Unless you are a very conscientious consumer or a vegetarian, you’re implicit in the industrialized slaughter of animals. Many of us are (myself included). It’s easy to forget that the Sunday morning bacon was once on the hoof, and easy to imagine that the animals are treated humanely until their deaths. Recent journalism, like Robert Kenner’s documentary Food, Inc., and the ongoing activism of PETA, PCRA, and ASPCA has cast light on many of the otherwise hush-hushed commercial practices of meat-processing plants.
Ted Genoways, reporting for Mother Jones, covers the history of the modern meat industry in his profile of the Quality Pork Processors, Inc. plant in Austin, Minn. But what really stands out in his writing is the description of how the bloody work of slaughter is done in the post-butcher economy. (Warning: The following quotes are exceptionally graphic.)
On the other side, Garcia inserted the metal nozzle of a 90-pounds-per-square-inch compressed-air hose and blasted the pigs’ brains into a pink slurry. One head every three seconds. A high-pressure burst, a fine rosy mist, and the slosh of brains slipping through a drain hole into a catch bucket. (Some workers say the goo looked like Pepto-Bismol; others describe it as more like a lumpy strawberry milkshake.) When the 10-pound barrel was filled, another worker would come to take the brains for shipping to Asia, where they are used as a thickener in stir-fry. Most days that fall, production was so fast that the air never cleared between blasts, and the mist would slick workers at the head table in a grisly mix of brains and blood and grease.
Tasks at the head table are literally numbing. The steady hum of the automatic Whizard knives gives many workers carpal tunnel syndrome. And all you have to do is wait in the parking lot at shift change to see the shambling gait that comes from standing in one spot all day on the line. For eight hours, Garcia stood, slipping heads onto the brain machine’s nozzle, pouring the glop into the drain, then dropping the empty skulls down a chute.
Genoways describes how the “fine rosy mist” at QPP has caused a viral outbreak that attacks the workers’ brains—leading to, in some cases, paralysis—after it is inhaled during work.
Taking a more literary angle to the abattoir, Bookslut’s JC Hallman writes about his obsession with dead chickens and unheeded predictions about their treatment in “The Chicken Vault.” Here’s his second-hand description of an industrial chicken farm in New Jersey that left 50 tons of meat unrefrigerated for most of a summer. (Again: graphic description.)
They made for the main cooler, where the bulk of the 100,000 lbs. of processed meat had been stored. The cooler was like a huge vault: its hydraulic door stood eight feet high. Jim and Frank [two Environmental Protection Agency officials] set up a battery of floods to illuminate the chamber, and then cracked the door. Something like steam puffed out from the vacuum suck of the room and rose up heavy and thick, like a plague from God. It fogged the lens on the camera until Jim figured a way to clear it. The vault stretched back forty feet and stood half as high. Racks for boxed meat rose on opposing walls. Most of the product had come down by then, rotting through the cardboard containers, an opaque matter the consistency of jelly that had flooded the floor of the room and hardened there. The meat and the fat of the chicken didn’t mix; there were marbled streaks of color. The racks continued to drip even as the men watched, like trees after a heavy rain. After a moment, Jim moved in for a close-up: maggots digging into the muck to escape the light, and a collection of chicken bones like the skeleton of a dinosaur caught in a tar pit.
Sorry for ruining your delicious lunch.