The ramp at the Cargill beef plant leads 5,100 cattle to their deaths every day, and journalist Ted Conover wanted to know why it had such an overwhelming ammonia odor. “Why does it smell so bad?” he asks a slaughterhouse worker. The worker tells him the cattle are frightened. “They don’t want to die,” he explains.
This conversation is the opening salvo from journalist Ted Conover’s article “The Way of All Flesh,” which appeared in the May 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Conover is an “immersive” journalist. He doesn’t camp out across the street from his target, capturing tales told by others. He prefers to report from within. He “embeds.”
In late 2012, Conover embedded himself in a slaughterhouse in Schuyler, Nebraska by becoming an inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He spent six weeks in Schuyler learning and performing the job of a meat inspector. Along the way, he observed every aspect of a modern industrial slaughterhouse operation.
Inside a Slaughterhouse
It’s a fascinating, often disturbing, sometimes dreadful story. Conover’s 18-page article details everything from the conditions at the plant (much cleaner and more modern than he expected) to the attitudes of the employees (who are, for the most part, just regular people like the rest of us).
Did I say this is a “dreadful” story? I did, because Conover’s article confirms something we’ve heard before. When the cows get “knocked” — that is, shot in the forehead with a captive-bolt gun — they don’t necessarily die. They are hoisted aloft by a leg, where they hang suspended. However, says Conover in his article:
“From time to time an animal kicks violently, sporadically. ‘They’re not really dead yet,’ says Carolina . . . In most cases, apparently, what she says is true and intentional: the pumping of their hearts will help drain the blood from their bodies once their necks are sliced open, which will happen in the ensuing minutes. By the time the chain has made a turn or two, the kicking will stop.”
Before embarking on this investigation, Conover spoke with animal rights groups which had successfully inserted undercover workers at farms and slaughterhouses. He wanted to understand how they knew where to investigate in order to bring to light the myriad abuses they have publicly exposed in recent years.
Mercy for Animals, PETA and the Humane Society of the United States told Conover they really hadn’t targeted any particular facilities. They simply went wherever they could get someone hired. Conover says Mercy for Animals founder Nathan Runkle told him they “have never found a facility where there wasnít abuse. Finding it is not the issue. Our challenge is just to have a camera there when it happens.Ē
Unlike the rampant abuses uncovered by these organizations, however, Conover has no over-the-top cruelty horror stories to tell about his six weeks in Schuyler. The normal day-to-day operational details of a normal slaughterhouse are disturbing enough. For example, Conover saw among the viscera on the conveyor belt the wombs of pregnant cows, and occasionally the small, wet, gray bodies of unborn calves.
Would You Eat This Meat?
The quality of some of the meat and organs he saw raised serious concerns for Conover. About the cattle, he told Food Safety News:
When you see the unhealthy condition of a lot of their bodies, it makes you less interested in eating meat. Iím speaking personally. This is not necessarily because I think itís going to make me sick, but because you can see from looking at their bodies, from the bruises to the infections, that not all of them have had a nice life. They havenít been fed the things that would have made them healthy.
Conoverís article also describes the ďdisturbing regularityĒ with which the livers of the slaughtered cattle had egg-sized abscesses, making them unusable. Of the livers, he writes:
But then there would come a streak of them just riddled with abscesses… Not only that, but in the middle of these streaks, you might see grotesque and creepy things: deformed livers hardly looking like livers at all, or tumors jutting out of other kinds of viscera. This diseased tissue sometimes made you feel as if you should stop breathing and take a step back…
In the end, Conover’s article says he expected this experience would turn him into a vegan. Surprisingly, it didn’t. But knowing what he now knows about the industrial beef industry, he says he eats significantly less beef than he used to.
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