Tag Archives: humane slaughter

Can’t Get Away From Factory Farming

I still don’t think of myself as truly vegetarian — just mostly vegetarian, and  I’m sure many vegetarians would consider me not entirely committed, for my viewpoint that it is possible to keep an animal kindly, and at the end of a happy and food-filled life to slaughter it humanely and eat it.  I believe this can be done with respect.  The animal benefits from health care, provisioned food/water/shelter and companionship; the human gets a wealth of supplies (leather, wool, etc) and food.  Everyone benefits.

Unfortunately, somewhere between this red-barn-and-picket-fence idyll and the high-speed modern slaughterhouse, the “mutual respect” thing turned into something where animals are not even afforded the basic respect we give to useful furniture, and I can’t buy into that system.  Thus, mostly vegetarian — enjoying meat but not the hell that animals went through in order to get it to me, I decided I would only eat meat from small, local, family farms, where compassionate farmers could spend enough time with the animals they slaughtered to ensure the process was as quick, painless and humane as possible, and the animals had as wonderful a life as it was possible to provide.  This makes me essentially vegetarian — certainly no restaurant or normal grocery store serves such meat, which must be found at specialty stores or obtained directly from the farms themselves.

I am now rethinking even this limited meat option.  It had been sitting in the back of my mind that even meat raised at the kindest of farms likely goes through USDA-“overseen” slaughterhouses, with their 3-chickens-a-second conveyor belts, and an episode of “Dirty Jobs” — in which Mike Rowe shadows Earl’s Meats, a mobile butchering operation which travels to clients’ farms, slaughters their stock, and butchers the carcass, producing wrapped meats ready for the kitchen — implied that it is actually required that this happen.  The episode pointed out to me that the meat butchered in this way was unsuitable for sale to the public because it had not been slaughtered in a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse.

This means that any meat to which I have easy, retail access, short of something I have slaughtered personally, has been processed through a USDA slaughter operation and has therefore been in the tender “care” of a high speed slaughter plant, or one of the new USDA-inspected mobile units, which can potentially process 30 head of cattle a day.  This means that it’s time to drop the “small farm” meat and become officially vegetarian, because there is currently no such thing as “humane” meat.

As a side note, here’s the Mobile Slaughter Unit Compliance Guide from the USDA.

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One Step Forward, One Step Back: Gassing Chickens

via Cheetah100, Flickr Creative Commons

As described in many, many, many books and videos (but especially accessibly by this book, in case you’re interested), large slaughterhouses can process so many animals per hour that workers on the assembly line can have to deal with as many as one animal every five seconds (depending on species).  This causes “sloppy workmanship” on the part of the workers, manifesting itself in animals “stunned” badly or not at all, injuries to animals and workers as conscious animals are “stuck”, “legged”, or dunked in tanks of scalding water…um, anyway, high speeds in large slaughterhouses are bad, primarily because handling so many animals, so quickly, makes it possible for humane killing methods to “miss”, and for animals to go through the butchering process not only alive, but conscious.

There seems to be a movement afoot that at first looks like a great idea: some factories here and there have picked up on the idea of “sedating”/”stunning”/”gassing” the animals with carbon dioxide to make sure they are unconscious before being killed.  On the one hand, this is a great step forward.  A slaughterhouse is actually considering the needs of the animals it is processing and trying to make the experience less stressful for them.  Yes, the slaughterhouse will benefit from this: the birds will be less damaged on packaging (less wasted meat) and of course they will be able to put “humanely slaughtered” on all their packaging, so it’s not as though it’s all altruistic, but still: baby steps.

On the other hand — speaking as someone who has personally “euthanized” hundreds of mice via carbon dioxide and seen others do so — this is not a foolproof answer.  CO2 euthanasia is only a quiet, peaceful death if it is performed very slowly, very carefully, on one animal at a time.  (Even that’s debatable — there’s still a happy section of science cheerfully turning out papers on whether or not CO2 euthanasia is “euthanasia” at all.)  I strongly suspect that the fast-paced world of the high-volume slaughterhouse is not going to combine well with the slow and careful process of humane CO2 euthanasia.  Captive-bolt stunning, which is already used by the factories, is, in itself, a humane procedure.  However, the speed at which a large slaughterhouse operates renders captive-bolt stunning inhumane because proper procedures are unable to be followed and the animals are not properly stunned.  I think the same issues will affect CO2 euthanasia if it is used in high-volume slaughterhouse operations.

First, the size of the operation itself is going to induce pressure to make the process of filling the gas chamber, which should be a carefully monitored, slow procedure, a quick-and-dirty one.  The chicken factory mentioned in the link above, at least, appears to be talking about processing hundreds of birds at a time — according to the article, the containers in which the birds are shipped to the plant will go into a huge CO2 chamber, which will need to be room sized at least.  How to fill such a room?  Recommendations vary, but the average is something like 10% of room air replaced with CO2 per minute — that’s at least ten minutes to fill the chamber with gas.  (There are arguments for and against pre-filling the chamber with gas, or using faster filling speeds, but that discussion must be saved for a different article.)  The chamber will then need to be cleared of gas before workers enter and remove the birds (or the workers will need breathing apparatus).  This is all going to take time, which high-speed workers do not have.

Second, the size of the room is going to affect the facility’s ability to deliver gas properly to every animal.  Birds further from the gas vents will be affected at different rates than birds next to the vents.  Also, since CO2 is heavier than air, the birds at the top of the room will be affected differently than birds at the bottom.  What will assure that every animal: a) is rendered completely unconscious, b) remains unconscious for butchering?  In a room of sufficient size it is possible for the outermost birds at the bottom of the room to be dead while the birds in the center on the top are still conscious.  If workers are filling and emptying the room at high speeds, this problem is actually quite likely.  (There are already documented reports of dogs surviving similar gas chambers at humane shelters.)

Third, many laboratory euthanasia standards recommend euthanizing animals by CO2 one at a time (or in small familiar groups in their home cages).  (However, it should be noted that the official AVMA line on this is that the gas “chambers should not be overcrowded”, and indeed, some facilities routinely toss a bunch of animals all into one cage for euthanasia to save time.)  This is because animals can detect the intrusion of CO2.  They often become alarmed and disoriented before they go down, running, kicking, squealing, and generally acting agitated.  This does not promote quiet, calm, peaceful behavior — this promotes a room full of shrieking, flapping, alarmed and disoriented birds.

Apparently they’ve been trying CO2 euthanasia on pigs tooThis article suggests that all the agitation takes place after loss of consciousness and that the pigs are completely out cold while “convulsions, vocalization, reflex struggling, breath holding, and tachypnea” occur.  I’ll admit I’ve never seen a pig euthanized by CO2, but I must say I have some reservations about how “unconscious” the mice and rats I euthanized were while they underwent “Guedel’s second stage of anesthesia“.

I applaud these factories for trying to make the treatment of the animals with whom they are working more humane.  (I am an animal trainer at heart, and I know to reward “baby steps”, no matter how small.)  However, I believe these factories are not treating the correct problem (which is generally that the facility is trying to process too many animals for its capacity, and using pressured, underpaid, and under-trained workers).

So Much To Write and So Few Pages

One thing learned from the initiation of video auditing on a large scale is that some people should not be handling livestock. — Temple Grandin

I recently picked up a book about slaughterhouses, and have had my hair standing on end reading it, realizing how much that process is like the processing of laboratory animals that I experienced.  I want to say more about that — I have a lot to say about that book — but in the meantime, I was doing some background research on the book itself and ended up on the web site of Temple Grandin, a PhD who has dedicated herself to improving the welfare of animals in slaughter plants, with some hopeful results.

Since the book I am reading was written in 1997, I skimmed Dr. Grandin’s web site, which had some up to date slaughterhouse audits (as recent as 2010), to see how things might be going nowadays.  Apparently they are now employing video monitoring in slaughter plants, which, depending on how exactly that is achieved, and who exactly is doing the monitoring, is a huge step forward for the conditions of both animals and humans there.  However, if the quote above is anything to go by, conditions haven’t really changed all that much since the book was written.

I Wish to Register a Complaint

I miss meat.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I believe in (compassionate) carnivory and I do not believe there is a moral failing in consuming an animal you have appropriately “paid” (with food, water, shelter, care and affection) for its contributions to your household.  I am happy to eat meat.  However, I prefer not to pay the companies who do not adequately compensate their animals — thus, I do not eat meat at restaurants, picnics, fast food joints, what have you, because they buy their meat from enormous, horrible factory farms.  This leaves me searching, often vainly, for meat which has been slaughtered humanely and raised kindly.  I don’t eat a lot of meat anymore.

It is possible, if one hunts diligently, to find small local farms where the animals see grass and daylight during their lives, have adequate vet care and space, and even (gasp) enjoy species-appropriate social groups.  (I am happy that, because of the prevailing change in attitudes, it is slowly becoming more possible to find these farms.)  I find that my best chance of locating non-factory-farmed meat is at the local, “community” grocery stores.  These stores appear to make at least a token effort to find these humane farms and carry their products.  In turn, I happily give these places my money.  I wish to encourage this behavior.

However, I still find that the meat selection in these stores can leave much to be desired, and the watchwords caveat emptor still apply.  Unless the meat says “free range” (and sometimes not even then), you’re likely looking at factory farmed meat.  Yes, even if there’s a picture of a smiling pig on the wrapper.  Yes, even if it says “organic” and “hormone-free” all over it.  Today, I was almost ambushed by some elk stew meat, ambiguously labeled “Broadleaf”.

In my experience, it is generally very difficult to factory-farm wild game.  I worked with bison for ten years; they are larger and smarter than domestic cattle, and do not tolerate herding, hitting, crowded conditions, or running through cattle chutes — all requirements for “economical”, assembly-line processing — well.  I was initially attracted to the elk meat for this reason.  Fortunately, I still made the wise choice to look up “Broadleaf”, which after much research turned out to likely be Broadleaf Game, based out of California.  Broadleaf sells bison, elk, alligator and boar, which are quite unlikely to be factory farmed due to husbandry issues similar to those mentioned above, but they also sell beef, chicken, various “poultry”, veal and “farm-raised” rabbit, which are very easy to factory farm.  They say things like “hormone-free” on their site, but only the lamb is (vaguely) intimated to be living on grass, and most species do not have any description of their living facilities.

Alas, this is another brand name I won’t be rewarding with my money.  To demonstrate that it is possible to raise and slaughter wild game (or any animal!) kindly, and to advertise it properly, here is the web page for Broken Arrow Ranch, in Texas, and a description of its “field harvesting” technique, which I believe is the most humane way I’ve ever seen to kill an animal, for meat or otherwise (provided the person behind the gun is an excellent shot).

Of course, checking out the web site is only a small part of thorough research on a brand.  Typing search terms like “Broken Arrow Ranch USDA” and “Broken Arrow Ranch humane” into Google would be a good followup, checking for news articles concerning their handling practices and articles on other sites describing the facility.  Sometimes you can find reviews from people who have actually visited the farm, or a Facebook page from the farm with photos.  Ideally, one would be able to visit each facility personally, but, well.  In this exciting old world we can only do our best.