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!

When you worked in the chute guiding cows to the knocker, you were in constant contact with the animals. Can you describe what they were like during the last seconds of their lives?

In "Killing at Close Range," the chapter that describes my work in the chutes, I write:

Some poke their noses up over the chute wall to sniff at our arms and stomachs. I can run a bare hand over their smooth, wet noses, a millisecond of charged, unmediated physical contact. At close range, even caked in feces and vomit, the creatures are magnificent, awe-inspiring. Some are muscular and powerful, their horns sharp and strong. Others are soft and velvety, their coats sleek and sensuous. Thick eyelashes are raised to reveal bulging eyeballs with whites visible beneath darkly colored irises.

These animals are individuals with personalities. One would have to be an utter emotional lout not to recognize them as so clearly capable of joy and excitement, of anxiety and terror. As a society, we do everything within our power to erase the animality we share with the tens of billions of creatures we raise and slaughter under such horrific circumstances. But even in the chutes leading to the place where they will be shot one by one between the eyes, that connection can return in the form of a moo, a bellow, a fleeting moment of interspecies eye contact and recognition.

In what ways did you observe slaughterhouse workers distancing themselves from what was going on around them? 

The slaughterhouse as a whole is divided into compartmentalized departments. The front office is isolated from the fabrication department, which is in turn isolated from the cooler, which is in turn isolated from the kill floor. It is entirely possible to spend years working in the front office, fabrication department, or cooler of an industrialized slaughterhouse that slaughters over half a million cattle per year without ever once encountering a live animal, much less witnessing one being killed.

But second and most importantly, the work of killing is hidden even at the site where one might expect it to be most visible: the kill floor itself. Of over 800 workers on the kill floor, only four are directly involved in the killing of the cattle, and fewer than 20 have a line of sight to the killing. And only one worker -- the knocker -- delivers the blow that begins the irreversible process of transforming the live creatures into dead ones. As long as that one person exists, there can be some plausible narrative that concentrates the heaviest weight of the dirtiest work on this one. Then the other 120 kill floor workers can say, and believe it, "I'm not taking part in this."

The use of language is another way of concealing the violence. From the moment cattle are unloaded, managers and kill floor supervisors refer to them as "beef." Although they are still living, breathing, sentient beings, they have already linguistically been reduced to inanimate flesh, to use-objects. Temperatures, hydraulic pressures, acid concentrations, bacterial counts, and knife sanitization become the primary focus, rather than the massive, unceasing taking of life.

So, am I correct to conclude that seeing the slaughterhouse is not necessarily enough to initiate political and cultural change with respect to our treatment of animals?

Every Twelve Seconds seeks to reveal particular physical, social, linguistic, and methodological distances that separate the reader from the slaughterhouse. At the same time, it is also an account of how concealment and visibility are at work in the slaughterhouse. In the end, I do think that making repugnant practices visible is a necessary condition for political and social transformation. But it is not a sufficient condition.

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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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