A Spy in the Slaughterhouse

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Wanting to see how meat is killed and processed on the industrial scale, Timothy Pachirat posed as a plant worker. Here's what he saw.

whatupcow-body.jpgReuters

Timothy Pachirat's first book, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, is a blend of analysis and first-person narrative set in an industrial abattoir in rural Kansas. It was there that Pachirat, as part of his dissertation research (at Yale), was initially hired to hang cow livers on hooks. From that position he moved to the "kill floor" and, eventually, to quality control -- a position from which he had to resign, because he could no longer tolerate the institutional pressure to overlook safety violations.

Every Twelve Seconds is arguably the most nuanced account we have of the relationship between sight and power within the industrial slaughterhouse. Many years ago, Michael Pollan wondered what would happen if the walls of a slaughterhouse were made of glass. Pachirat has made those walls transparent, and what he finds is as disturbing as it is unexpected. I recently spoke with Pachirat and asked about the revelations that led him to write his book.


First off, I'm curious: How does a Yale graduate student pass as a slaughterhouse worker? At one point in the narrative you note, "I am on dangerous ground." Did you feel this way often?

I was initially paranoid about being "found out." I second-guessed everything: my appearance, my mannerisms, and even my handwriting on the application form! It didn't take me long to realize, though, that this concern was a bit overblown. No one in the employment trailer of the slaughterhouse was on the lookout for Ph.D. candidates, and my brown skin, upbringing in Thailand, and prior experience with manual labor mapped nicely onto the slaughterhouse managers' conceptions of who should be working in their plant.

Once I was hired, what quickly became more worrying was how I would survive the grueling work. My first job was hanging thousands of livers each day in a freezing cooler. Here, it was my fellow line workers who taught me the physical and psychological skills to get by. Then, after a few months on the kill floor, I was promoted to a quality control position -- an unexpected occurrence that resurrected my fears of being exposed. At that point, I had access to very sensitive information on food safety and on slaughterhouse-USDA relations, and felt anxiety every time I heard the front office or the kill floor managers call my name over the radio.

Your book focuses on the minute details of the slaughterhouse, including sounds and smells as well as sight. Were certain sensory aspects that were easier to adjust to than others? 

I do try to convey the entire sensual experience of massive, routinized killing, but the printed page simply cannot do justice to the slaughterhouse sensorium. Contemporary Western cultures tend to equate knowing with seeing, and yet sight is also the most removed and mediated of our senses. Sound, taste, touch, and, especially, smell, assault us and engage us on a much more basic -- and therefore, subversive -- level.

There were days, after the killing ended, when I walked through the dirty side of the kill floor and found myself unexpectedly marveling at the visual collage: the shades of red, purple, and green against silver gleaming metal. But smell, in particular, was impossible to mediate in this way. Even after months on the kill floor, I would inevitably gag -- and sometimes vomit -- whenever walking the long hallway to the locker room each morning at 5 a.m. And the smell was not something that remained outside of me. It seeped into my clothing and skin.

Likewise with the sounds of the kill floor. I sometimes wish that I could recreate the smell- and sound-scapes of industrialized killing for my readers. Widespread exposure to a sensorium of slaughterhouse smells and sounds might do more to bring an end to our current practices of gratuitous killing than all the undercover videos and written exposés combined!

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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