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.

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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

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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. Joe says:

    It's a frickin' lard pig, man!

    Geez, I wish you guys would give it a rest.

  2. Jed "the country bumpkin" says:

    Heath, I've read your blog... you don't know what your talking about.  Also, the pork you produce has way too much fat for most American consumers. If the Mangalitsa is so amazing then why are you crossing it with leaner pigs.

  3. John Hogeland says:

    Walter, Heath, we are all on the same side of the fence here.  Your "sniping" at each other merely prolongs the predominance of companies like IBP and Monsanto.  Both of you obviously have strong opinions and diverse intellects, let's turn them on the real enemies of small farming.  When we have turned the corner where CAFOs and massive slaughter facilities are a thing of the past, you two can have it out.  Doing it here on someone else's blog (which I appreciated being a butcher myself) merely derails a good cause and takes away from the larger picture.
    Thanks for listening,
    John

  4. John, don't lump me with Heath. I was pointing out exactly what you said. Heath is the one who is trying to derail things and take over a discussion.

  5. John Hogeland says:

    Walter,
    While I like what you say, and would like to visit your farm some time in having one of my own some day, we are all on the same side, in the same lump.  Our vision for how it is done may vary, but we all want it done, arguing semantics should be set aside.  The bad guys are over on the CAFO side of the fence.  We  don't have to like each other, but as Ben Franklin said "We must all hang together, or surely we will hang separately."
    John

  6. Yes, John. I agreed with you, see above, but don't lump me together with Heath. He is the one who tried to sabotage and take over the discussion. I tried to bring it back on track. If you want to chastise someone, do it to Heath.

  7. Heath Putnam says:

    Jed - Yes, the Mangalitsa is too fat for most consumers. I just said it was the highest quality, not the most practical or best value.

    Nevertheless, tasting panel results show that Mangalitsa is the most juicy, meaty, tender, etc. You can see those results here, comparing Mangalitsa pigs with other breeds: http://woolypigs.blogspot.com/2009/01/mangalitsa-compared-to-other-breeds.html

    Producing crossbreeds gives Wooly Pigs (the company) the option to upgrade them further, potentially increasing the return on investment in extreme lard-type genetics.

    For most people, the F1 Mangalitsa (50% Mangalitsa genetics) tastes better than anything they've ever eaten. Comparing the F1 Mangalitsa with the purebreds is like comparing a $200 bottle of wine versus a $400 bottle of wine - most people can't tell them apart. People who eat enough of the stuff can tell them apart, and some of them prefer to spend more money and eat the tastiest stuff.

  8. Heath Putnam says:

    Walter - I mentioned how Austrians kill pigs, and the upcoming slaughter class, because I've seen these guys do it, and it is, for the most part, incredibly easy on the pigs.

    Here's what the author Lahne wrote:

    "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."

    My thoughts on reading that ws that I've seen pigs killed many different ways, and that people I know who are the most conscientious about killing pigs without stress or suffering are Mangalitsa producers from Austria. And they happen to be teaching a class on slaughtering pigs this coming January, which might be of interest to the people who'd be reading Lahne's post.

    So I mentioned this no to "sabotage" or "take over" the discussion, but rather to be helpful.

    For people interesting in learning how to cut pigs, the class will be valuable, because they'll cover techniques that aren't generally taught in the USA, like seam butchery.

  9. Amy says:

    This ridiculous dialogue grew tiresome some time ago.  Now, it has gone past tiresome and in to the truely annoying category.  How do I disable to auto emails on new comments? I do not wish to receive them anymore. Yawn!

  10. I agree, Amy. Sorry about that. I am turning off comments on this post.