The Yale Agrarian Studies completist is always an easy person to buy for, but his smile may slip a notch when he unwraps Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. As if the title weren’t off-putting enough, the cover photograph shows a faceless man in full-body rubber apron and rubber boots, the whole getup spattered with fresh blood. Is that an elastic band on the slick red floor, or a tapeworm? Mercifully, the book deals only in small part with the actual killing of animals, being a firsthand account of various kinds of slaughterhouse work. Liver hanger, cattle driver, quality-control worker: in five months undercover, Timothy Pachirat did it all.
The comprehensiveness of his experience makes Every Twelve Seconds especially valuable, considering the meat industry’s campaign to stamp out precisely this sort of research. Iowa and Utah have already passed laws making it a crime to gain employment at a slaughterhouse for the purpose of documenting abuses and code violations; similar “ag gag” bills have been proposed in other states. It is easy to imagine the uproar that would ensue if the restaurant industry, which is a model of hygiene in comparison, were to demand comparable protection from whistle-blowers. When it comes to the meat supply, however, America appears none too troubled by the prospect of its blindfolding; the nation would rather take its chances with E. coli than risk channel-surfing into a slaughterhouse. Though “foodie” writers occasionally show interest in the act of slaughter, they prefer to witness it outdoors, on some idyllic farm, the better to stylize it into a time-hallowed, mutually respectful communing of man and beast. Readers are left to infer that their local meat factory is merely maximizing the number of communings per minute; the media fuss over Temple Grandin, a purportedly cow-loving consultant to Big Beef, has an obvious role to play here. But all this wishful thinking fails at the slaughterhouse door. Barring recourse to the inducements the animals get, it would be hard to coax average Americans inside even for a minute. As George Bataille once wrote, in a remark that leads off Pachirat’s first chapter: “The slaughterhouse is cursed and quarantined like a boat carrying cholera.”