Report — From the May 2013 issue

The Way of All Flesh

Undercover in an industrial slaughterhouse

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The cattle arrive in perforated silver trailers called cattle pots that let in wind and weather and vent out their hot breath and flatus. It’s hard to see inside a cattle pot. The drivers are in a hurry to unload and leave, and are always speeding by. (When I ask Lefty how meat gets bruised, he says, “You ever see how those guys drive?”) The trucks have come from feedlots, some nearby, some in western Nebraska, a few in Iowa. The plant slaughters about 5,100 cattle each day, and a standard double-decker cattle pot holds only about forty, so there’s a constant stream of trucks pulling in to disgorge, even before the line starts up a little after six a.m.

First the cattle are weighed. Then they are guided into narrow outdoor pens angled diagonally toward the entrance to the kill floor. A veterinarian arrives before our shift and begins to inspect them; she looks for open wounds, problems walking, signs of disease. When their time comes, the cattle will be urged by workers toward the curving ramp that leads up into the building. The ramp has a roof and no sharp turns. It was designed by the livestock expert Temple Grandin, and the curves and penumbral light are believed to soothe the animals in their final moments. But the soothing goes only so far.

[1] To protect the privacy of people I encountered in and around the slaughterhouse, many names have been changed.

“Huele mal, no?” says one of the Mexican wranglers: “It stinks, doesn’t it?” He holds his nose against the ammoniac smell of urine as I visit the pens with Carolina.[1] We are new U.S. Department of Agriculture meat inspectors, getting the kitchen tour. The wrangler and his crew are moving cattle up the ramp. To do this, they wave sticks with white plastic bags tied to the ends over the animals’ heads; the bags frighten the cattle and move them along. For cows that don’t spook, the workers also have electric prods — in defiance, I was told, of company regulations — that crackle when applied to the nether parts. The ramp really does stink. “Yeah,” I say in Spanish. “Why does it smell so bad?”

“They’re scared. They don’t want to die,” the worker replies. But that’s what they’re here to do, and once on the ramp, they’re just a few moments away from it.

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is the author of The Routes of Man, Newjack, and Coyotes, among other books. He is Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

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