As I stepped from my car in the parking lot of the packing plant, the combination of sounds and smells emanating from the corrugated metal structure made me question whether or not this was something I really wanted to go through with.
The first thing to hit my senses was the sound of cattle - not the pleasant bucolic mooing one might hear on a stroll down a country lane next to a small farm, but a rapid, frantic mooing. It was the kind of mooing I heard during a weekend stay at my uncle's dairy farm when one of the cows was attacked by stray dogs. Aside from the noise, the release of adrenaline in her body made the cow drool, and caused her nose to run so profusely that she briefly had difficulty breathing. At that moment in the parking lot, I could only sense discomfort in the sound of the cows, but later I discovered that each one awaiting slaughter in the chute leading to the `killing stall' was suffering the same symptoms of terror I witnessed at my uncle's farm.
The second thing I noticed was also a sound. As I walked toward the building, I heard the strange muffled whine that can only come from a saw cutting bone still encased in flesh. At this point I realized that I was not prepared for what I was about to experience. The feeling was intensified to the point of nausea when, as I walked closer, I caught the first whiff of the combination of smells that I would have to endure for the next few hours; the oddly sickening odor of newly slaughtered flesh, still so warm from the life so recently removed that steam rises from it; the not so oddly nauseating stench of the sausage and hot dog meat boilers; and the quiet, cold reeking of flesh hanging, carcass after carcass, row upon row, in the freezer storage area.
My imagination had prepared me a little bit for the visual experience, but I was entirely unprepared for the almost unbearable smell that permeated the entire plant. After brief `pleasantries' with Jerry, the production manager of the plant, I was allowed to proceed through the building unguided and at my own pace. I began the tour "where it all starts", as Jerry put it, in the `kill shed'.
I entered the kill shed through a short, tunnel-like hall through which I could see what I soon learned was the third butchering station. The kill shed consisted of one room in which a number of operations are performed by one or two of six butchers at four stations along the length of the room. In the kill shed there is also a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector who examines parts of every animal who goes through the kill shed.
The first station is the killing station. It is worked by one man whose job is to herd the animal into the killing stall, slaughter him or her, and begin the butchering process. This stage of the process takes about ten minutes for each animal, and begins with the opening of a heavy steel door that separates the killing stall from the waiting chute. The man working this station must then go into a corridor adjacent to the waiting chute, and prod his next victim into the killing stall with a high-voltage electric cattle prod. This is the most time-consuming part of the operation because the cattle are fully aware of what lies ahead, and are determined not to enter the killing stall. The physical symptoms of terror were painfully evident on the faces of each and every animal I saw either in the actual killing stall or in the waiting chute. During the 40 seconds to a minute that each animal had to wait in the killing stall before losing consciousness, the terror became visibly more intense. The animal could smell the blood, and see his or her former companions in various stages of dismemberment.
During the last few seconds of life, the animal thrashes about the stall as much as its confines allow. All four of the cows I witnessed strained in a frantic, futile and pathetic manner towards the ceiling - the only direction that was not blocked by a steel door. Death came in the form of a pneumatic nail gun that was placed against their heads and fired. The gun is designed so that the nail never completely leaves the gun, but simply is blown into the animal's head and then pulled out by the butcher as the animal collapses. Three of the four times I saw it used, it did the job on the first try, but one cow struggled a good deal after collapsing.
After the animal has collapsed, the side of the killing stall is raised, and a chain is secured to the right hind leg. The cow is then hoisted by that one leg to a hanging position. At this point, the butcher drains the body of blood by slitting the cow's throat. When the blood vessels are severed, there is an amazing torrent of blood so profuse that the butcher is unable to step aside fast enough to avoid being covered with it. This streaming torrent of blood lasts only about 15 seconds, after which the only task left to the man at the first station is to skin and remove the animal's head. At the second station in the kill shed, the headless animal is dropped to the floor. The body is propped up on the back and relieved of hooves and, if female, milk sack and udders.
At this time, any urine and faeces that didn't drain from the body during the first few seconds of death now pour freely onto the floor. The body is then slit down the middle, and the hide is peeled partially away. A yoke is then hooked to the stumps of the hind legs, the body is lifted upwards, and the rest of the hide is pulled past a roller secured to the floor and peeled off. The animal's body is now at the third station of the kill shed where it is gutted and then sawed in half - becoming two `sides of beef'. The sides of beef are sprayed down and weighed at the fourth and final station of the kill station. They are then placed in the cooling locker where the residual warmth of life steams away slowly in preparation for the deep-freeze storage locker. From the cooling locker, the meat goes into a main storage area where it is kept for as long as a week.
This locker exits to a butchering area where the sides of beef are reduced to parts for the supermarket, which end up on dining room tables. The final stop of my tour was the sausage and hot dog production facilities. It is often said that if you could see what goes into a hot dog, you'd never eat one again. Well that adage applies tenfold to the production of sausage. the violently nauseating smell that I have ever experienced was the odor wafting up from the sausage meat boiling vats.
As I left the complex, I was embarrassed about my previous skepticism, and I encourage anyone who has any of the doubts that I once possessed to make a visit to a slaughterhouse, or spend a day at a factory farm. I think it would become clear that there has to be a better way to feed ourselves, and that it is our duty as moral beings to pursue the alternatives.