In 2004, Timothy Pachirat took a job in a large beef slaughterhouse in the US. Over several months, he worked at three different jobs: he packed livers and drove cattle before being promoted to a quality-control position. Pachirat is an academic, and working in this plant was part of his research project on how certain activities are concealed from view in modern society. In the first chapter of the book that grew out of that research, he discusses how not only slaughterhouses but also institutions such as psychiatric hospitals, prisons and nursing homes are often "hidden from sight" in a civilised society.
Before delving into detailed descriptions of his months at the slaughterhouse, he reviews laws recently passed or proposed in the states of Iowa and Florida that would make it a felony to make audio or video recordings in animal facilities. As Pachirat states: "Those who profit directly from contemporary slaughterhouses also actively seek to safeguard the distance and concealment that keep the work of industrialized killing hidden from larger society."
Pachirat describes all the sights, sounds and smells he encountered from the day he entered the plant until he left, taking in everything from employee locker rooms to tail removal and interaction with workers and management. He makes the interesting observation that even within the plant, the killing of the cattle was compartmentalised; when he worked in the chilled cooler, he was far away from where the cattle were dispatched. His tone throughout is mostly neutral, until he discusses the treatment of live cattle and the unethical things he was asked to do when he worked in quality control, which is responsible for food-safety compliance.
The treatment of the cattle Pachirat witnessed was atrocious. His supervisor constantly swore and ordered him to poke the electric prod in animals' anuses. He finally quit his job in quality control because management didn't care about cleanliness. He states that he was judged on the number of non-compliance reports, or NRs, that the plant received. NRs are issued by the US Department of Agriculture for food-safety violations when cleanliness is assessed.
Pachirat has never contacted me, and I did not contact him. However, I was able to figure out which plant he worked in after reading his descriptions in this book. Compared with others, this plant's managers are not the most progressive. Other plants are willing to open their doors for industry training events, but this particular one has refused to participate. I read with great interest Pachirat's description of this plant's ostensible use of the animal-welfare auditing system that I had authored. The head of quality assurance would fill in the welfare audit forms while sitting in her office because it made her sad to watch the cattle. I have been in three other plants where quality-assurance staff did not complete the required audits and faked the paperwork. In each, handling was bad and quality-assurance staff were powerless to stop animal abuse because upper management did not care. To evaluate the condition of cattle, you have to look right at them and count how many make distressed moos, how many have fallen down or how many are poked with an electric prod. Cattle are not abstract entities; they are living, breathing animals that pass right next to you as they walk up the "race", the fenced passageway through which animals proceed in single file.
In good plants, audits are easy because the cattle remain calm. Some progressive slaughter plants have opened their doors and demonstrated that the handling of the cattle is peaceful and calm. Last year, the Cargill corporation opened its Colorado beef slaughter plant to The Oprah Winfrey Show and allowed videotaping inside. Cargill has also installed a video-monitoring system, with both cattle handling and food safety scrutinised by an outside auditing system via the internet.
I have posted footage of cattle handling and slaughter, drawn from my own research in this area, on YouTube, and I and other progressive people in the industry agree that the meat industry needs to stop hiding. In his book The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan argues that slaughterhouses should have glass walls. I could not agree more.
Half the cattle in the US are handled in equipment that I have designed, and I am proud of my work. For the process to be humane, there must be good and conscientious management who ensure that the equipment is used properly. When a plant is poorly managed, the best equipment is worthless. In 2004, the plant Pachirat worked in was known both for its cruel treatment of cattle and its horrible, unethical management. I have seen cattle slaughter conducted peacefully. When people visit such sites, they are surprised at how calm the cattle are. What we need to build today are electronic glass walls based on video and internet technology. When the public watches, slaughterhouse managers will maintain high standards of both food safety and animal welfare.
Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight
By Timothy Pachirat
Yale University Press, 224pp, £30.00
Published 12 January 2012