The Eat with Care blog

Writing about humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian. Your comments and feedback welcome. (All replies are screened and posted, if thoughtful and respectful.)

How we think (and talk) about slaughter

March 23, 2015

A couple of interesting perspectives on meat processing (a.k.a. animal harvesting… a.k.a. butchering…. a.k.a. slaughtering) crossed my path lately and I thought of sharing them by asking a couple of questions…

Open-air chicken slaughtering on Martha's Vineyard (courtesy Ali Berlow)

Open-air chicken slaughtering on Martha’s Vineyard (Photo courtesy of Ali Berlow)

The topics have to do with the words & phrases we use when talking about this emotionally challenging aspect of meat production; and whether personally viewing the activity in a slaughterhouse is something we’d ever want to do.

If you’d like to share your thoughts on these two topics, post your comments below.

What should we call it?  Here is a fantastic essay by a farmer who has struggled with how to talk about slaughtering, especially with her customers. She writes:

As we talk about death in the open and search for a connection to the animals we eat, what kind of language are we prepared to hear? Does humanely raised meat ask for language that sounds more humane, or have we become so far removed from the realities of livestock farming that we are too squeamish to use the more literal words to describe the process?

The writer, Katie Spring, eventually comes to a conclusion — is it the same conclusion you would come to?

In America today, people are using a number of different words to describe the taking of animals’ lives for food.  The word that probably everyone likes the least, but that is used the most, is slaughtering. It’s a word associated with intentional brutality on a massive scale, and while people who oppose meat production would call it just that, it’s hard to apply the word to the act of an ethical farmer or responsible meat plant worker quickly ending the lives of well-cared for animals.

So instead, harvest has come to be used, mostly by farmers. (“We’re harvesting our beef cattle next week.”) To harvest is to gather — and indeed, we harvest (gather) vegetables and harvest (gather) animals. But the word lacks any indication that a life has been ended to feed us, so it’s often considered an attempt to whitewash what actually happens in meat production. (Is that so bad when speaking with people who are not used to thinking or talking about death? Should we ease them in with gentler words?)

butcher wagon crop2The same with meat processing. That phrase doesn’t touch on life and death, but seems to be the preferred word among folks in the meat business because it also encompasses meat fabrication — the turning of animals into different cuts. Some people talk of butchering animals, but usually that refers to what happens after the killing part.

And then there’s killing, which to me is the most accurate word. Eating meat involves practicing or sanctioning the killing of animals, plain and simple, and the more we can be honest about that, the more we can each make up our own mind about whether we’re ok with it. (Note, though, that killing is different than murdering, which implies the presence of malice — something I have never sensed in the heart of any farmer or slaughterhouse worker I have met.)

Onto the next question…

Would you watch what happens in a slaughterhouse?  There is a new slaughterhouse (a.k.a.  meat plant…. a.k.a. animal processing facility…) in Vermont that has a public viewing area. You can read about it here. Make an appointment in advance and the facility will allow you to come in and observe all the activity on the kill floor, from a small room above with a window.

Would you want to do this?  Would it help you better understand where meat comes from?  Would it repulse you or turn you into a vegetarian? Would you bring your kids, so that they can see firsthand that meat comes from a living animal and should be respected?  I have a friend who is considering doing this with her kids.

A small mobile slaughterhouse

A small mobile slaughterhouse

(If going into a big meat plant seems too overwhelming, you could always start your journey by visiting a local farm and observing their on-farm slaughtering, or you could check out a mobile slaughterhouse.)

The Vermont slaughterhouse with ‘glass walls’ has opened its doors to the public because it says it has nothing to hide and is proud of its humane protocols. (It is approved for use by Animal Welfare Approved farmers).

As the industrial meat industry keeps pushing for “ag-gag” laws, which criminalize the taking of photos or videos in agricultural facilities, this transparent slaughterhouse is refreshing. It will be interesting to see whether people reward the transparency by showing up there, brave and curious.