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Humane Slaughter is No Oxymoron

Humane Slaughter is No Oxymoron


The idea that animals die in order for us humans to eat is a concept that drives many to avoid eating meat altogether. Some people think that the term “humane slaughter” is an oxymoron. If you’re someone who tries to be a conscious omnivore, is there a way you can ensure the steak you’re eating not only lived a good life but also had a quick and low-stress death? What are the steps taken by farmers and slaughterhouses to make animal death more humane?

Raising animals with the sole purpose of killing them is something that Mary Lake, a shearer, shepherd and butcher in Tunbridge, Vermont, has thought about a lot. One day many years ago, it was her job to bring about 10 lambs to a slaughterhouse. When she arrived, she had a bad feeling about the conditions she saw there, but not being familiar with slaughterhouses, she wasn’t sure what to do. She nervously unloaded the sheep and went home. “Later that night I got a phone call that the slaughterhouse had been shut down for inhumane handling and I was devastated. I should have known what was going on. I felt really naïve,” she says. 

After that experience, Lake decided to learn more about the slaughtering process. “If I want to raise sheep and make this part of my future, I should really know what’s going on,” she says. With no knife skills, and having never killed anything herself, she went to work for The Royal Butcher, an Animal Welfare Approved and organic processor-certified slaughterhouse in Randolph, Vermont. She remembers her first kill. 

“My heart was racing, my adrenaline was pumping. The guys were like, ‘It will get easier,’ and I was like, ‘But I don’t know if I want it to get easier. Do I really want killing to be something I can do easily?’ It does get easier, but it doesn’t mean it has less impact.” 

Since becoming a new mom, she has stepped down from her position at the slaughterhouse, but is still a regular customer for sheep she raises and sells directly to local customers. She likes using The Royal Butcher because of their attention to animal welfare. The slaughterhouse follows many animal handling and processing procedures established by Temple Grandin, PhD, professor of animal science at Colorado State University and the country’s leading expert on humane animal treatment. They got a grant to work with Erica Vogue, a student of Grandin’s, to design the walkways to the kill floor, called “chutes.” 

“When the animals are unloaded, they have a less stressful experience. It just keeps them moving and they stay pretty calm,” Lake explains.

Grandin has pointed out that for animals in the wild, death can be quite brutal—like being attacked by a coyote. On the contrary, humans have the unique ability to be “humane” when it comes to killing. “When an animal quietly walks up the chute at the slaughter plant and death is instantaneous, I feel peaceful. Raising animals for food can be done in an ethical manner,” Grandin wrote in her book, Humane Livestock Handling.

Grandin, who has autism, is a visual thinker, which has given her a unique insight into how animals see the world. During her research, she photographed slaughterhouses from the cows’ perspective. Her investigations led her to notice strong shadows and other highly distracting and potentially stressful elements that, when removed, allow animals to move in a much calmer way. Her recommendations in slaughterhouse design include eliminating harsh shadows; removing coats on the fence and coffee cups on the ground; keeping air from blowing into animal’s faces; reducing loud noises and improving flow through the use of curves instead of right angles. 

For many animals, the ride to the processing facility may be the first time they’ve been in a trailer. Just being in a building, with lights and new sounds, can be stressful for them. To reduce this, Grandin advises farmers to acclimate their animals to human contact prior to slaughter. Even walking in the pen with them a few weeks prior to slaughter can help reduce ante mortem stress

Subjecting animals to acute stress prior to slaughter isn’t just inhumane. It affects meat quality. Stress increases “drip loss,” the watery red solution of proteins you see in your package of beef. In pigs, it results in pale and watery meat. When agitated, animals charge and bump into gates and other sharp objects; they can sustain bruises. Later, bruised meat must be cut and thrown away.

Grandin’s insights into animal stressors have dramatically changed the way many slaughterhouses are now being built. More than half of the cattle in the United States and Canada are handled in facilities that she designed. She also wrote the American Meat Institute Foundation’s “Recommended Animal Handling Guidelines & Audit Guide,” which serves as the basic guideline for most animal welfare auditing agencies. 

Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), based in Virginia, certifies many of the slaughterhouses in New England. “We realized that [because] farmers were putting so much care into the treatment of their animals, that the AWA certification needed to extend to the slaughter process as well,” says Andrew Gunther, program director. When asked about how they work with slaughterhouses, Gunther says, “What we try not to be is the slaughter police.” He explains that AWA instead works alongside the facilities, helping them to comply with the rules. 

“Customers are just as concerned with how the animal dies as how it was raised. People just don’t want to talk about or know much about how animals are slaughtered. There’s a lot of research about how animals can be slaughtered in a more humane way, and their end of life doesn’t have to be terrible,” says Anne Malleau, Whole Foods Market’s animal production and welfare specialist. Whole Foods also conducts animal welfare audits on the slaughterhouses they use. 

For the last 20 years, Holly Gowdy and her husband, Christian, have run Brookfield Farm in Walpole, New Hampshire, where they raise dairy cows plus cows and sheep for meat. Holly Gowdy puts a lot of energy into making sure that her animals are well cared for. “I’m really tuned into my animals’ well-being. I know if they’re pregnant, sick and if they need a vet. It’s why I walk the earth. I want to provide them with the best life they can have, and I love watching them play. I also want to make sure that the end process is as comfortable as it can be,” she says. “I’ve been to many slaughterhouses, which I won’t name, and there can be a bad smell or other signs that something bad is going on. When I bring my animals to The Local Butcher in New Hampshire or Vermont Packinghouse, someone who unloads the animals with care meets me. They’re brought to a quiet barn with plenty of space and water.” She explains that when she raises an animal for someone’s freezer, they are putting trust in her that she is treating them well. “They don’t need to know all the details, but the end process is really important to me.”

The state of Vermont is unique in that it requires all commercial meat and poultry slaughter facilities to have a written plan on how they intend to comply with federal and state humane handling laws. One of the largest facilities in the state is Vermont Packinghouse, in North Springfield—also an Animal Welfare Approved slaughterhouse. Arion Thiboumery, who has a PhD in meat science from Iowa State University, is the managing partner. 

The facility frequently hosts individuals and groups to see how animals are slaughtered. There’s a large viewing window overlooking the kill floor. The animals are moved through efficiently, stunned quickly using electric stunning followed by cardiac arrest stunning, then scalded, bled and hung within seconds. The outdoor holding area for animals waiting to enter the facility is clean and quiet, and the animals are given lots of space and fresh water. About 40% of the business comes from Black River Meats, a local and specialty food distributor to institutions, restaurants and retail outlets across most of New England. Other customers include Fresh Direct, Vermont Salumi and Whole Foods.

“We are the largest slaughterhouse in Vermont. But this is kind of like being the tallest kindergartener. We’re still just in kindergarten around here,” Thiboumery says. “At our peak capacity, we could process 200 cattle in a month. This is about 1/10 of 1% of the beef consumption of New York City. We’re doing our best, but this is just a small dent in the overall market.” 

Though incidents of inhumane handling violations in New England are rare, they do sometimes happen. In one, a very large sow had to be shot twice at Vermont Packinghouse. “Lots of slaughterhouses don’t take large pigs because they are hard to stun. We’re reassessing our options right now but have stopped taking large hogs (450+ pounds) for the time being,” Thiboumery says. 

Westminster Meats, another Animal Welfare Approved facility in Vermont, was suspended twice for inhumane handling after not properly stunning lambs with a captive bolt gun. As a corrective measure, the facility now only uses electrical stunning on sheep. 

The kill floor at Adams Farm in Athol, Massachusetts, is much busier than Vermont Packinghouse, processing about 24,000 animals a year in its AWA-approved and certified organic facility. Adams maintains weekly contracts with certain clients in order to keep a year-round, regular flow through the facility, a critical component to maintaining skilled staff. (Full disclosure, my husband, a Boston-area farmer, sends his animals to Adams to be processed.) “We’ve seen a growing interest from our customers [farmers] wanting to assure humane handling of their animals. I think it’s coming from their customers,” says Ed Maltby, who manages the plant.

Adams Farm recently issued a voluntary recall due to five cases of illness in various states, each patient saying they had recently eaten meat that had been processed at the facility before they became ill. No E. coli was found in any of the company’s meat or in its facility. Kate Stillman, of Stillman’s Quality Meats, is a regular customer. She says blaming the processor makes it easy for overseers, but places an unfair burden on the slaughterhouse. Stillman expressed sympathy for the farmers whose meat was recalled, as this is a huge loss for small-scale operations. 

“Slaughterhouses shouldn’t be the only ones blamed, but rather we need to find a better way to equitably share the risk among producers, processors and consumers,” she maintains. “Part of that is education. The burden [for food-borne illness outbreaks] is unfairly placed on one segment of food production.”

The increased demand for and production of meat in New England is putting pressure on regional slaughterhouses. Christian Peters, PhD, associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, studies the industry and has found that the seasonality of the meat business and lack of skilled labor are two of the main issues small-scale facilities face. 

Most farmers in New England need to process their animals in the fall, before the colder months. This makes it difficult for small farms to book a date with the slaughterhouses between September and December, and also leaves facilities underutilized in spring and early summer. For example, Royal Butcher processed a total of 83 animals in March of 2016, and 212 in September.  

Kate Stillman notes, “Skilled labor is a really huge issue for me, and is a universal struggle in agriculture and especially the processing world, complicated by the drive to keep food prices low. I was once told there is a formula; it takes hiring 10 people to accumulate one good employee. So if I use that math I am still ahead of the curve.”

Men dominate the meat industry and it can be especially intimidating for women to break in. This is why Edith Murnane founded The League of Women in Meat. “We want to create a supportive environment for women in meat industries to learn skills like butchering, processing, product development, marketing and regulations associated with the meat business,” she says. In October 2016, Murnane hosted a two-day conference called Women in Meat Northeast, where a group of about 40 women came to learn how to butcher meat, develop a food safety plan and how to make products like charcuterie and broth. 

Local meat is an important part of the New England food story. We’re still learning more about handling practices and new technologies that can make both handling and the act of slaughter itself less stressful for the animals and the people working with them. More training programs could supply the local meat industry with the people necessary to fill the growing demand for positions, and a more consistent flow of animals on a year-round basis could maintain these positions. 

Options for New England’s conscious omnivores are many, whether it’s buying a cow share, subscribing to a meat CSA, shopping directly from the farmers at a local market or asking your grocery store which meat is from local farms. 

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