whole Holsteins, the black and white cattle, moving down a conveyor belt, hung up by their legs. Their heads are laying on the conveyor belt. Their tongues are sticking out.
DANLEY: These guys here, what they're doing is - they're taking the cheek meat off. There's head meat on top of that. A lot of your taco filler is made out of cheek meat and head meat.
RUNYON: But taco meat is just the beginning. This one steer is destined to be sirloin at steak houses, ground hamburger at grocery stores, and leather for car seats. The company's plants churn out enough beef, chicken, lamb and pork to make JBS the largest meatpacking company in the world. And like many of the world's largest meatpackers, JBS has stayed largely out of the spotlight while staying on your dinner table.
BILL RUPP: You know, part of you says, I need to learn how to bring the packing house into the consumer's living room.
RUNYON: Bill Rupp heads the company's beef division.
RUPP: And then at the same time, you think of all the pitfalls and trying to explain to consumers how we harvest their meat.
RUNYON: Rupp says while the know-your-food movement has gained momentum, when it comes to me most consumers don't actually want to know all the grisly parts, and that's the internal struggle many large industrial-scale food companies face.
CAMERON BRUETT: The consumer 20, 30 years ago wasn't all that interested where that beef on that styrofoam - white styrofoam with the plastic wrap - where that meat came from.
RUNYON: JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett says for a long time, beef has been a commodity, shipped out from meatpacking plants and boxes and rebranded at grocery stores and restaurants. Bruett says when your immediate customers are other businesses, there's little value in telling your story.
BRUETT: I don't even necessarily think that's unique to JBS. I think that is livestock and poultry in general.
KATIE ABRAMS: Because the industry has been slow to opening the barn doors, so to speak, they have a bit of catching up to do.
RUNYON: Katie Abrams studies consumer perceptions of agriculture at Colorado State University. She says the meat industry's reluctance to be more transparent has made meat processing appear secretive, scary and mysterious to most meat eaters. And attempts to fix that reputation will be costly.
ABRAMS: They have to be continual. It's not just going to be releasing a press release or a blog post or you know, a one-time short-term campaign.
RUNYON: JBS could soon take a few more timid steps into the spotlight. It's currently attempting to buy a huge competitor in pork processing. And while JBS has been privately held in the U.S. now, it's exploring the possibility of going public which would layer on even more scrutiny. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colo.
MCEVERS: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food.