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13 June 2012

A witness on the kill floor

The industrial slaughter of animals for food is not something that we like to think about – and thanks to modern production methods, we don’t have to. From the point of view of most consumers, the whole messy business takes place out of sight and out of mind.

But what would we see behind the slaughterhouse doors if we could? The answer, according to the author Timothy Pachirat, is surprisingly little – a conclusion based on his own experience as a worker at an industrial abattoir in Kansas. Interviewed in the Atlantic he describes just how few people actually witness the process of killing:

  • "The slaughterhouse as a whole is divided into compartmentalized departments. The front office is isolated from the fabrication department, which is in turn isolated from the cooler, which is in turn isolated from the kill floor. It is entirely possible to spend years working in the front office, fabrication department, or cooler of an industrialized slaughterhouse that slaughters over half a million cattle per year without ever once encountering a live animal, much less witnessing one being killed.
  • "But second and most importantly, the work of killing is hidden even at the site where one might expect it to be most visible: the kill floor itself. Of over 800 workers on the kill floor, only four are directly involved in the killing of the cattle, and fewer than 20 have a line of sight to the killing. And only one worker – the knocker – delivers the blow that begins the irreversible process of transforming the live creatures into dead ones. As long as that one person exists, there can be some plausible narrative that concentrates the heaviest weight of the dirtiest work on this one. Then the other 120 kill floor workers can say, and believe it, ‘I'm not taking part in this.’"

One might think that this effort to minimise human exposure to the act of slaughter would represent a bottleneck in terms of meat production. Yet, astoundingly, abattoirs (of the kind that Pachirat worked in) ‘process’ five animals every minute – hence the title of his eye-opening book: Every Twelve Seconds.

Of course, the efficiency of this killing infrastructure is a key reason why meat is so abundant and affordable. With vegetarianism apparently in decline, one can therefore expect the slaughterhouse conveyor belts to keep turning. But that is no reason not be aware of what others do on our behalf.


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