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.

  1. Carolyn says:

    I don’t think I would ever want to watch a “killing” but it is incredibly important to me that animals are humanely raised and killed if I am to eat them. Therefore, having the process more transparent, with tours, etc is a great way to do that.

  2. Jason Nauert says:

    With the type of teaching I do in the civilian and military sectors I always use terminology that I feel best describes what I am truly doing. I use humane harvest or humane harvest practices.

  3. carolyn says:

    Second comment from Carolyn. I prefer to see the word killing used, because to me harvesting is a term for plants not for sentient beings.

    • Jason Nauert says:

      I agree with you 100%, I unfortunatly have to use alternative different words to describ what I do. This is why I use these terms instead of kill or slaughter.

  4. Humaneitarian says:

    A sampling of comments from the Facebook post on this topic —

    Joanna: I think humane slaughter (as long as it is humane) is a good choice. There’s no hiding that animals do die to become food and using softer terms seems deceptive and leads one to question whether the animals are actually being treated humanely before being slaughtered or not.

    Deborah: Humane slaughter sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Maybe ‘final processing’ would help ease the guilt. Humane treatment is the important issue of course.

    Kevin: Humane slaughter, which always gets the vegans annoyed. Harvesting isn’t appropriate.

    Circle B Ranch: I like to refer to it as processing our hogs. People do not like to think that animals are killed or slaughtered. To me the most important thing is that the hogs are handled humanely from birth to harvest.

    Kendra: I think we need to keep it real. Slaughter is killing an animal. If folks are not okay with killing an animal so that it can be eaten, maybe they shouldn’t be eating meat.

    Rebecca: Let’s not invent new words just because we are uncomfortable taking the lives of animals in order to eat them. Call it what it is- slaughtering. We’ve already obscured, dumbed-down, and removed any sense that these boneless, skinless chicken breasts sitting on a styrofoam tray were once an actual living, breathing animal. Let’s remind people that the meat they enjoy was once an animal by calling it slaughter and slaughterhouses as they have long been called.

    Ginger: “Harvesting” neutralizes it and hides the fact that they are losing their lives. People are already so disconnected emotionally from where our food comes from it is important to keep it real-call it what it is: death, dying, killing, slaughter or humane slaughter.

  5. Pat Beck says:

    We raise grass-fed beef to high humane and high culinary standard and feel strongly about respecting the entire process and taking the gift in gratitude.. We say slaughter and don’t look away.. We are fortunate to have some of the region’s top chefs choose our meat and I always invite them to come see a kill or a cutting 2-3 weeks later after dry aging.. We are proud to be among the humane, pasture-based 2% of the meat supply and don’t believe in euphemisms that start to imply that something shady is going on.. We kill animals and don’t even feel bad about it.. We feel great and shed a tear in reverence.. We kill our own meat rabbits too.. Amazing Silver Foxes that are pasture grown and carry a 30% premium above any other rabbit out there because they’re so darn good.. The sad truth is that animals have left people’s homes and been moved to factories.. The fact that we need their lives has been obscured over the past few decades enabling the truly frightening pharmaceutical practices and environmental crimes to proceed unchallenged..

    • Brad says:

      i appreciate all of the thought that you have put into this issue Pat. I have to correct you though when you say we “need their lives”. Eating animals, and animal products, is a choice. You choose to take their lives, we don’t need to.

  6. janet says:

    Thank you very much for enabling this conversation, Humaneitarian. It is much needed.
    I agree that the word “slaughter” is the most precise word we have in the English language. However, I also know that there is “slaughter” and there is “slaughter”. Adding the word “humane” in front of this word seems to help distinguish between the often brutal slaughter that takes place in large processing plants from the mindful, caring and yet detached action that takes place in slaughter facilities which see the whole process as part of the necessary cycle of birth and death.

  7. Lisa Wilkinson says:

    Transparency is important to me when buying meat. I wouldn’t personally want to witness a slaughter but I think it is important to recognize where meat comes from and own it. I appreciate the fact that an animal gave its life for me. I do my part by only buying from local, small batch sources. I honor the animal by wasting as little as possible. I once bought a quarter cow from a local farmer, her name was Ophelia. The cow not the farmer. I was told she had 1,000 good days and 1 bad. I can live with that.