Sunday, January 24, 2010

Slaughterhouse Blues


in case you can't make it out, that there's a swastika 

     A couple of months ago my small town made national headlines when the Humane Society released a video showing employees at a local slaughterhouse mistreating sick calves while a USDA inspector watched. Again, this is a small town, and there are a lot of rumblings about what occurred that deserve mentioning. For starters, Ron and Colleen Bushway no longer owned Bushway Packing, although they received a stunning number of death threats after the incident. Previously, the Bushways ran a custom slaughterhouse until they sold the business to Frank Peretta, who used the facility to process animals (from near and far) into ground meat to be shipped to New York - although custom slaughtering for local farms was still available. The individual who shot the video completely infiltrated himself into the lives of the employees, spending his free time with them, drinking their beer, etc... A common quote you'll hear is "it was him who said 'throw some water on him first'" in reference to a clip from the video where a sick calf can't stand after being repeatedly shocked with a cattle prod. An animal who cannot stand cannot be slaughtered.


Grand Isle


I watched the video both cut and uncut , and yes, I found it shocking. However, I suspect that like many other people who saw it, I kind of missed the point. What's shocking to me is everyday life in a slaughterhouse and the amount of desensitizing that someone who kills animals repeatedly must endure. There is no love or kindness shown, no matter what catchwords are printed on the packaging or how appealing the accompanying picture of the farm might look. Slaughterhouses are either clean or they're not. They are either following the rules or they're not. They are never appetizing.


photo by Gillian Klein


The closing of Bushway's means something more to the state of Vermont: we're now down a slaughterhouse, which is problematic. There is a strong "Buy Local" movement here, and many people purchase meat directly from farms, as whole, half, or quarter animals. Likewise, local organic meat is in high demand at our many health food stores, no matter the price. At the NOFA Direct Marketing Conference many farmers shared their concerns about the lack of slaughterhouse choices. Longer waits for processing are becoming more common and satisfaction is hardly guaranteed. A friend who attended the Meat Regulations workshop told me that one farm had been given all of their meat ground, after having specified particular cuts; another farm mentioned that they always factor in this type of loss, as a vegetable farmer would for crop damage. One complexity of this issue is the aspect of timing; everyone wants to slaughter at the same time, and therefore becomes a number to the facility instead of a loyal customer. Farms that are able to spread out their processing schedule over the course of the entire year are experiencing better relationships with slaughterhouses as well as better results.


photo by Gillian Klein


At this point we are still talking about small, local farms selling both organic and conventional meat. The price tag here can be upwards of $18 per pound, all for the notion that you are eating a well cared for animal with exposure to clean water, fresh air, and sometimes green pasture. Often times, especially with ground meat, you are really eating culled dairy cows who may not be put on pasture if it's preferable for the farmer to control their grain based diet. No matter how carefully a farm may raise their animals, they lose all control as soon as they reach the slaughterhouse. So, knowing a farm and respecting their actions does not mean that their animals are killed humanely, which is probably most heart wrenching to the farm itself. Federal and State laws prevent farms from selling meat which has been slaughtered on site  (however, in Vermont there are limited exceptions for poultry.)




Cheap meat is what most of America eats, let's say $2 and $3 per pound for conventional, and $8 or $9 per pound for 'organic', 'natural' or 'hormone free'. All of this meat comes from factory farms located mostly in Nebraska and Colorado and easily makes up the majority of what is available for purchase in stores and restaurants in the US. Factory farms are rightly not farms at all, but rather industrialized feed lots. I have seen them, and again, not appetizing, Animals are crammed in by the thousands, they are routinely medicated with strong doses of antibiotics, and they are fed foods which are incompatible with their genetic make-up. You may have heard the list of concerns before, but here are some facts that you may have missed:

  • cheap meat caused the swine flu , bird flu, and many other viruses we have yet to meet. Any living being without access to sunlight, clean water, and personal space suffers a compromised immune system. Factory farmed pigs live amidst their own feces and are exposed and re-exposed to mutating viruses daily. Clean, well cared for animals who live outdoors have less exposure to viruses and have much stronger immune systems to fend them off. This principle crosses over to gardening - well tended, uncrowded, and weeded tomato plants were able to stave off last season's blight longer than those that were uncared for. Basic science.
  • "there is shit in meat." The now infamous quote from Fast Food Nation, or at least the one that grabbed most people's attention. Factory farmed cattle are constantly covered in feces, and after they are hung and skinned, it is very difficult to keep the feces out of the final product in a crowded kill room. This is how E. coli makes it into ground meat in the first place, but just because there's no E. coli in your meat doesn't mean that your meat doesn't contain shit. And just because you don't eat fast food doesn't mean that the meat you purchase doesn't come from the same feedlot. Our government hot lunch program provides school kids with some of the lowest grade meat available. 
  • veal is not baby cows. I just learned this recently. The culinary term for veal refers to a calf that has been milk fed by its mother for about 12 weeks - it's the milk that makes the meat so tender and gives it a grayish hue. Technically young male calves are called veal in books, but on farms are called 'bull calves" and are culled young (2 days old in our scandalous video) to be put into ground meat. So, not eating veal does not mean that you're not eating baby cows.  
  • what about dairy? Vegetarianism is a common response to the social, political, economical, and environmental impacts that industrial meat production has introduced to the world. While I admire this (wear it loud, wear it proud) it does not solve all of the problems. If you eat any dairy products, rest assured that those animals will be introduced to the slaughterhouse system at some point, as they have to remain productive to be considered financially viable. They are not a byproduct; they exist solely to make milk, yogurt, butter, and cheese for those of us who wish to purchase those products, and when they are done they 'are done'.

dairy cows, Milton
        You may or may not know that at our farmers' market, I sell sandwiches, many of which are all about meat. Last season I sold local organic beef, along with both chicken and salmon from Costco. Truthfully, the vegetarian wraps that I make from our garden are the most creative and inspired (spring pea falafel with candied radishes & creamy curried greens, and patty pan squash fritters with basil cream & sungold tomato relish) but they're not big sellers. People want meat. The most popular booth at our market is a Bosnian restaurant that creates really delicious food, straight off of the Sysco truck into styrofoam boxes with nary a local product involved - and people can't get enough. I have changed my menu this year to represent what local organic meat I can get: beef, lamb, and pork.


    spring pea falafel wrap

    So, what are meat eaters (and sellers) to do? The Vermont Agency of Agriculture could probably set some incentives for the opening of new slaughterhouses. I would like to see some effort given towards changing the law so that local farms can slaughter on site. That being said, the latest supreme court decision ( which has me vomiting on the hour) seems to be saying that all laws have already been bought and sold, especially those that give the advantage to mega-corporations. So, really, what are meat eaters to do?

    14 comments:

    1. What I do, since I like to have a meat meal occasionally is to buy meat from a local producer (Thunder Ridge Ranch in Piermont, NH), where I can see the animals and how they are raised. I have to admit that I fail on this in sometimes buying Misty Knoll chickens even though I know that they aren't truly free range.

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    2. Not sure if you read Slate, but the website just put up an article with similar themes... here's some more disturbing data to ponder:

      http://www.slate.com/id/2242290/

      It's interesting that the author doesn't consider the processing issue as you discussed above.

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    3. Abbie, thanks for the Slate article; I guess it reaffirms what we keep learning over and over: any catch word or food trend like 'organic' or 'grass fed' can be hijacked by agribusiness, and in turn can become dangerous for the public just due to scale. If E.coli is in the intestines of the animal, it still can only contaminate our meat if feces make it into the final product, or at least that's my understanding. So, packed feed lots and large scale kill floors are the right formula for spreading the bacteria, where as smaller herds killed on site eliminate much of the risk. I think it makes sense to really investigate a brand before you buy it. You can usually tell a lot by a website...

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    4. After viewing your other photos, your spring pea falafel wrap looks/sounds delightful :)

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    5. I just found your blog on blotanical, and spent a half hour reading about your ventures. I found it immensely interesting, although this post is rather disturbing, and makes me want to eliminate meat from our diet. Keep up the good work!

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    6. I know it's on the dark said, huh? And the last photo feels so happy and bright after all that gore (sorry, maybe I should've posted a warning!) I think it's a tough subject, but I don't think it's just about meat. Food isn't widgets, and until it's treated otherwise the market will always be flooded with underpriced calories that make quality food appear elite. At a danger to us all, no less...

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    7. The third picture made me want to become a vegetarian. Thank you for the time and effort that you put in this article.

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    8. Seems to be the same problems in so many places, we have similar issues here. I watched an eye opening doco on Australian ocean fish farming recently.

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    9. This is an excellent article. I live in Western Mass. where CISA (Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture) is working with other organizations to get a local slaughterhouse built so that small farmers can slaughter their animals locally and make more money, and people like me can get a couple of backyard pigs slaughtered. I am always struck by the inconsistency of people around the issues of meat production. Everyone expresses horror at the idea of feedlots and industrial slaughter houses, but are equally horrified that anyone would raise animals 'in the backyard' and then kill them for food. In either case they are happy to go to Costco and buy huge bags of frozen meat and poultry. People don't want slaughterhouses nearby - the slightly more euphemistic term is 'meat processing plant'- but they do want meat as you so clearly show. You mention that many 'unproductive' animals will end up at the slaughterhouse, but not enough is made of the fact that most male animals are considered 'unproductive' which means that even if everyone became vegan in a world where cows, pigs, sheep, goats and poultry were allowed to live, the situation would not be sustainable. "Nature, red in tooth and claw" and, as much as we resist that thought, we are a part of that nature, but we can handle things more humanely and in a more sanitary way.

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    10. Dear JP, I am so glad to have found you.

      I found this posting of yours to be truly horrific and disturbing and can only believe that what you describe must also be happening in the United Kingdom. You are taking a brave and rightful stance; increasing public awareness of these kinds of practices can, I am sure, do nothing but good.

      It was heartening to end on a brighter note of what you are selling in the farmers' markets. I do wish you well and will return to follow your progress.

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    11. that was a great post and one for me to think about along my journey...i do buy local beef here in hawaii and its small businesses and butchers, i'm hopefully that they take a little more care in the final process....that and i tend to slow cook everything very well until tender :)

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    12. Thanks JP. I think about all the above issues a lot and preach the local meat to all and sundry. Sadly people are not very receptive to the message and typically smile and nod before driving off to Safeway for their groceries.

      I go out of my way to find local, humanely raised meat that doesn't have to be organic, simply pasture raised and additive free. I am lucky in that I can dedicate a big chunk of time and effort to sourcing locally grown food and support the farmers directly. The prices are much lower than the butcher that way. I'd love to see mobile abbatoirs be allowed, but somehow we've allowed our govts to grow to the point where they dictate laws 'for our safety' and ignore our wishes.

      We did vegetarian for about four months before returning to stellar local meat, and may go down that path again in the future, but our treatment of our food does not speak highly of our species.

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    13. Thanks for looking at my apple pictures. I'd love to see some of yours.

      I found this article very informative and interesting. It makes me sad (angry) the way people treat animals and don't even think twice about it.

      I say, lets all farm our own cows, pigs and chickens. Then you KNOW exactly what you're getting. And although farms may not be able to "legally" slaughter meat, that doesn't mean you can't trade with a neighbor/friend.

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