Try Orion

Crimes Unseen

The dark story of America's big slaughterhouses, and the effort to make their grim work more humane

by Dena Jones

Published in the July/August 2004 issue of Orion magazine



Photograph by Helen King/CORBIS, used with permission

TO SATISFY THE PUBLIC’S ever-growing appetite for meat, slaughterhouses in the United States killed ten billion animals last year. That’s 27,397,260 animals every day, 1,141,553 every hour, 19,026 every minute. Most Americans, largely disconnected from their food supply, assume these animals met a painless end, if they think about it at all. Even readers of books and articles about conditions in factory farms may not be aware of what happens to animals at slaughter. But every now and then that reality flashes briefly across the public consciousness, as it did during last year’s news stories about mad cow disease, when television viewers glimpsed a sick cow being dragged along the ground to a slaughterhouse. The media attention was on food safety, not the welfare of the animals, but for a brief moment the veil had been lifted on the brutality of the process that turns living creatures into meat.

And why should anyone want to inquire further? Can’t we just assume that the same industry that maximizes profits by confinement so extreme that chickens can’t flap their wings and pigs are prevented from turning around will also routinely mistreat animals at slaughter? What sense is there in focusing on the final hours of animals whose entire short lives are often a study in misery?

Mohandas Gandhi said that a nation’s moral progress can be judged by the way it treats its animals. Animal behavior scientists have proven unequivocally that animals are not machines but sentient beings that experience feelings of pain, fear, anxiety, and despair. These feelings matter to the animal and they should matter to us. If Gandhi is right, we have an obligation to know what happens to animals when they are killed to feed us, and to let that knowledge inform our actions. Yet from early childhood, Americans are taught to dissociate picture-book scenes of cows and sheep grazing in a pasture from rows of plastic-wrapped cuts of meat lining grocer’s shelves. We eat “pork” not pigs, “veal” not baby cows. Animals aren’t killed in slaughterhouses but “processed” in “packing plants.”

Upton Sinclair’s classic novel The Jungle, published in 1906, exposed the brutal conditions for both animals and humans in Chicago slaughter plants at the turn of the twentieth century. He likened the slaughterhouse to a dungeon where horrible crimes were committed, “all unseen and unheeded.” The uproar over the disclosure of what people were really eating prompted passage of the nation’s first food-safety law. There was to be no relief, however, for the workers who toiled long hours under dangerous conditions for little pay, or for the animals who were mercilessly bludgeoned to death with sledgehammers. Sinclair was disappointed. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he lamented.

GAIL EISNITZ HAS STRUGGLED for the last fifteen years to compel the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to enforce the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA), the forty-five-year-old federal law requiring humane handling of animals killed in federally inspected slaughterhouses. The law specifies the ways by which animals must be made insensible to pain before slaughter. The most common method is stunning. Electricity or gas is used to stun pigs, sheep, and goats unconscious; horses and cattle are shot with a device known as a captive bolt, which is designed to penetrate the skull and incapacitate the brain.

Eisnitz was working as an investigator for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in 1989 when she received a tip from a USDA slaughterhouse inspector about conditions in a Florida cattle plant. The man said he had personal knowledge that the plant was skinning cattle while they were still alive. Complaints to his superiors had gone unanswered. After querying the USDA about the matter and receiving no satisfaction, Eisnitz traveled to Florida, where she frequented bars that swelled with slaughter workers at the end of each shift. She listened to their stories about what was going on inside the plant. What she learned propelled her on a long, lonely journey through the American slaughterhouse, which she describes as “the darkest place in the universe.”

U.S. animal advocacy groups had campaigned to improve slaughter practices in the 1950s, when HMSA was passed, and again in the 1970s, when the law was amended to provide for enforcement. But no one was actively working the issue when Eisnitz came on the scene. This was due, at least in part, to the fact that access to slaughterhouses is severely limited and animal advocates were unaware of much of what was going on inside. It’s not clear to what degree, if at all, the treatment of animals at slaughter improved after the 1978 amendment. In fact, in the late 1970s a revolution took place in the slaughter industry, led by Iowa Beef Packers (IBP), which eventually became the largest meat producer in the country. IBP busted meatpacking unions by moving plants into rural areas and recruiting immigrant workers from Mexico. Wages fell by as much as 50 percent, and meatpacking went from one of the nation’s highest-paid industrial jobs to one of its lowest. At the same time, productivity—as defined by the number of animals slaughtered per hour—doubled. The combination of an increase in productivity and a decrease in worker qualifications had dire consequences for animal welfare.

From 1989 through the mid-1990s, Eisnitz, a determined woman in her forties with a background in natural resources management, crisscrossed the U.S. documenting slaughterhouse abuses. She learned about cattle slaughter plants where cattle were hoisted upside down, the lower part of their legs snipped off, their thighs and bellies cut open, and their skin stripped from their legs up to their necks, all while the animals were still conscious. She investigated pig slaughter plants where inadequately stunned and fully alert animals were dragged through tanks of scalding water, kicking and struggling until they drowned. From coast to coast she recorded accounts of animals being trampled, dragged, and shocked with electric prods placed in their mouths. At plant after plant workers told her that this sort of treatment was business as usual in the slaughter industry.

Where, she wondered, was the USDA, the agency charged with regulating slaughter practices? In Washington, D.C., it seemed, or in regional offices—everywhere but on the slaughter lines where the abuses were taking place. Eisnitz heard many excuses for government inaction—too few government inspectors, too much industry control, too little funding, too much pressure from meatpackers and Washington bureaucrats to turn a blind eye. Whatever the reasons, humane handling of animals was not a priority.

Eisnitz set out to make it one. She compiled hundreds of hours of worker interviews and thousands of pages of government reports and documents into a book, Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry, published in 1997. Shortly after the book’s release, Eisnitz organized a Washington, D.C., news conference, during which one former and one current USDA inspector told reporters they had frequently witnessed plant workers dismembering still-conscious animals in order to keep fast production lines moving. Also present were members of the federal union representing some seven thousand U.S. slaughterhouse inspectors, who denounced the USDA for not allowing them to enforce the law. Still, outside the animal protection movement, the response to these revelations of abuse was modest at best.

Eisnitz employed a new tactic. Now working for the Humane Farming Association (HFA), she investigated conditions at a slaughterhouse operated by meatpacking giant IBP (since acquired by Tyson Foods) in Wallula, Washington. As before, Eisnitz obtained dozens of employee affidavits attesting to the torturous conditions prevalent at the plant. This time, however, she found a worker willing to videotape the abuse and fitted him with a “shirt cam” that could be slipped past the watchful eyes of managers. The video camera yielded hours of disturbing footage that was promptly turned over to the state’s attorney general and a local television station. A reporter from the Seattle station airing the IBP story was a friend of Washington Post writer Joby Warrick, who picked up the story and wrote a lengthy front-page article about the Washington State slaughterhouse titled “They Die Piece by Piece.” It was the second in a Post series on problems with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

When the story appeared in April 2001, many Americans were outraged, including Senator Robert C. Byrd (D., WV), then-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Three months later, Byrd, a former hog farmer himself, stood on the floor of the Senate and delivered one of the very few speeches in congressional history on behalf of the animals killed for food in the U.S.:

The law clearly requires that these poor creatures be stunned and rendered insensitive to pain before this process begins. Federal law is being ignored. Animal cruelty abounds. It is sickening. It is infuriating. Barbaric treatment of helpless, defenseless creatures must not be tolerated even if these animals are being raised for food—and even more so, more so.

That summer Byrd sponsored a one-time allocation of $1 million to hire veterinary specialists to improve humane slaughter enforcement. This was the first congressional action on the issue since the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act was amended in 1978. The appropriation was followed shortly by a congressional resolution calling on the Secretary of Agriculture to enforce HMSA, and in 2003, Congress directed the USDA to spend $5 million to hire additional humane inspectors.

The Humane Farming Association, which focuses on investigations and working with whistleblowers, sees increased funding for government inspectors as possibly the best hope for making the slaughter of farmed animals less inhumane. But the USDA’s history of lax regulation of agricultural practices doesn’t support that hope. Even after the agency was directed by Congress to improve its oversight, there were few instances of enforcement of HMSA. In 2002, only 6 facilities out of 900 inspected by the USDA received any formal reprimand based solely on incidents of inhumane handling. In its 2003 report to Congress, the USDA acknowledged that most of its enforcement actions under the HMSA were related to facility shortcomings, such as slippery flooring and gaps between pen bars, while “very few infractions were for actual inhumane treatment of the animals.”

Nothing better illustrates the failure of the USDA to provide for the humane treatment of animals raised for food than its position on downed, or nonambulatory, animals. Images of animals too sick to stand being prodded, pushed, and pulled to slaughter has sealed many an animal advocate’s decision to eschew meat. Yet for more than a decade the USDA ignored pleas from animal protection groups to halt the marketing of downed animals on humane grounds. The agency continued to do nothing even after research conducted in Europe showed that downed animals presented the greatest risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, entering the U.S. food supply. Only after a BSE-infected dairy cow was reported in Washington State last December did the agency ban the slaughter of these animals.

The USDA’s handling of the downer issue reflects its close ties to the livestock and slaughter industries. Secretary Ann Veneman and many of her top deputies came to the agency straight from jobs lobbying on behalf of agribusiness. In a New York Times op-ed piece, Fast Food Nation’s Eric Schlosser made a telling observation about the USDA: “Right now you’d have a hard time finding a federal agency more completely dominated by the industry it was created to regulate.”

PARTLY OUT OF SKEPTICISM about the government’s willingness or ability to address problems, some animal-advocacy groups have turned to the food-service corporations in their campaign for more humane slaughter. In the 1980s, civil rights activist and union organizer Henry Spira began negotiations on animal welfare with McDonald’s Corporation, one of the largest purchasers of beef, pork, and chicken in the U.S. Spira’s previous victories on behalf of animals included the organization of a coalition that eventually pressured the cosmetic industry to phase out product testing on animals.

Little came of Spira’s meetings with McDonald’s until 1997, after the huge fast-food corporation brought a libel case against British environmental activists who were circulating a pamphlet critical of the company. A London judge in the case found McDonald’s to be “culpably responsible for cruel practices n the rearing and slaughter of some of the animals which are used to produce their food.” Soon after the verdict, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) initiated a high-profile protest campaign against the corporation and McDonald’s invited PETA into negotiations concerning better conditions for animals raised and slaughtered by its suppliers. When these negotiations broke down two years later, PETA launched a second campaign that featured more than four hundred demonstrations at McDonald’s restaurants in more than twenty-three countries.

In September 2000, PETA called off its protests after McDonald’s agreed to require its suppliers to meet basic on-farm animal-welfare standards, and to continue to conduct audits of cattle, pig, and chicken slaughterhouses begun the year before. The food-service industry has declined to credit the animal-protection movement for its recent stand on animal welfare, claiming it merely wants to do the right thing. But PETA’s Bruce Friedrich notes that no company has implemented welfare standards without being prodded. “PETA has had to campaign against each target,” he said. Friedrich is responsible for hatching PETA’s provocative, youth-oriented stunts, and was recently named by Details magazine as the fifth most influential male under thirty-eight—placing him just behind Eminem and ahead of Leonardo DiCaprio.

Whatever the shortcomings of third-party audits, they seem to have accomplished what forty years of government regulation did not. The meat industry apparently became serious about improving the treatment of animals only after McDonald’s removed or suspended individual plants from its approved supplier list. For a slaughter plant, losing a major client like McDonald’s has far more impact than having operations suspended for a few days, the strongest penalty invoked by the USDA for a humane slaughter violation.

But the food-service industry’s influence on slaughter operations could also lead to the formation of a two-tier market, where the relatively few corporate plants are routinely audited and held to a higher standard of animal welfare than the more numerous smaller, independent plants. Even after five years of audits, most of the nine hundred pig and cattle slaughter plants in the U.S. have never been subjected to a review. The effect of corporate audits may also lessen over time, as both plant management and auditors become complacent about enforcing standards. As Eisnitz has pointed out, the results of corporate audits are not available to the public.

Most of those involved in working for humane slaughter share the view of Bruce Friedrich, who contends that progress has been made, although the extent of and the commitment to improvements are debatable. “No one is na├»ve enough to believe that what goes on most of the time in slaughter plants meets the standards,” Friedrich said. “But we think it’s important to support their attempts to do better.”

Still, while things may have gotten somewhat better for cattle and pigs, “nothing has changed for chickens,” according to Friedrich. “Every moment of their lives is characterized by such unmitigated suffering; they are subjected to a level of cruelty and abuse so far beyond anything we can imagine.”

The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act does not protect chickens and other birds, which represent 90 percent of the animals slaughtered for food each year in the U.S. Three attempts during the 1990s to amend the Poultry Products Inspection Act to include a humane slaughter provision failed. Chicken slaughterhouses currently shackle birds while they are conscious and then drag their heads and upper bodies through an electrified water trough called a stunner. Because of concerns for carcass quality, the voltage is often intentionally set too low to stun, and the birds are simply immobilized enough to keep them from thrashing about as their necks are cut. Some birds are still alive when they are plunged into scalding tanks for defeathering. PETA is pressuring restaurants like Kentucky Fried Chicken to make slaughterhouses increase the voltage so as to kill the birds outright, or to use a less inhumane killing method, such as argon gas. In the meantime, says Friedrich, chickens qualify as “the most abused animals on the face of the planet.”

APOLOGISTS FOR THE meat industry say they’re merely giving people what they want—lots of meat at low prices. Adele Douglass of Humane Farm Animal Care believes it is up to American consumers to demand something more. Douglass has partnered with two of the country’s largest animal-protection groups—the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—to develop the “Certified Humane” labeling program, which establishes some of the country’s strictest animal welfare standards for auditing producers of meat, poultry, egg, and dairy products. The American Humane Association operates a similar certification program under the label “Free Farmed.”

Certified Humane, which currently has about a dozen producers participating, conducts its own audits of slaughterhouses. While its auditors use the same standards as the food industry for evaluating cattle and pig slaughter plants, their sole interest is animal welfare. Chicken slaughter facilities applying for Certified Humane endorsement must meet specific requirements that include the appointment of at least one trained animal welfare officer responsible for making frequent checks on how animals are being handled and taking prompt action to address any problems. Certified Humane also recommends the installation of closed-circuit television to make the slaughter of chickens more transparent and allow officials not present in the kill areas to monitor the process.

Beyond the certification programs offered by humane groups, consumers have very little to go on if they want to purchase meat from animals that have been killed humanely. Some labeling terms such as “natural” have virtually no relevance to animal welfare; others like “free-range” have some limited animal-care significance but provide no assurance as to the manner of slaughter. The government’s “organic” program, which mandates that animals be allowed access to the outdoors, offers no specific requirement regarding humane slaughter. Even if the meat industry were able to consistently meet the highest standards it has set for itself—properly stunning between 95 and 99 percent of animals—the remaining 1 to 5 percent represents millions of animals every year that would still suffer, some of them tremendously, when slaughtered. Knowing this, many animal advocates have concluded that the only way to be assured one is not contributing to the suffering of animals is by not eating them. Upton Sinclair probably suspected as much when he first pried open the dungeon door.

Orion publishes six thoughtful, inspiring, and beautiful issues a year,
supported entirely by our readers – we're completely ad-free!

Please consider donating to help us continue to explore the future of nature.

This article has been significantly abridged for the web.

DENA JONES is a consultant on farm animal protection who has worked with Farm Sanctuary, the Humane Farming Association, and the Animal Protection Institute. A former nurse, she now advocates for the planet's nonhuman inhabitants

Article Resources