An Excerpt from “Eating Animals”
By Jonathan Safran Foer
“At a typical slaughter facility, cattle are led through a chute into a knocking box — usually a large cylindrical hold through which the head pokes. The stun operator, or “knocker,” presses a large pneumatic gun between the cow’s eyes. A steel bolt shoots into the cow’s skull and then retracts back into the gun, usually rendering the animal unconscious or causing death. Sometimes the bolt only dazes the animal, which either remains conscious or later wakes up as it is being “processed.” The effectiveness of the knocking gun depends on its manufacture and maintenance, and the skill of its application — a small hose leak or firing the gun before pressure sufficiently builds up again can reduce the force with which the bolt is released and leave animals grotesquely punctured but painfully conscious. The effectiveness of knocking is also reduced because some plant managers believe that animals can become “too dead” and therefore, because their hearts are not pumping, bleed out too slowly or insufficiently. (It’s “important” for plants to have a quick bleed-out time for basic efficiency and because blood left in the meat promotes bacterial growth and reduces shelf life.)
As a result, some plants deliberately choose less-effective knocking methods. The side effect is that a higher percentage of animals require multiple knocks, remain conscious, or wake up in processing. No jokes here, and no turning away. Let’s say what we mean: animals are bled, skinned, and dismembered while conscious. It happens all the time, and the industry and the government know it. Several plants cited for bleeding or skinning or dismembering live animals have defended their actions as common in the industry and asked, perhaps rightly, why they were being singled out. When Temple Grandin conducted an industrywide audit in 1996, her studies revealed that the vast majority of cattle slaughterhouses were unable to regularly render cattle unconscious with a single blow. The USDA, the federal agency charged with enforcing humane slaughter, responded to these numbers not by stepping up enforcement, but by changing its policy to cease tracking the number of humane slaughter violations and removing any mention of humane slaughter from its list of rotating tasks for inspectors. The situation has improved since then, which Grandin attributes largely to audits demanded by fast-food companies (which these companies demanded after being targeted by animal rights groups) but remains disturbing. Grandin’s most recent estimates — which optimistically rely on data from announced audits — still found one in four cattle slaughterhouses unable to reliably render animals unconscious on the first blow. For smaller facilities, there are virtually no statistics available, and experts agree that these slaughterhouses can be significantly worse in their treatment of cattle. No one is spotless.
Cattle at the far end of the lines leading to the kill floor do not appear to understand what’s coming, but if they survive the first knock, they sure as hell appear to know they are fighting for their lives. Recalls one worker, “Their heads are up in the air; they’re looking around, trying to hide. They’ve already been hit before by this thing, and they’re not going to let it get at them again.” The combination of line speeds that have increased as much as 800 percent in the past hundred years and poorly trained workers laboring under nightmarish conditions guarantees mistakes. (Slaughterhouse workers have the highest injury rate of any job — 27 percent annually — and receive low pay to kill as many as 2,050 cattle a shift.)
Temple Grandin has argued that ordinary people can become sadistic from the dehumanizing work of constant slaughter. This is a persistent problem, she reports, that management must guard against. Sometimes animals are not knocked at all. At one plant, a secret video was made by workers (not animal activists) and given to the Washington Post. The tape revealed conscious animals going down the processing line, and an incident where an electric prod was jammed into a steer’s mouth. According to the Post, “More than twenty workers signed affidavits alleging that the violations shown on the tape are commonplace and that supervisors are aware of them.” In one affidavit, a worker explained, “I’ve seen thousands and thousands of cows go through the slaughter process alive. . . . The cows can get seven minutes down the line and still be alive. I’ve been in the side puller where they’re still alive. All the hide is stripped out down the neck there.” And when workers who complain are listened to at all, they often get fired. “I’d come home and be in a bad mood. . . . Go right downstairs and go to sleep. Yell at the kids, stuff like that. One time I got really upset — [my wife] knows about this. A three-year-old heifer was walking up through the kill alley. And she was having a calf right there, it was half in and half out. I knew she was going to die, so I pulled the calf out. Wow, did my boss get mad. . . . They call these calves “slunks.” They use the blood for cancer research. And he wanted that calf. What they usually do is when the cow’s guts fall onto the gut table, the workers go along and rip the uterus open and pull these calves out. It’s nothing to have a cow hanging up in front of you and see the calf inside kicking, trying to get out. . . . My boss wanted that calf, but I sent it back down to the stockyards. . . . [I complained] to the foremen, the inspectors, the kill floor superintendent. Even the superintendent over at the beef division. We had a long talk one day in the cafeteria about this crap that was going on. I’ve gotten so mad, some days I’d go and pound on the wall because they won’t do anything about it. . . . I’ve never seen a [USDA] vet near the knocking pen. Nobody wants to come back there. See, I’m an ex-Marine. The blood and guts don’t bother me. It’s the inhumane treatment. There’s just so much of it.”
In twelve seconds or less, the knocked cow — unconscious, semiconscious, fully conscious, or dead — moves down the line to arrive at the “shackler,” who attaches a chain around one of the hind legs and hoists the animal into the air. From the shackler, the animal, now dangling from a leg, is mechanically moved to a “sticker,” who cuts the carotid arteries and a jugular vein in the neck. The animal is again mechanically moved to a “bleed rail” and drained of blood for several minutes. A cow has in the neighborhood of five and a half gallons of blood, so this takes some time. Cutting the flow of blood to the animal’s brain will kill it, but not instantly (which is why the animals are supposed to be unconscious). If the animal is partially conscious or improperly cut, this can restrict the flow of blood, prolonging consciousness further. “They’d be blinking and stretching their necks from side to side, looking around, really frantic,” explained one line worker. The cow should now be carcass, which will move along the line to a “head-skinner,” which is exactly what it sounds like — a stop where the skin is peeled off the head of the animal. The percentage of cattle still conscious at this stage is low but not zero. At some plants it is a regular problem — so much so that there are informal standards about how to deal with these animals. Explains a worker familiar with such practices, “A lot of times the skinner finds out an animal is still conscious when he slices the side of its head and it starts kicking wildly. If that happens, or if a cow is already kicking when it arrives at their station, the skinners shove a knife into the back of its head to cut the spinal cord.”
This practice, it turns out, immobilizes the animal but does not render it insensible. I can’t tell you how many animals this happens to, as no one is allowed to properly investigate. We only know that it is an inevitable by-product of the present slaughter system and that it will continue to happen. After the head-skinner, the carcass (or cow) proceeds to the “leggers,” who cut off the lower portions of the animal’s legs. “As far as the ones that come back to life,” says a line worker, “it looks like they’re trying to climb the walls. . . . And when they get to the leggers, well, the leggers don’t want to wait to start working on the cow until somebody gets down there to reknock it. So they just cut off the bottom part of the leg with the clippers. When they do that, the cattle go wild, just kicking in every direction.” The animal then proceeds to be completely skinned, eviscerated, and cut in half, at which point it finally looks like the stereotyped image of beef — hanging in freezers with eerie stillness.”
Jonathan Safran Foer. Eating Animals. Back Bay Books. 2009. Print.