I lied. This part isn’t going to be pretty. It’s guts, and it’s blood, and it’s necessary. It’s just what I need to do to process the whole thing. If you don’t have the stomach, please don’t keep reading.

(if you haven’t read part 1, it’s right here)

The fact of the matter is that this is a slaughterhouse. A SLAUGHTER HOUSE. For however much we want to be treated with kid gloves, it’s a place where animals come to die. With that said, let’s get to the task at hand.

***

We stood in the receiving area, a cold floor with tracks lining the ceiling above us. Through a set of double doors was the kill floor, a maze of stations where it was the job of one person to do one specific task- tying the legs, removing the hooves, and yes, one guy for doing the deed. I’d visited a veal slaughterhouse a few years back when I was in school, but they weren’t slaughtering that day. Today, as I mentioned in the last post, they were doing the Halal live slaughter.

We were called in, ten at a time, and walked along the wall as we passed by a giant pressure wash conveyor belt filled with removed viscera. At the end of the line, they were dumped into a giant stainless wheelbarrow where they were then transported to yet another conveyor. There, they were separated into edible and inedible portions, wherein they were boxed and trucked out for use in different industries. The edible portions, parts such as tongues and livers, were shipped out to various markets and restaurants around the area where they would be no doubt made into patés and terrines, resold to people for exorbitant prices, which these days is justified by the amount of effort it takes to poach, puree, bake, set, and slice into a palatable dish. Yesterday’s offal has been transformed into tomorrow’s haute cuisine. In any other culture, the stomach would be rinsed and stuffed for haggis, and where many people believe that the hide and wool would be used for blankets, sweaters and jackets, the most profitable use of the hides is to utilize them as paint rollers. It might not be the most glamorous of ways to use the animal, but every part serves a purpose. The intestines are flushed, rinsed, salted and tubed, and used for casing when I make sausage.

We hugged the back wall as the fabrication line passed us by. A corpulent and silent man was hoofing the carcass as it rolled by, looking purposed in his work but cautiously detached from the nature of his business. With each hoof, he tossed it with a no look pass into the trashbin behind him.

The man before him hooked the tied forequarters to a t-bar, which he then raised to the ceiling tracks. The man before him was the one in charge of attaching the ties to the legs. Before that, the workers were removing the hides.

Five at a time, we were called back to the area where they were performing the ritual slaughter. As someone in the industry, this is something that I needed to see. I didn’t have to see it, but in order to understand what it takes to put dinner on the table, it was necessary.

The area itself was a narrow alley. In the back, next to the stunning machine, there was a small pen of sheep. One by one, they were attached by the back leg and hoisted up to about ten feet, so their necks were in line with the chest of the man doing the killing. We were in line with his actions, and as he prepared, in accordance of the Halal ritual of slaughter, he whispered a short prayer and cradled the head of the animal in his arms. With a quick and deep incision, the job was done, and the animal was dead.

Here’s the thing: It’s up for debate as to which method of slaughter is more humane for the animal. All meat that is certified by the USDA must be killed with a bolt, a quick stun to the base of the skull that severs the nervous response between the brain and the body. Virtually the same result is achieved with Halal, as the slaughter method is designed to both honor the animal in the name of the Lord and minimize suffering by a swift severing of the carotid artery. In both of these methods, exsanguination is the cause of death. The knife must not be sharpened in the presence of the animal to cause undue agitation, and the name of Allah must be spoken by a member of the Muslim faith as the animal is killed, for in that religion, the Creator is the granter and taker of life.

As we watched, it was done with before the animal had a chance to suffer. Despite the mettle it took for the man with the knife to perform this action day in and day out, he reserved a quiet connection with each animal he slaughtered as he was able to remain calm emotionally invested yet at peace.

***
I’m going to take a time out here for a minute, as this is a lot to read through for those who aren’t used to finding out about where their meat comes from. I don’t mean to be vulgar, and I don’t mean to be crass, callous or uncaring in my description of this process. This is how it is. For most, the idea of a slaughterhouse is unappetizing, as we prefer our meat sterile and without a face, but for those who work on a farm, this is nothing new. I’ve met so many people who have grown up on farms or around animals where this is their routine. If you make a conscious decision to eat meat, an animal is going to have to get killed. On a farm, there’s a good chance that eventually, you’ll have to be the one faced with the impending mortality of an animal. It’s matter of fact. With the live slaughter of animals, you need to treat them as if their lives meant something, if not to you, than to those who worked hard to raise them. For many, if they don’t kill the animal, they don’t eat. Or their family doesn’t get paid. It’s not a choice for them. It’s not even a livelihood. If you own chickens, they fertilize the soil while pecking at bugs and other farmland creatures. This, in turn, gets the grass to grow. The grazers come along, eat the grass, fertilize the soil, which, when tilled, becomes the base for an eventual bountiful crop. These days, pasture is replaced with monocultured commodity corn, and livestock that was allowed to roam is now in a feedlot, miles from wherever the edibles may be. We’re getting better with our awareness of heirloom varieties of vegetables that taste like vegetables should taste, grass fed beef and cage free hens, to name a few. Still, not everyone has access to these. Some live in food deserts, and some merely don’t have the resources, either time or monetary, to eat this way all the time. If you choose to eat meat, eat good meat. Eat something that has been raised on a farm, or buy it from somebody who has knowledge of the slaughter or where the animal or vegetable was raised. Smaller is better. Know where your food comes from.

Despite the fact that this plant slaughters, on an average day, 1300 lamb, it is something that a handful of people can do in a shift. It is not a lowlying, faceless kill floor in the middle of nowhere. The largest slaughterhouse in the nation is Smithfield Pork Producers, in Tarheel, North Carolina. With over 5,000 workers,  they employ 100 times the labor that I saw working the lamb line. This mass production of poorly raised, ill-groomed meat is why when I do buy meat, I stay away from what I don’t know. The smaller the operation, the more control they have over the quality of meat and caliber of the workforce who they employ. On family farms, it’s even simpler. Fewer people in the mix equal better quality control, and a better understanding of how meat is supposed to be handled and raised.
***

I think that’s what I got out of this. If you’re going to eat meat, know where it comes from. Know that with smaller purveyors and a decent amount of care, the quality of the meat you choose to purchase and prepare will ultimately be higher. With those who put a face on the actions necessary to bring your food to the table, whether it be animal or vegetable, comes the knowledge that what you’ve chosen to eat and purchase was at one point an organism of the earth. Seeing this process from start to finish has given me a further appreciation of where my food comes from and the effort it takes to make it presentable.

Respect what you eat. Respect the jobs of those who raise your food, and those who do the things that you won’t. When you eat your chicken tonight, or your hamburger helper, or even your vegetable burger, know that all of these things came from somewhere, and if you’re buying it from a market, that it took the labor of many hands and the fortitude of many workers to provide you with dinner. Your dinner took a lot longer to make than the thirty minutes it took to cook it on your stove. No matter what you choose to nourish yourself with, know that it came from the earth, and in the name of whomever raised it for you, it’s there to fill you up. Don’t take your food for granted. It took a lot of work to get it to your table.

That’s the whole story.

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