As many of you know, our farm also has an on-site, custom exempt slaughterhouse operated by my father. In order to get a wholesome meat product to our customers’ tables the animal must be killed. In a previous blog I spoke about the time a 5-year-old asked me where meat came from while he looked adoringly at the beef heifer, I had in a pen next to me. It did not even cross the little man’s mind that this fluffy animal would eventually die in order for him to get a hamburger. Not so astonishing coming from a 5-year-old, however, there are still grown adults who give no thought as to how their meat comes to be on their plate and when they do, they often think it is done in a horrible and unthinkable way. The very essence of slaughtering makes it so hard to describe with adjectives such as humane, or good so, most of the time people just choose to overlook the fact that their meat was once a living breathing animal or they condemn the entire act and swear off eating meat ever again.
It all comes down to disconnect between people who are buying and eating meat and how that meat actually got on the shelves. Meat is cut into unique shapes, vacuum packed and a pretty label with a nice name is slapped on. This image looks very different from a live cow walking out in a field, and if you never cared to wonder about how it was made, it could very well be difficult for you to make that connection. I even remember a few years past when discussion emerged about calling steaks different names without words like “bone” so the consumer wasn’t reminded or grossed out that meat came from a living animal that has bones. If you think what I am saying is so out of the ordinary and that people certainly do know that their meat comes from live animals I have another story for you. My mother loves to tell this one whenever we eat chicken. We all know that children can be picky eaters and most of the time what they like to eat is the simple stuff, fried, fast food etc. Please do not think I am knocking any mothers who feed this, I get it, you just want your kid to eat something with protein and chicken nuggets are a “go-to”. Anyway, one of our neighbors came over for dinner and we were having drumsticks. He asked what they were because he must have never seen drumsticks before and my mom said, “it’s chicken”. He looked at it with wonder and exclaimed, “Chicken has bones in it?”. There you have it. And even with chicken, something that is called the same thing when it is alive or served. Never mind the fact that cattle are called “beef” and that hogs are called “pork” when served. If you are never actively taught that meat comes from an animal you may very well never make that connection. I even remember a cousin who, the first time she came to our farm and realized that we had to kill animals to make meat she was immediately turned off and became a vegetarian. I have a feeling a lot of people can remember when they learned animals are killed to make meat. I can’t, it was something I grew up knowing. I think that the earlier you are made aware and shown what actually goes on, the less swayed you will be to adopt a vegetarian diet based on the morality of eating meat.
Many times, people who are against eating meat will use empathy to deter others from eating it as well. They will say that it’s a secret farmers do not want you to know and that killing animals is done in a back room so that no one will ever have to realize that the meat they eat was once a breathing, sentient being. It makes me think about whether or not there were vegans or vegetarians when my great grandparents were growing up. Probably very few or none. Before industrialization most everyone farmed. They raised their own livestock, butchered their own livestock and used practically every part of it for their own survival. It was done as a family, young children watched, it was normal and it was not something to hide, but rather a celebration because meat was a luxury they were lucky to have. Significantly less people have that same experience now, and I am not saying that is good or bad, but that somewhere along the way it was lost as a lifestyle and twisted to become an experience most cannot even fathom. Luckily today we see many businesses understanding how important it is to open the door to these experiences for people. People who spend their day serving society/working in a way not related to agriculture are unable to know what really happens on a farm, a slaughterhouse or how their food gets to their table. Food enters their life every day and is vital to their survival, but how it gets there can be easily overlooked. Currently food is a very controversial topic. Everyone can have an opinion about it because it is something everyone can relate to. There are many ideas about what is best to eat and it is good to have these opinions because food is directly related to health. I am not going to get into that here, but more into the morality of eating meat and how we have evolved so that we as humans question whether or not it is ethical to consume animals.
I agree with Temple Grandin when she states,
“I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right. We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve go to give them a painless death. We owe respect to the animal.”
Temple Grandin works in slaughterhouses and ranches developing solutions to animal welfare issues. I have engaged with many people who think that killing animals and raising them for food is so wrong that it should be abolished completely. To me, that is an unreasonable protest, one with no solution to make anything better because humans will always be omnivorous. When we look at issues we need to look at them critically and with an eye for a reasonable solution. Stopping all food animal production is not a reasonable solution, however we can make the production and slaughter of the animal as good as possible.
Laws, statutes, and auditing programs are all ways that slaughter and animal welfare are regulated in the United States. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) was passed in 1978 and states that the handling of livestock in connection with slaughter shall be carried out only by humane methods. The act further defines humane handling as preventing needless suffering. With the exemption of religious slaughter, the act states that all red meat livestock must be rendered insensible with a single captive bolt shot, gunshot, or electrical or chemical means that is rapid and effective before it is shackled, hoisted, cut, thrown or cast. The code of federal regulations title 9 section 313 further outlines humane handling regulations from this statute. In this section, transportation of livestock, pens and ramps that livestock are moved through, handling of livestock, stunning methods, and procedures for preventing inhumane slaughter or handling in connection with slaughter are outlined. From these regulations the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service derived their specific directive 6900.2 for the humane handling and slaughter of livestock which is enforced by inspectors at every plant every day they are in operation.
I have linked the statutes, Section 313 of 9 CFR, and the FSIS directive in the paragraph above if you want to specifically see what each one states. In short, animals must be handled with minimal stress and pain. This means that when they are unloading from trailers, walking up ramps or being moved from pens they must not be slipping and falling or moved in an excited manner. Pens, floors and ramps all need to be kept clean, dry and in good repair to prevent this from happening. A plant can get a written non-compliance report if it fails to comply with these standards or equipment can be rejected and must be corrected before it can be utilized again. The moving of livestock must not be done with force, electric prod use must not be excessive and any egregious behavior such as dragging or beating animals is grounds for immediate suspension of a plant. Once in the knock box the animal must be stunned rapidly and effectively and cannot be stunned more than once. If the animal has to be stunned twice or more before it is rendered unconscious the plant is not in compliance with federal regulations. Plants that have issues effectively stunning animals are placed on suspension and upon re-instating inspection the plant is placed on a period of abeyance in which they must abide by specific corrective actions that are reviewed by a veterinarian.
In addition to the enforcement of the laws and regulations by the USDA FSIS inspectors, most slaughter plants also have their own programs as well as third party auditors that will come unannounced and do their own verification of humane handling and slaughter. Often times at larger slaughter plants, their commercial buyers will have their own set of rules they want the slaughter plant to comply with in order for the restaurant to buy from them. McDonald’s is one restaurant that has comprehensive animal health and welfare policies and programs that span from the farm all the way to slaughter and also include ethical practices for antibiotic use and welfare for chickens. Their farms and slaughterhouses have to comply with these programs as well as the federal policies or McDonalds will no longer use them as a supplier. Even small plants will often put together a robust system for humane handling and slaughter and have third party audit firms to help them verify their humane handling.
In this video Temple Grandin goes through the handling and slaughter of beef at a large plant. This is the standard for how beef and pork is to be slaughtered in the United States.
I think that more people need to know about these laws and how animals are handled and slaughtered in the United States. I am always surprised that people I talk to are unaware that federal inspectors inspect every animal that goes through a slaughterhouse at both the antemortem (before death) and postmortem (after death) stage. They also enforce humane handling up until stunning. A dream of mine is to have a fully transparent slaughterhouse so that people can come and learn and see what actually happens and have a connection with it. So many communities do not want a slaughterhouse in their area because they do not like the idea of animals being killed. For me, I think the only way to improve this issue is for more people to be involved and to know exactly what happens so they can have a truly informed opinion about it. My dad has always said that he just wants to supply people with good food that they know they can trust. While I am confident that the food we eat in the United States is safe and wholesome, I do know that not all food is created equal and that if you have an opportunity to see the animal or raise it yourself and to understand the entire process of how it got to become your meal you will be able to appreciate it a lot more.