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At the Abattoir

Posted by kevinwolz on July 19, 2010

Disclaimer: This post contains potentially graphic descriptions. If you are sensitive to this type of material, please don’t read any further…or at least wait until you’re done eating.

I strongly believe that knowing where one’s food comes from is essential to any sustainable society. That said, raising livestock is only half of the equation for knowing the source of your meat. I may or may not be directly involved with the slaughter of my own livestock in the future, but this process completes the meat equation, and I figure I can’t eat meat unless I truly know the whole story. Hence my trip to the abattoir.

My only prior “experience” with slaughtering livestock comes from The Jungle and Fast Food Nation back in high school. Their gruesome descriptions of industrial meat processing facilities ensured a bit of hesitation as I headed up to the abattoir (the nicer-sounding French word for slaughterhouse). Upon arrival, I was expecting a quick tour of the building, including a peak through some sort of window into the room where all the action took place. That is not what happened. Instead, the manager put a baseball cap on my head, walked me into the slaughtering room, and told me to come get him when I was done observing. I was literally standing in blood not even three feet from the guy skinning a freshly killed hog. That’s the kind of experience that my summer is all about.

Here’s the process as I saw it, step by step. I happened to be there on a day when they were butchering hogs. All the action took place in one large room by about ten men who were working diligently (but not dangerously fast as in the industrial abattoir) on their tasks. This particular facility could handle about 12 hogs per hour…much slower than that of industrial operations. Almost every task is completed in teams of two (rotated periodically) and is performed while the hog is held in the air by a winch on a roller track. Each of the workers seemed to be in good spirits and talkative as they worked.

The Kill

This is always the contentious part. Hogs are individually brought into a sunken part of the room, completely oblivious to what is going on above them. A worker uses a moveable fence to corner the hog and then uses a cattle prod to apply a high-voltage shock to the back of the neck. This renders the hog unconscious after a few seconds of convulsions. I can’t say that the hogs were completely docile, but they weren’t wild with terror either. The slight fear I did observe seemed to stem from the hog being cornered I an unfamiliar environment. Once the hog is unconscious, a chain from the ceiling winch system is attached to one of the hind legs. The hog is then hoisted into the air above a garbage can and its throat is slit, instantly killing it. The blood drains very rapidly for several minutes.

Skinning

The drained hog is set belly up on a table-like holder and two men go to work skinning. They are equipped with extremely sharp knives and follow the same efficient pattern of slicing and peeling that results in the easiest and cleanest job. Hooves are also broken off at this point. The skinning process was surprisingly easy to watch. There is no blood involved.

Gutting

Guts must be removed before much cutting takes place so no organ “juices” contaminate the meat. The skinned hogs are once again hoisted into the air and moved down the track to the next workstation. The lower belly is slit and the organs are removed with surprising ease. They all come out more or less as one connected mass. Again, no blood is involved…just intestines and such. I should mention at this point that none of the workers were wearing gloves. Only lab coats/aprons, baseball caps, and  boots were required.

Inspecting

At this point, government steps in. If the meat is to be sold after processing (i.e. the meat is not just for consumption by the family who raised the animal), state inspection is required. The inspector, who is also actually doing some odd jobs and helping out on the floor, inspects the glands and several organs for telltale signs of certain conditions. If the hog passes (which all did), the body is stamped with special seal and moves on to the next step.

Halving

This is one step I kind of didn’t expect. It’s easier to turn half a hog into all the traditional cuts than it is a whole hog. So, quite simply, a worker with a fancy looking chain saw cuts the hog right down the length of the body.

Freezing

The two halves continue to hang from the same chain so individual hogs are not mismatched. Tags with date and owner information are attached, and the hog is rolled into the freezer until it is made into the traditional cuts within two weeks.

Seeing this process first hand was definitely eye-opening. That said, I can’t say that I personally found any part of the process particularly objectionable. In fact, I had a nice juicy steak for dinner later that day and it actually felt better to eat that steak after this experience than it did before hand. Now, I know the whole story behind where my meat comes from, including its humane and safe slaughter. I know it. I trust it. I accept it. Do you know where your meat comes from?

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3 Responses to “At the Abattoir”

  1. Joan said

    Yuk! Gross! It’s enough to turn one
    into a vegetarian!

  2. Victoria Johnson said

    Your great-grand Uncle Cliff was a cattlehide broker, and had been in many slaughter-houses as he approached the owners to sell to his company the raw cattle hides. Also had a customer who had a pig farm and slaughter house — and I visited the pig farm once and was upset seeing all those little piggies on their way to —–

  3. Alyssa S. said

    I saw “abattoir” on your list, and at the time, I didn’t know what one was. A quick Google search fixed that. My initial response was confusion as to why one would be willing to see something like that… but that’s the point, isn’t it? It isn’t a fun thing to see. I am glad for your description; I am very squeamish but yours wasn’t bad at all. I wonder what industrial slaughterhouses are like; if they are as clean or not.

    I keep finding things on your blog that I like; most notably, the way your responses to the things you do are usually not what I expect, but are always positive and much better than what I had imagined they’d be.

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