Looking your bacon in the eye: Notes from a slaughter class

By Jake Lahne

slaughtervideoI want to describe our unfamiliarity with animal slaughter as "startling," "surprising," or "shocking." After all, in the United States we consume a staggering amount of meat: more than 220 pounds per person per year on average. Yet while it's perfectly acceptable socially to be concerned with animal welfare or the quality of the meat afterward, interest in the transitional process — slaughter — seems disturbingly atavistic. Which is why most of us have only encountered animal slaughter through PETA video exposes, Sarah Palin's turkey slaughtering video faux pas, or by reading "The Jungle," "Fast Food Nation," or (in a more positive vein) "The Omnivore's Dilemma." If you don't eat meat, of course, it's easy to shrug and dismiss the whole system as barbaric; although I believe there are good arguments for continuing to responsibly raise animals for food, not least because of their deliciousness.

I think I'm safe in saying that most meat eaters avoid undue meditation on the subject because they have (or believe they have) come to terms with the death on their hands. I really believed I had.

(Caption: Still image taken from a YouTube video shot as part of a Houston Press article on attending Beef 101 class at the Texas A&M Beef Center.)

Slaughter school

I've been a meat eater all my life, and an advocate of what the Ethicurean dubs SOLE food (sustainable, organic, local, and/or ethical) advocate for years.  I try to buy my meat from small farmers who raise their animals responsibly and humanely, because I believe this is the right thing to do.

Unlike many people who feel similarly, however, I am a graduate student in Food Science and Human Nutrition at a large Midwestern university.  This semester, in search of a real understanding of where meat comes from, I enrolled in a course focused on the slaughtering and processing of meat animals, mostly for large industry.

river_cottage-meat_900

River Cottage Meat Book diagram illustratring where cuts of beef come from

I decided to take the class after reading Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's "The River Cottage Cookbook" and "The River Cottage Meat Book," two English cookbook-manifesto hybrids that both heavily emphasize nose-to-tail cooking and ethical animal-raising practices. I've spent time working in restaurant kitchens and on an organic farm, so I felt like I was pretty aware and informed, but the books made me realize how divorced I am from meat production.

It is easier to disavow knowledge of what goes into slaughter, imagining the process as a black box which mysteriously transforms living animals into consumables. The meat industry caters to this kind of thinking. But by preempting this opportunity to understand and empathize with our food animals we are, I believe, lessening ourselves. As humans we have the ability to empathize with other living beings — it's what makes slaughter so unpleasant for us — and knowing exactly what an animal goes through, both on the farm and in the slaughterhouse, seems an important factor in the decision to eat meat.

Some just opt out of the whole system, and become vegetarian. But I would argue that we have guided the evolution of our domestic animals into their current form for millennia. We call them domestic for a reason: if we stop raising them for food, we will either be their permanent caretakers or responsible for their eventual extinction. Instead, we trade them, ideally, a short but happy life and the perpetuation of their species for a humane death. That humane death at a slaughterhouse is probably better than one due to illness or infirmity from old age, we tell ourselves.

Signing up for the class, I was mostly worried about the early hour at which the class met, rather than the prospect of having to kill an animal for food. As the day of our first "harvest" — the term generally used for slaughter, as meat animals are considered a crop with a peak cost/ripeness ratio — approached, however, I became more apprehensive. After watching pigs being slaughtered several times in the beginning weeks of the class, I had begun to realize that this might not be as uncomplicated a transaction as it seemed.

I truly believe that humane slaughter is important and possible, but, as I have been learning, here's the truth about any slaughter: it is both morally difficult and really gross.

Animals do not want to die. They can feel pain and fear, and, just like us, will struggle to breathe for even one single more second. If you're about to run 250 volts through a pig, do not look it in the eyes. It is not going to absolve you. The smell of burning hair from the electrodes may mix with the smell of the frightened animals' defecation and urination in an unpleasant way. The meat will be warm, which is a truly unsettling sensory experience. Don't even ask me about "bunging" the animal.

It would be a lie if I were to say that the tactile knowledge of what goes into transforming a pig into bacon has made me happier.

Bringing home the truth about bacon

namp_buyers_guide_900

Diagram of the skeleton and musculature of a side of beef, from the North American Meat Processors handbook

It's no secret that the meat industry has done its best to dissociate the product it's selling — dead animal flesh — from its origins. Local butchers are nearly extinct, and supermarkets are happy to maintain the illusion that meat springs into being wrapped in cellophane on an absorbent tray or, even better, vacuum-packed. Naturally, most consumers become uncomfortable when confronted with the living predecessors of their food, especially when they are forced to acknowledge that, inevitably, suffering and death are an integral part of the product. It's in the best interests of the industry to help people forget that meat was ever on the hoof. The consolidation of animal farming and processing, in hiding the business from the public eye, has increased this healthy discomfort and thoughtfulness into revulsion and a rejection of responsibility, while simultaneously encouraging irresponsible and thoughtless meat consumption.

With a public unwilling to acknowledge the living nature of their food source, the meat industry has been free to institute practices that no compassionate person can countenance. The litany of evils is well-known to readers of the Ethicurean: insufficient living space; "health" through excessive antibiotic use; forced cannibalism through recycling of animal waste (which is thought to be responsible for the rise of Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis - Mad Cow Disease); and clipping of tails, in pigs, and beaks, in chickens, in order to prevent damage to other animals because of abnormal aggressive behavior (generally due to inhumane conditions), to name just a very few.

These terrible conditions have lead an increasing number of people who, like myself, are interested in SOLE food, to seek alternatives. The rise of meat CSAs, nose-to-tail cooking, and small, ethical animal farms is deeply encouraging.  But I believe that only by becoming more cognizant of and involved in the process of animal slaughter is it possible to understand the importance of raising animals so that they live as well as they possibly can. The intense, gut-wrenching realization that slaughtering an animal is ugly, that the animal will experience pain and terror, is sobering and thought-provoking. If this is how the animal will end, surely there is no way to justify raising it in misery.

A long-time devotee of SOLE food, I confess that I've, even recently, occasionally bought meat from the supermarket or in other situations where the animals' welfare was almost surely in doubt. I'm a poor graduate student, right? I made excuses to myself and bought a fresh side of factory pork for bacon or a pound of corn-fed stewmeat here or there. Backed up by all my reading on SOLE food, I've argued eloquently with friends and acquaintances in favor of ethically raised meat — then compromised with myself over the price and convenience of meat counter pork shoulder. But after killing a pig myself, without the mediation of a screen or written page, I can without hesitation say that it isn't worth it. By no means am I interested in giving up meat, but I can't countenance inflicting even more pain on comparatively innocent creatures through raising them in cruel, unnatural conditions if their ultimate fate is to suffer, no matter how briefly, to satisfy my appetite.

I still struggle to explain exactly what's so profound about actually being in the slaughterhouse, about personally wielding the knives. Most people I try to describe the experience to seem to take away only the gross-out factor or the atavistic brutality of the situation, and tell me again and again how they don't think they could ever do the same. It's made my dinner-table conversation a little unpalatable, I think.

The brutality and the grossness are important, but they're not the whole story. Books and recordings help us to withhold our empathy for the creatures that are killed — we can lie a little, make it less real. But if more people really considered what goes into raising and killing an animal for food, perhaps they'd think harder about what they're willing to put on their plate.

lahne_jakeThe is the first post in what we hope will be an ongoing series by Jake Lahne, a second-year MS candidate in Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Jake is committed to the joy of producing, cooking, and eating, and his interest in SOLE food stems from the recognition that food produced dishonestly is inevitably less enjoyable.  After graduating from Oberlin College he spent several years working in the artisanal food industry as a farmhand, line cook, cheesemonger, and intern for Slow Food.  He writes regularly (on less sober matters than taking animal life) at the cocktail blog Liquor Is Quicker."

60 Responsesto “Looking your bacon in the eye: Notes from a slaughter class”

  1. Harlan says:

    Great posting. Jake, please post regularly! As a fellow UIUC grad (not in the ag school), I'd be very interested in hearing about your experiences and insights!

  2. Lucretia says:

    I know that for a lot of people giving up meat can be somewhat of a leap, but I really wonder why, given what you know and what you've seen, that still feel like giving up meat isn't an option? A veg diet has been shown time and time again to be healthy, better for the environment, and rely less on the suffering of animals. There is another option to all of this, and after 8 years of vegetarianism and 2 years of veganism I'm feel confident in saying that once you make that leap you'll wonder why didn't even earlier.

    Also, I agree, absolutely animals were domesticated and bred to the point where they couldn't survive on their own. But that said, I think the proper response would be to simply stop breeding more animals for meat (I mean it's not like they even reproduce on their own without human intervention anymore in the vast majority of agricultural settings) rather than raise an animal with the explicit purpose of killing it? Like you say, animals don't want to die. I think it would be more humane to never bring an animal into existence than to create it just so that we can kill it!

  3. Anne says:

    Great post! Very interesting and informative. Thanks!

  4. Rachel says:

    Great post -- a fresh viewpoint for non-vegetarians that struggle to make ethical food choices. Thank you.

  5. michelle says:

    if it's so gross, ugly, wrong, etc., i find it quite strange this man chooses to keep on eating meat. from the authors own words it is a selfish, ugly act- he not only chooses to perpetrate on an animal but also then participate in as he chews. supermarket meat, "happy meat",  whatever. that's an icky, ugly choice that he knows is wrong. boo! it's so weird - meat isn't required! why this whole debate when he even admits it's an ugly act?

  6. ~Trade a short happy life for a humane death~

    This is something that vegan proponents don't understand. In the wild virtually nobody dies of old age. The closest is dying of starvation or cold in the winter. Most are harvested by meat eating animals. When predators kill their prey it is anything but a humane death. Death at the claws and teeth of a lion, shark, canid, raptor, gator and other assorted meat eaters is a terrifying, excruciatingly painful death that often results in the food animal being eaten while it is still alive and aware. Even death by a human hunter with high powered rifle often results in maiming and a long drawn out chase of a wounded animal as it slowly bleeds while being run to the ground.

    In contrast, death in the slaughterhouse or on the farm is virtually always humane, greater than 99% of the time. The animal ceases to be conscious about 11 seconds prior to the being stunned. Yes, the memories and conscious cease before death. There is no memory, no record, no pain of death. Bring them back from death and ask them, as I've done with my wife (an accident), and they'll explain that they simply ceased to exist. No pain. Totally humane.

    Domestic animals have it good. We've bred them and protected them for millenia to be what they are. We have a symbiotic relationship with them. We both benefit. Pastured meat is sustainable. It should be expensive - it is a far higher value food with more nutrients than say a carrot. We have plenty of pasture to produce more than enough meat for everyone on the planet. I've done the numbers based on how much we use on our farm to sustainably raise livestock and we're in rugged mountains. In lusher locals the pastures can support even more animals than we can. The idea that there isn't enough land is a fallacy. It also ignores that vegetable and grain production use far greater amounts of land to produce lower quality foods where as livestock can be raised on marginal land not suitable for tilling and crops.

    What is a bad idea is the CAFO, Big Ag, Intensive Inputs, Grain Fed, Petroleum Based model of industrial livestock agriculture that has developed in the past century. As oil prices correct upward to their true costs this will fix this unsustainable industry. What we need is to stop subsidizing oil, grain and thus CAFOs. Let them try to survive on their own. Then the price of mass produced meat will rise closer to that of pastured meat.

    It sounds like your first killing didn't go well. You were not experienced or skilled. Learn from your mistakes but don't beat yourself up too badly for that and don't over generalize. Realize that pain and terror are not necessary parts of slaughter. We do it without either of those on our farm. As I mentioned above, the animal's consciousness ceases before the killing blow. There is no pain when it is done right and it can be consistently done right. It is a skill and I'm not surprised that your first time didn't come out right. With humane handling the animal is not in any terror. It is here on our farm, in familiar surroundings with people it knows. Properly done, death, like its life, is peaceful. This is the ideal.

    Keep digging deeper and learning about where your food comes from and how it gets to you. Bravo to you that you would take this journey! Just be sure to look beyond the CAFO and Big Ag industrial meat production. There are a lot of small farmers and little processors - that is what we need more of. I strongly encourage you to find a real local Master Butcher and apprentice with them. Learn the old ways in addition to studying this at the industrial level.

    Cheers,

    -Walter Jeffries
    Sugar Mountain Farm
    in Vermont
    http://SugarMtnFarm.com

  7. Thanks for the post Jake, and thanks too, for the response Walter.  I've been through the course at TAMU in the video.  I can see where some footage can prompt allegations of "cruelty", but as Walter pointed out, the animal is unconscious before it is killed, and all of the "disturbing" parts occur after the animal is dead.  The twitching is from electrical stimulation, AFTER the animal is dead and bled.

    As we strive to be sustainable on our own ranch, we have come to believe that animals are a critical part of our soil stewardship, not just the business plan. 
    Sara Faivre-Davis
    Wild Type Ranch
    http://www.wildtyperanch.com

  8. Steve R says:

    Great post... thanks very much for putting this kind of information out there. Ever since I've been raising my own animals -- which eventually are slaughtered and processed by myself -- I pretty much refuse to eat any meat that hasn't been ethically raised and humanely slaughtered.

    I would rather be a vegetarian than eat factory-produced meat, but thankfully, there are enough sources for ethically-raised meat across the U.S.; someone who refuses/refused to eat meat for ethical reasons (i.e. inhumane raising, contaminated animal food, overly-medicated, hormone fed or injected, inhumanely slaughtered, etc.) now has numerous sources and choices for clean meat.  Plus, it's usually local so it supports area farmers.

  9. Arianne says:

    Gross? That is such a poor subjective weak emotional argument. Picking slugs off carrots is gross too. Gross is irrelevant. We must focus on helping people get to better buying habits. It would help if they were more connected with their food, both meat and veges. Humane is one of the issues. Antibiotics is another. Worker conditions is another. Dont let yourself get sucked into one issue voting.

  10. Mariann says:

    Actually vegans totally understand that animals in the wild often suffer terribly, they just don't use that as an excuse to kill the animals we domesticate, and should thus take responsibility for,  "humanely."  Thanks so much for this post for telling it like it is.  Animals don't want to die, and using the fact that we don't torture them during their lives as an excuse to kill them is pretty weak.  There is no vegan's dilemma (and vegetables and fruits are much more high quality foods than meat, if you are considering nutrients per calorie).

  11. Emily says:

    I had the opportunity to help slaughter 75 chickens last summer. It was a very important experience to me, and I didn't find it particularly "gross" or brutal. After I shared the experience on my blog and with the canning group I run, so many folks were interested I contacted a local chicken farmer and arranged for a class on chicken slaughter. The first class was today. It went very well; folks were glad to really "get it" about where their meat came from.

  12. Monte says:

    I too want to thank Jake for sharing his experience and point of view regarding this subject  matter as well as all of you that have commented thus far.  For me, this comes at a time when I'm involved in an in depth conversation/introspection with myself with the objective to define exactly where I stand on this issue.  The article and comments have been quite helpful in broadening my perspective.

    I grew up on big ranches/farms (cattle, sheep and horse) in CO., NM. and AR.  The beef, pork and poultry (we never took to eating mutton) that my family consumed came from animals that we raised and cared  for with the intent that these animals would be our food.  Our animals were always cared for in a loving thoughtful humane manner.  When it came time for slaughter of our steer or pig we did not do that ourselves.  Instead, we would load up the animal in the livestock trailer and transport them to a local (small operation) meat packing plant that would kill the animal and process/package the meat per my Dad's specific instructions.

    When I was five years old I won a donkey in a raffle (only thing I've ever won in my life) and it didn't take long for me to figure out that this stubborn and mean donkey wasn't for me.  So, my good friend Billy had a pig and he wanted my donkey so we traded straight across.  Now it was understood by me that this pig was "My" pig but the purpose for having the pig was that it would one day become food for the family and I was totally cool with that.  I tell you, this pig got great care.  He was a very  well fed happy pig.  But eventually the day came and it was time to load him up and take him to his destiny.  He seemed to not mind the ride a bit to the slughter house.  When we got there we backed up the trailer to a space that seemed big (to a, at the time, six year old) and it was all concrete and steel.  I herded my pig out of the trailer and he immediately began to walk around and look things over.  He was curious but did not appear to be anxious.  A man came down a ramp with a pistol in his hand, my dad pulled me to one side and out of the way.  The man walked over to my pig and my pig looked up at him and without any hesitation or uncertainty whatsoever, the man raised up his pistol and shot him right between the eyes.   BANG!  My pig falls to the floor without a quiver and it's done. 

    There was no sadness involved in the death of my pig.  It was the basic agreement between me, my pig and my family.  I understood that, my pig understood that (I can't tell you how I  know that but I know it) and my family understood it.  It's called the Food Chain or, more accurately, the Food Web.  It is the way the system is set up i.e., higher-life forms sustain themselves by consuming lower-life forms and it's played out like this from the macro to the micro.  Like Walter says, it's a symbiotic relationship.  However, that being said, there is an optimum balance to the overall system that must be maintained and right now the system is very badly out of balance.

    Over the years the different ranches that my family lived on were responsible for raising thousands of head of cattle and sheep and every fall there would be a big round-up and steers and mutton would be loaded up on big livestock trucks and shipped to far off feed lots.  I never thought much about those animals once they were loaded onto those trucks and on their way.  The feedlots that I had personal experience with back then were not such that I perceived them to be brutal or inhumane.  Perhaps, though, they were but because of what seemed to be "normal" operations to me, I didn't recognize the condition as being such.

    Now, many years later and being far removed from ranching,  knowing what I know about factory farming and the inhumane way living animals (that I've been eating) are treated, I can longer eat an animal that I do not personally know.  And you cannot personally know an animal unless you raise it yourself or know the person who is raising it for you and know how they treat their animals.

    At this time, because of the position I have taken in regards to eating meat, doing so i.e., eating meat, is inconvenient.  The local, small operation food economy infrastructure has been long dismantled.  However, it is slowly coming back but currently it is very disorganized and more esoteric than not.  It's going to take a lot of communication and hard work to reestablish a local food economy in the area where I live but not doing so is not an option.  Doing so, though, is an essential factor in bringing the overall system back into an a state of optimum balance.

  13. Joe says:

    Great post.   We are so removed from the sources of our food, that few people know anymore about how it gets to their plate.  Where I live it is still common for families to get together for hog butchering in the fall, but more typical is the fact that most people never even see a piece of meat with a bone in it.  Think about it - when was the last time you saw a steak or roast in the supermarket that included bone?  It's like they don't want consumers to make the connection to an animal when they pick up that shrink-wrapped package.

    I own a small USDA-inspected slaughterhouse, and people are always asking for tours.  I have taken several college and high school groups through recently and they are fascinated.  Below is a link to my blog about that experience if anyone wants to learn more.  When I hear people talk about meat,  they typically speak as if it is all one thing.  But there are a myriad of nuances to it, from how the animal was raised, what it was fed, how it met its end, how it was processed, how it came to you.  We would all be well served to be better informed consumers, with our choices informed by more than a desire to get the biggest piece for the least amount of money

    http://news.temeat.com/

  14. Tricia says:

    I appreciate that you told the truth about slaughter. I only wish you had the opportunity to spend a semester at a farm animal sanctuary. Working at Farm Sanctuary for the past 4+ years, I've learned more from these animals than any book written by Pollan, Schlosser or the rest of the SOLE foodies. 

    Not only do these animals fear death and feel pain, which anyone could observe at the slaughterhouse, they also form strong social bonds, and they mourn upon the passing of others. I get the privilege to know 20 year old cows, 6 year old chickens, 10 year old pigs, and 8 year old sheep. In agriculture, these animals are rarely afforded a life beyond adolescence.  

    Imagine the quality of relationships that you've developed since childhood. When farm animals arrive at our shelters, we often see them at their most vulnerable. As they recover and adapt to life at the sanctuary, we begin to see them flourish. We are privileged to see the depths of their emotions and the strong bonds that these animals forge with one another when grazing the same pastures, and sleeping in the same barns side by side, for years. 

    I would argue that when we slaughter other animals, we lose a bit of our own humanity.  Bottom line...I'd rather be a permanent caretaker for these animals than their grim reaper.

  15. damaged justice says:

    "(and vegetables and fruits are much more high quality foods than meat, if you are considering nutrients per calorie)"

    There is no way in which the above statement is not completely and utterly divorced from reality.

    Jake, I commend you on facing the unknown, working past your fears, and using the information you gained to make more informed decisions.

  16. Sandra says:

    How much of this is a disconnect from the way things are traditionally done in the world?

    I have a great aunt with a farm in the Chinese countryside. Most of their neighbors are subsistence farmers with small holdings, and not everyone can afford mechanical threshers. When we come to visit, it is a special occasion, and a chicken is slaughtered. It's a quick process - my great aunt catches one, grabs it by the legs, and chops off its head with one clean whack. It is then scalded and cleaned, and served up in a soup or stir fry. These chickens taste better than any chicken I've had in the US.

    While we eat, their compatriots eye us for any grains of rice that might be so fortunate as to drop their way. The chickens have free run of not only the yard, but part of the house. When we were children, we were given small fluffy chicks to play with, and generally, we meet the acquaintance of the chickens before we eat them for lunch.

    I once brought an Australian friend along to the farm, where she was charmed by the scenery and the attention she got as the first blonde to walk through the village. Normally a happy meat eater, she was appalled at the process of having chicken for lunch, declaring the whole affair to be "feral", and barely maintaining a polite veneer. At times like this, I get a headache.

    I am convinced that it is possible to have humane meat slaughter, just not the way we live now. Perhaps it is the sheer size and amounts of our animals. In Xinjiang, I once watched the slaughter of some goats by their herdsman. They had grown fat scrambling up and down Heaven Mountain, cared for by some Kazakhs who lived there. Under skilled hands, a live goat was quickly transformed a side of meat fit for the supermarket. The goats were held down, had their throats slit, and took less than two minutes to die. The head was removed, and the blood was drained away into a pit. The whole carcass was hung upside down, quickly skinned, and the internal organs were removed in one neat twist. The whole process took less than ten minutes. I can't imagine doing the same with the cows of my native Midwest countryside, enormous things that can weigh as much as a small car.

    I very much enjoyed my mutton pilaf that night, as I enjoy my buffalo wings and hamburgers now. I wish I had a better argument for you now than that we should go back to the old ways, but the fact is, most of the world already has a decently humane way of getting their meat. Though we can eat a lot more of it here, it would be healthier and tastier to go back in time. And ethics? Let me put it this way: If I ever get the death sentence, I would rather have Kazakh goatherds do it than a branch of the American government.

  17. "Feral" I love that, Sandra!

    Mariann, I suggest you actually learn about nutrition rather than just spouting politically correct jargon. Reality is very different than you think and not at all PC.

  18. Terry McKenzie says:

    My son, Andrew, pointed me to your post, which I opened uneasily.  I'm one of those people who is really happy not thinking about where my food comes from.  I stopped eating mammals years ago, and teeter on the brink of leaving fish and fowl alone.   After reading your article (which is extremely well written, btw), I've realized that I need to do a better job of choosing where I do my marketing.  Thank you for the wake-up call.

  19. Milo says:

    We learn more about Jake's ego than we do about bacon.  In fact, we never get to the bacon.  I find this kind of sappy personal drivel really irritating when it pretends to be factual or informative. 

    So, where is the bacon?  Is it in helping Jake rationalize slaughter, or helping the animal accept its fate, or "becoming more cognizant", or promoting animal welfare or discouraging meat consumption? 
    I suspect the real purpose is to give Jake a  forum upon which to share his wisdom, however confusing.  If  "the litany of evils is well known...",  let's move forward.  It serves no purpose for each blogger to list the "evils" as if he/she just discovered them, especially when the list is a rehash of an earlier one (as is nearly always the case!), embellished to fit the situation.  Solutions to the mechanical issues of food production/distribution as well as to the perceptual or philosophical ones need to be addressed with more intelligence and less confession.  

    We can begin by accepting that suburbanites have become disconnected from their rural origins.  Period.  And, that rural methods have evolved;  that cheap food, with its political benefits, has changed the way things are done;  that suburban lifestyles have played a significant role in this evolution;  that a realignment is necessary, of which we want to be part.  

    These methods of production, husbandry, animal treatment, slaughter and marketing are a result of many years of social and economic "progress".  We all have contributed to them whether we want to admit it or not.  For agrarians, animal farming and processing has never been "hidden from the public eye".  You're playing catchup and not too well.  Let's drop the silliness and get down to the bacon.

  20. And once you've been a recovered vegetarian and gone back to eating a healthy, balanced, natural omnivore diet that we're meant to eat by our evolution you'll wonder why you ever bothered with veganism and vegetarianism. Been there, done that. Recovered. Keep in mind that producing veggies kills billions of wild animals and destroys habitat. Be real, not PC.

  21. Joe says:

    Actually, it looks to me like Jake is playing catch up quite well.  I believe "the bacon" is the search for authenticity, in what we consume and the depth of understanding with which we do it.  I suspect that Jake will soon know more than most "agrarians" about meat processing.  Most of the farmers that come through my plant regularly don't know jack about cutting meat, judging by the hand-holding we do walking them through the cutting instructions.  Urbanite foodies definitely know more about esoteric cuts and high-style European curing methods.  However, when it comes to what it takes to grow an animal up to eating size - not so much.  There is a range of understanding out there.  I don't think Jake was trying to "rationalize" slaughter.  He did a pretty good job describing the ambiguities and ethical dilemmas involved with taking life.  That is real.  I think that helping people understand how an animal's life can be terminated with a maximum of respect and some dignity is "bacon".

  22. Amy says:

    We operate a small slaughterhouse every day.  We also farm and raise cattle, goats, and horses.  I would have to argue the fighting for the last breath and feeling fear.  This is not accurate in all situations and is not accurate in describing my own slaughterhouse.  The livestock arrive in the morning .  They walk easily off of the stock trailers and into the holding pens.  Sip on some water and converse with their neighbors, chew on some hay.  They meander in the pens until they are walked through the door and moved into the knock box.   Standing still, then stunned.  Its is quiet.  Always  fast and always humane.  This is, of course, our shop.  I cannot speak for anyone else.  But I can speak  adamantly that this is the case in our own.
    Very very seldom are the livestock irritated in anyway.  Honestly, the majority of the minority of the time when the livestock are agitated or ruffled in any way, the owner or farmer has had problems loading the livestock to begin with. They were stressed before they arrived here.  This could be a little lesson to my fellow farmer to arrange their farms in a way that makes loading and unloading less stressful on the animal.  Mind you, that is the exception and not the rule. 
    No prods are used here, no need for them.  Perhaps we should try not to generalize.
     

  23. Heath Putnam says:

    If you want to know how to slaughter and process a Mangalitsa pig into traditional products, there'll be a chance to learn from Austrian experts how to slaughter your own Mangalitsa, cut it up using Austrian seam butchery techniques and learn how to cure the meat.

    Among other things, students will see how important it is to stun (destroy the brain) of the pig by surprise. That kills him without stress. That's good for the pig and meat quality.

    In Austria, the guys who really care about meat quality (and being nice to the pig) snipe the pig with a rifle shot to the brain. The pig never sees it coming.

  24. Heath, you're making the stunning sound more mysterious than it is. It isn't a matter of 'sniping' or 'destroying' but of simply stunning. The animal is then unconscious so it can be bled which does the actual killing before it ever wakes.

    For meat that will be sold the stun in not supposed to be done with a bullet for fears of contamination from lead or other metal fragments in the meat as well as the higher risk for other people in the vicinity of using a gun versus a stunner. A miss-shot could ricochet around in the room and hit someone.

    There are captive bolt stunners, both penetrating and non-penetrating that do the job in a similar manner to the gun but don't have the risks.

    There is also electric stunning that is easier to do and completely humane rendering the animal unconscious. This is used at most slaughterhouses for pigs.

    How calm the animal is depends on the environment and people who are handling it. There is nothing mysterious. I would suggest people look into the research by Temple Grandin. She has lots of good info on this topic.

  25. Heath Putnam says:

    Walter - I'm accurate describing what my acquaintances in Austria do. 

    They try to kill their Mangalitsa as stress free as possible - because of their understanding of what it takes to produce the best raw material for cured products. Having optimized the breed, feed and age at slaughter, they don't want to ruin it with stress at the end.

    As loading the pigs to take them to a slaughterhouse would stress the pigs (even if the slaughterhouse was designed by Temple Grandin), they kill the pigs on the farm.

    As one can tell the difference in the carcass between a pig that isn't stressed at all, and a pig that gets  stressed while getting corralled by the humans, they shoot the the pigs from a distance. One reason to do it from a distance is to prevent the surviving pigs from figuring out that the human is killing the pigs. That's legitimately called sniping.

    All the methods you describe for stunning the pig have the potential to lead to more stress.

    I can understand why you were surprised at my language. You probably can't imagine that people would snipe pigs. But that's the sort of thing you do when you have an 18-24 month investment in your pig. If you are a perfectionist, it is worth taking a bit more trouble to get the best raw material instead of slightly worse raw material.

  26. Yes, Heath, I'll agree that on-farm is ideal. However, it is almost impossible for meat that is for sale here in the USA since most farms do not have their own government approved slaughterhouses.

    Sniping is not an appropriate way to shoot a pig. I am not surprised so much at your language as at your missunderstandings. I've killed many pigs here on the farm and none ever suffered any stress. I know a little bit about the topic.

    But, my suggestion to you is that you setup an inspected slaughterhouse at your farm so that you can practice what you preach. Last I knew you were not able to do this. It's wonderful ideals. Something to strive for.

  27. Heath Putnam says:

    Walter -- what's wrong with sniping a pig? As I mentioned, it served two functions:

    1) The pig dies a stress free death. He never gets herded pre-stunning.

    2) The other pigs are less likely to figure out that the humans are killing the pigs.

    Here's a video of a pig getting stunned: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AX0arJU1GTU

    That's not how they snipe them in Austria - yet as deaths go, that's a pretty good - for the slaughtered pig and her fellow pigs awaiting slaughter. Very low stress.

  28. Amy says:

    Heath ~ There are so many things wrong with that video that I don't even know where to begin.

  29. Heath, you don't know what you're talking about. You just like using fancy words for things. I realize your a marketer, not actually a farmer.

  30. Heath Putnam says:

    Walter - you haven't provided any objective reasons why stunning a pig via sniping in inappropriate. What are your reasons for declaring it in appropriate?

  31. Heath, I noted that you are simply making up new terms, such as 'sniping' to help your marketing. There is no advantage to doing it the way you show in the video over simply doing it from 1' away. The 1' away has the advantage of being better able to assure a perfect shot every time. The other pigs don't pay any attention or associate it with death. There is no suffering. On the other hand, your 'sniping' trick (and a trick it is since it is playing on human emotions and misunderstandings) runs the risk that you do not get exactly the right angle to properly stun the pig on every shot.

    So you showed one shot that worked. That only proves that one shot worked one time. You're doing marketing. You're not actually in the business of humanely raising or slaughtering pigs. You don't really have a deep understanding of what you do nor do you really do much of it. You do seem to have a lot of money to spend on your hobby.

    More importantly, sniping is illegal here for inspected slaughter if you want to use the whole pig for the simple reason that you can't be putting bullets and other contamination into the meat. That makes the whole thing moot. See this document:

    http://www.fsis.usda.gov/PDF/LSIT_HumaneHandling.pdf

    "Another type of mechanical device used for stunning is the firearm.  It can be used on cattle, calves, sheep, goats, swine, horses, and mules.  The caliber of the firearm must be such that a single shot of a bullet or projectile into the animal must produce immediate unconsciousness.  If a small-bore firearm is used, it must use one of the following types of projectiles:

    • Hollow pointed bullets
    • Frangible iron/plastic composition bullets
    • Powdered iron missiles

    Regardless of the type of projectile, a large percentage of the brain, cheek meat, and head trimmings may contain whole or fragmented bullets.  Therefore, 310.18(B) of the Regulations states that after the head is inspected, the brains, cheek meat, and head trimmings may not be saved for human food.  The only portion of the head that can be salvaged for human food from an animal stunned using bullets is the tongue."

    Also relevant is:

    http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OPPDE/RDAD/FSISDirectives/6900.2Rev1.pdf

    It seems terribly wasteful of you to get your guns up about having to 'snipe' with a bullet just for marketing purposes when there is a better way and then waste so much good meat. If you're going to kill, then eat, and savor, the whole pig, nose-to-tail.

  32. Amy says:

    The Humane Handling Notice you cited is outdated.  This is the current information, just FYI http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OPPDE/rdad/FSISNotices/21-09.pdf

  33. Heath Putnam says:

    Walter,

    The reason my acquaintances in Austria do it the way they do is that in their experience, they get more valuable carcasses as a result.

    They started with methods like yours and moved on, because they weren't giving them the highest quality raw material for their cured products.

    I thought they were nuts until they showed me why. E.g. at one slaughter even we killed a few pigs, all with a bolt gun. The last few required some restraining, because they were skittish. It was possible to see the stress in their carcasses. Clearly we could have done better.

    What the USDA thinks doesn't matter to Austrians in Austria, or anyone whose goal is to produce the highest quality meat and fat.

    I mention what the Austrians do - despite the fact that it has little applicability to most Americans - because some Americans really care about the same issues they do. The Austrians I know are ahead as concerns understanding meat quality and particularly fat quality issues - something I've remarked on multiple times on my blog: http://woolypigs.blogspot.com.

  34. Heath Putnam says:

    Amy - what would be a more humane way to stun that sow? What do you think we should have done with her instead?

  35. Amy says:

    For starters, what would you have done if you missed?

  36. Joe says:

    At my plant, we shoot beef.  Ergo, we lose the head except the tongue.  Hogs, we use a fixed bolt stunner.  Therefore, we get to use the head and the cheeks, as well as the tongue.  It's a good thing.

  37. Thank you, Amy for the update on the link to the second document. That emphasizes the point even more. Here is the pertinent regulation regarding guns in slaughter:

    http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/cfr_2008/janqtr/pdf/9cfr313.30.pdf

    In addition to the problem of contamination which is discussed there is a lot of concern about getting a proper, humane stun with a gun. It's tricky as they very correctly emphasize. Then there is the whole safety issue for the people and inspectors. Projectile guns in slaughter are frowned upon for a wide variety of reasons.

    I do use a .22 rifle on the farm for slaughter for our own meat needs. It is a fine method for custom slaughter, but would not in a slaughterhouse or with meat I was selling. The fact that the only way your Austrian friends are able to do it is X does not mean that X is good. Just that X is the only way they've been successful at. You have a lot to learn about scientific process and reasoning. It's not about marketing.

    A reality is that what goes to stores, restaurants and other homes needs a higher standard because there is a longer chain of custody. A bullet increases the chance of contamination, even with a perfect 'sniper' shot, thus wasting meat. For these reasons it is not a good choice and 'sniping' is merely one more marketing term.

    Before violating the rules, and making up new marketing terms, it is good to understand the reasoning for things. I really suggest you read the scientific research regarding slaughter, especially by Grandin. Then I would suggest you get some extensive hands on experience to give you real world insights.

  38. Heath Putnam says:

    Amy - You didn't answer my question.

  39. Amy says:

    Heath ~I answered your question with a question...What would you have done if you missed?

    I has no issue w/using a rifle.  That's not the problem, the problem is the cowardly method and the distance used in the slaughter.

    As well as, the meat quality.  Considering the amount of time (at least in the video), the hog was left lying in the dirt I can be assured of blood clotting in the muscles.  This is visibly appealing and doesn't lend to the tast of the meats at all.  The animal should be bleed as quickly as possible.

    Hiding in the background in a sneak attack leaves the option open for a miss and well, just in my personal opinion is quite cowardly and disrespectful to the animal itself.

  40. Amy says:

    rather should have said "this is visibly UN appealing"

  41. Heath Putnam says:

    Walter - I've merely tried to be helpful and explain what my Austrian acquaintances do and why. 

    They are the most quality-focused producers I know. Quality-focused people, wherever they live, can learn from them - which is why I mentioned them.

    Looking at your objective reasons to not stun pigs the way the Austrians do, I see two:

    1) one might miss

    2) there's potentially some wasted meat

    The people I know who kill the pigs by sniping know and care about the same issues you do. They do what they do to avoid stress. Their pigs are worth approximately 5x a normal pig. Obviously, if they miss, the pig will be a lot more stressed, resulting in the loss of the entire animal. So they aim very, very carefully.

    Fundamentally, the decision to snipe the pigs and lose some head meat can be rational, if the gain in value of the non-head portion of the carcass makes up for any damaged head meat. They eat the heads themselves, so the things you bring up about stuff entering commerce aren't important.

    Also, the pigs are like pets to them, so they see what they do as a form of "mercy killing". The pigs must die, so at least they die immediately, without any forewarning or stress.

    I can't imagine Dr. Temple Grandin saying that shooting animals in their sleep was inhumane, assuming the shooter never misses.

  42. Milo says:

    Tomorrow on NPR's Talk of the Nation, Michael Pollan and farmers will discuss differences between "correctness" and what's practical to expect in on-farm situations.  I hope the discussion yields value rather than becoming an ego-fest among celebs, as these things often do. 

    The conflict between 'practical, traditional or efficient' methods and the 'discovery, shock, disbelief, concern or outrage' of these methods by others is the heart of this discussion. 

    As a producer I find  many methods used by industrial agriculture to be disturbing, and corporate justifications for those methods extremely disingenuous.  However, I also am unimpressed with some of the anecdotals and personal "sniping" that has resulted on this blog topic.  The larger issue is being lost or is being avoided:

    How do you want your hog killed? How do you suggest your preference be accomplished?  How will that preference be transfered to the scale of production/consumption that is currently in play? Who will pay for better methodology?   How do we blend warm and fuzzy expectations with practical and probable actions?

    To complain that slaughter is "morally difficult and gross" reminds me of my off-farm cousins' childish "Oh, Yuck" reaction to nearly every ordinary occurance they witnessed.  Most producers, especially small, direct marketers, agree with the need to answer ethical or moral problems--to use better methods.  But we need an unemotional approach to this dilemma, an honest partnership seeking holistic solutions.    

  43. Exactly, Milo. The sniping is wasteful and thus impractical.

  44. Heath Putnam says:

    Amy - there werne't any spots in the meat. She got bled quickly enough after stunning.

    As you wrote, "There are so many things wrong with that video that I don’t even know where to begin."

    So please enumerate all your complaints.

  45. Jed "the country bumpkin" says:

    The shot in the video is from too far away. On a small farm a large sow should be like an old friend who will let you shoot her in the head from two inches away. The possibility of missing from a distance is too great. Shooting a pig in the face and not killing it sucks in many ways. Walter is real heath is fake. Sniping? WTF

  46. Heath Putnam says:

    Jed -- It is only from too far away if you can't shoot what you aim at.

    I've never seen Curt take a bad shot.
    Yet I've seen others shoot from much closer distances and miss.

    Having seen many pigs get stunned, that one in the video was one with the least stress. She didn't even get woken up. Had Curt got in the pen to shoot her up close, she might have started moving around, which would have increased the odds of a miss.

  47. Wow. Heath, you just demonstrated how little you know about shooting. I too am a very good shot - I can hit a target, repeatedly, as small as a pig brain (about the size of a chicken egg) at 200 meters (~600 feet). But I wouldn't do it. When you are as far away as Curt was in that video it dramatically increases the odds of missing because it also dramatically decreases the angle of accuracy. It is a case of why bother taking the risk of missing and having a bad shot when you could do it properly from closer. Are the pigs so skitterish and hard to handle that they won't let someone approach them?

    The very fact that you don't understand this demonstrates how much you are into the marketing rather than truly understanding what produces good pork and what makes a humane slaughter. You repeat things you have heard without true understanding. At first when I found your blog I was very interested but it was your attitude like this that turned me off and stopped me from reading.

    Might I suggest you drop the topic before you dig your hole any deeper. It's obvious you don't know what you're talking about. Your purpose seems to simply be to promote that "you do it best" even though you don't actually do it. It wasn't about you to begin with. It was about Jake sharing his experience with slaughter. That was interesting to read. Your one-up-manship is tiresome. See if you're able to not respond. Resist the temptation.

  48. Heath Putnam says:

    Walter: When you are as far away as Curt was in that video it dramatically increases the odds of missing because it also dramatically decreases the angle of accuracy. It is a case of why bother taking the risk of missing and having a bad shot when you could do it properly from closer. Are the pigs so skitterish and hard to handle that they won’t let someone approach them?

    Me: Curt has around 20 years experience doing his job. Experts like Curt are good at doing their job in a way that non-experts can't, and making it seem easy at the same time. I understand enough about shooting and Curt's abilities as a shooter and slaughterer to be unsurprised that he succeeded. Given that things went as well as they did, I'd be more inclined to trust his expertise in the future.

    Walter: The very fact that you don’t understand this demonstrates how much you are into the marketing rather than truly understanding what produces good pork and what makes a humane slaughter.

    Me: According to meat scientists and the most quality-sensitive consumers in America, I (through the company Wooly Pigs) produce some of the best-tasting meat (and fat) sold in America. I understand enough to produce some of the best available in the Western Hemisphere: start with the best genetics, the best diet, kill them at the right age, in the right manner, and so on. I say "some of the best" instead of "the best" because some of my feeder pig customers may best me.

    Walter: Might I suggest you drop the topic before you dig your hole any deeper. It’s obvious you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Me: As I produce some of the best pork available in America, I know what I'm talking about.

    Walter: Your purpose seems to simply be to promote that “you do it best” even though you don’t actually do it. It wasn’t about you to begin with. It was about Jake sharing his experience with slaughter.

    Heath: My thought was that people who really wanted to learn about how to slaughter and process pigs might want to learn how to do it from some experts. Jake's sharing of his unfortunate experience reminded me that when you work with people who know what they are doing, things can go very smoothly for all parties concerned, including the pigs that get slaughtered.

  49. Heath Putnam says:

    Walter,

    Through my company, Wooly Pigs, I produce some the highest quality pork available in the Western Hemisphere.
    You wrote, "might I suggest you drop the topic before you dig your hole any deeper. It’s obvious you don’t know what you’re talking about. "

    Clearly I know something about the subjects I've written about.

  50. As I've said before, you're a marketer. To claim that you produce the "highest quality available in the western hemisphere" is an outrageous and baseless claim. You can make the claim all you want. Perhaps you produce excellent pork, but to claim it is the best is just marketing hype.