Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Slaughterhouse Rules: Glimpses of the Inconvenient

Let me begin with something a tad more appealing. Here's what you do with that guanciale you've been curing in your garage for about a month.  Slice it slightly thick,

 then cut your Brussels sprouts in half

and put all in a pan.  I added two cloves of crushed garlic, and about a teaspoon of olive oil to the mix, and then put it all in a preheated 410ยบ oven.  After maybe 15 minutes, here's what you get:

When I met my wife she told me she couldn't stand Brussels sprouts.  Many a night, of late, she has eaten a large pan of these and nothing else for dinner.

Ok, now on to the more difficult topic.  A local, but not insignificant controversy has arisen over the status of meat processing facilities (yep, slaughterhouses) here in Central North Carolina.  For me, the question emerged in anticipation of a talk by Temple Grandin at Duke a few weeks back.  Prior to her appearance, I heard from a colleague (I need to be careful here, since I am not yet ready to make public all of these parties in a way that discloses any confidences) that a number of local livestock farmers were eager to hear her comments, because they were so dissatisfied with the processors available to them.  This was interpreted - not by me - to mean that the slaughter facilities here were inhumane, handling animals in a haphazard fashion, failing to provide a stress-free demise for their subjects.  This really surprised me, as I had visited some of these facilities - I helped to load Thanksgiving turkeys on the conveyors that stun the birds before they are, well, eviscerated; and I had visited the main mammal slaughter facility in the Piedmont, as well, whose office prominently displays its certificate of approval from the demanding Animal Welfare Institute; and (if you're not too squeamish) you can watch the video I took of a pig slaughtered and dressed for barbecue here - and I had never heard complaints of animal abuse from farmers, many of whom DEEPLY care about the animals they raise.

I have, on the other hand, heard repeatedly about the serious limitations that processing presents for livestock farmers.  There's no question but that the demise of the meat processing industry is the most serious impediment to the expansion of "small"  or medium scaled farms of the kind that might offer a viable alternative to the industrial meat most readily, pervasively, and cheaply available in this country.  The costs of processing are often prohibitive for smaller farms, and reliable slaughterhouses are increasingly inaccessible. Andrea Weigl's story in the Raleigh News & Observer summarizes the issues nicely. More on this below.  

So Temple Grandin comes to Durham and, amid her many comments on animal behavior, neuroscience, and "thinking in pictures," remarks that she's just been told that local slaughter facilities are "not good" here in North Carolina.  Indeed, she says, this is a story she hears regularly.  What you need to do, she says, is work with your other producers (farmers) to see through the changes that need to be made to make these small processors more accountable.  It may take money, it will take time, but it's what needs to be done to make these slaughterhouses run the right way.  Grandin went on to say that slaughter was one of the areas where "Big Ag does a much better job than Small Ag."  Grandin is quite proud of the auditing protocol she's worked out for very large scale industrial slaughter facilities - plants run by such aggregators as Cargill, and all of the meat sold by McDonald's and Wendy's is now processed at facilities that have met her criteria.  There's no doubt but that these are significant accomplishments.  And it's not surprising to find that large purveyors like these, purveyors whose interest is in the product they put on their shelves and provide their customers, would focus in particular on processing as a concern.  McDonald's, Wendy's, Cargill, they all package a product - food - that is produced by an industrial procedure that converts animals into meat at a processing plant . It also makes for a great public relations story. Even consumers who never eat a Big Mac can feel better about McD's for their humane slaughter facilities.

Yet, admirable as these changes are, they belie a much wider story that might actually help us understand WHY "Small Ag" processing is so problematic, and - while they represent improvements in the humane slaughter of thousands of industrially produced animals - how these changes contribute to the degradation of a great many animals and the farmers who raise them.  How can this be? Well, the Big Ag with whom Temple Grandin has worked has, in the last generation, made a point of driving meat processors out of business.  The profitability of industrial meat depends upon a system of vertical integration, one in which animals are produced according to very rigorous (often genetically specified) standards, fed, watered, exposed to light and air, etc in keeping with exacting protocols that are dictated by a meat packer.  When you buy a Perdue chicken, Perdue has made these husbandry requirements a contractual obligation of the farmer who raises their chickens.

And here's the thing: Perdue (or Smithfield, or Hormel, or Tysons, or Cargill it's all the same) doesn't actually OWN the chickens (pigs, cows, lambs . . .) it processes.  It displaces the expensive, messy, unpredictable components of the meat business - namely, raising animals - on to the farmer.  In turn, farmers accept contracts from the integrators; all of their animals must be raised and sold in keeping with industry standards. What enforces these contracts? Why not just tell Smithfield, "I'm tired of these confinement pigs,  I think I'll raise Gloucestershire Old Spots on  pasture next year and see what the market will bring in"?  What makes integration work is that Big Ag - the meat packers - have required that you raise their animals according to their specs, and this requires a LOT of inputs.  Infrastructure like breeding houses, and lighting, and feed mixes, and confinement flooring are all extensive and expensive - most farmers have purchased the inputs required of them through the use of loans provided to them by  - you guessed it  - the integrators.  So once you're in, you're hooked.  The loan has to be paid off, and the processor can liquidate your property if you fail to provide the requisite product you owe them.

This kind of system works  - which is to say, keeps meat prices low and lots and lots of animals and farmers in line - though scale.  Standardization is all but impossible to enforce or implement for small farms with only a few dozen pigs, or sheep.  But as the scale increases, so does profitability.  What the integrators have done, then, is gotten big enough that they've been able to drive REGIONAL competitors out of work.  If you raise pigs for Smithfield, they can only be processed in a Smithfield plant; and if you're not raising Smithfield pigs, they can't be processed in a Smithfield facility.  In practical terms what this means for the pig farmer is that either you're raising thousands of pigs in confinement, or you've gotten out of pig farming altogether, because you can't sell your meat as cheaply as Smithfield. Well, once farmers stop raising pigs (cows, sheep, chickens) except for those that are raising theirs under contract production, who is going to get their animals processed by small-scale slaughterhouses?  As it happens here in Central North Carolina, no one (or almost).  I wish I could cite the data more concretely here, but many a farmer and resident of Eastern North Carolina has told me that, in living memory, every county had three or four slaughterhouses that could handle the pigs (cow, sheep) raised by county residents. Having a pig, they said, was like money in the bank.  If you needed some cash at hand, you took your pig to slaughter and sold the meat to hungry neighbors.  Today, there is exactly one slaughter house that handles pigs between Raleigh and Wilmington. One. Except, of course, for the Smithfield facility that processes 32,000 pigs. Every day. Every single damn day.

And one independent plant for poultry - in the entire state.  What, then, about those complaints about local slaughter facilities and inhumane slaughter? I have to admit that the claims I HAVE heard about meat processing present it as a huge challenge.  The skills of slaughtering - a grueling, dangerous, complicated job - have become so demeaned and degraded of late, that it is really hard to find processors who know how to cut and trim meat of consistent quality. Who's going to go into processing when the meat packing elephant in the room is likely to crush you before you can stand up? If you have to drive half way across the state to process chickens, at a cost of $3 per bird (and more to cut and package the bird into salable parts), when you add up the costs in time, fuel, and slaughter it's hard to imagine why anyone would raise chickens for anyone but Tysons.  I can sell you what I promise you is the very best Thanksgiving turkey you will ever eat (help me out fellow diners who have eaten this turkey! Shout out! Can't a blogger get some love?) And it will cost you about $100 for a 15 pound bird.  Still hungry? (Hope so!)

Temple Grandin's protocols are unimpeachable. But her politics (by her own admission, not her strong suit, or her interest) are more muddy.  The Big Ag her work has enhanced makes slaughter a less brutal and degrading process.  But the political economic structures through which their slaughter procedures are improved have positively undermined the well being of farmers as well as their animals - both those in the system, and struggling outside of it.  Industrially produced animals are not merely put to death by Cargill, Smithfield, Tysons, et al, they LIVE and are raised according to protocols that require confinement, genetically modified feeds, sub-therapeutic antibiotic regimes, etc.  Humane animal slaughter built at the cost of unimaginable (non)human animal lives.  Not an easy trade-off.


  1. Wonderful post about a troubling & complicated issue (at least from the perspective of small Ag). I'm really glad it got tagged #charcutepalooza so I found it. Have you written more about pig farming & big Ag? Or related topics?


  2. Thanks so much. Yes, I write about these things as a Cultural Anthropologist, and college professor Earlier posts bring up related issues (see esp Eating Ursula) and see my website for more details about my research and writing.

    And thanks again!