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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  • doggirl58

    I was disappointed in the article when, at the end, Mr.Conover seemed to rationalize why he could not become a vegan after his obvious physically, emotionally and spiritually troublesome experience in the slaughterhouse.

    While he admitted he could not eat any meat during the course of his employment at the slaughterhouse, he excuses his meat eating tendencies post-employment by saying one’s appetite is difficult to control.

    If he could refrain from eating meat during his employment, apparently due to the excessively gory, filthy and at times horrifying experiences of witnessing the acts of killing innocent animals it seems shallow to then rationalize his return to eating meat in this manner,

    While I found the article interesting, facual and realistic, I now doubt that his reporting will have much influence on changing the average American’s meat-eatijg behaviors, although, as an animal activist, I certainly hoped that it would. However, if the author, after spending many months in the bowels of animal killing, a certain kind of hell for man and beast–if he can emerge as a meat eater, then perhaps there is little hope that educating consumers will make any real difference.

    • Daniel Lamblin

      That’s it isn’t it? In order to evangelize a lasting change in the current diet, one needs to go far and wide beyond the harm done to the animals. I think time has already shown this to be the case.

  • flounder9

    Tuesday, March 5, 2013

    Use of Materials Derived From Cattle in Human Food and Cosmetics; Reopening
    of the Comment Period FDA-2004-N-0188-0051 (TSS SUBMISSION)

    FDA believes current regulation protects the public from BSE but reopens
    comment period due to new studies

    Wednesday, March 20, 2013

    GAO-13-244, Mar 18, 2013 Dietary Supplements FDA May Have Opportunities to
    Expand Its Use of Reported Health Problems to Oversee Product

    From: Terry S. Singeltary Sr.

    Sent: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 2:46 PM


    Cc: ; ;

    Wednesday, February 20, 2013

    World Organization for Animal Health Recommends United States’ BSE Risk
    Status Be Upgraded

    Statement from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack:

    Thursday, February 14, 2013

    The Many Faces of Mad Cow Disease Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy BSE and
    TSE prion disease

    Thursday, February 21, 2013

    National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center Cases Examined January
    16, 2013


    Monday, January 14, 2013

    Gambetti et al USA Prion Unit change another highly suspect USA mad cow
    victim to another fake name i.e. sporadic FFI at age 16 CJD Foundation goes
    along with this BSe

    Monday, December 31, 2012

    Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease and Human TSE Prion Disease in Washington State,

  • Lori Woods

    I find it hard to believe that anyone can eat meat after reading this article, much less experiencing it like the author. Nevertheless, I appreciate the author’s introspection and his desire to eat less meat. I’ve been vegetarian for many years and vegan for three. I’ve totally lost my appetite for meat, thank goodness. I hope the author and readers will too.

  • MaryFinelli

    Thanks to Harper’s for publishing this article. Hopefully others who are exposed to the horrors of animal agriculture and meat production will have greater compassion and self-discipline than the author, and reject meat and all animal products. See for yourself at:

  • Shelley Powers

    Disappointed that you don’t provide a way to purchase a single article, other than having to get an entire subscription.

  • lifeinorange

    Mr. Conover, you should scan the article for others to read instead of the public purchasing a full one year subscription to Harpers magazine for $20.00. What a rip off I must say. Shame on you Harpers for goughing the public on such an important issue. As a “ex” meat inspector my self, I really would like to read you story……but not for $20.00 bucks. I could buy a nice “steak” and six pack for that much gee.

  • VoiceofReason613

    Making the mistreatment of animals even more shameful is that animal-based diets have been strongly linked to heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases, and animal-based agriculture contributes substantially to climate change and many other environmental threats.

  • Anonymous

    To anyone who immediately assume that all animal products are produced in such awful ways, and insist on continuously telling people to abandon habits that they have lived with their whole lives (I have lived with this in my household since I was a small child, no-one likes it), please look up a place called Polyface Farm. It might give you some insight into how, instead of forcing people to change themselves, maybe suggesting changing where they get their food from.

    It’s the knowledge that places like Polyface exist that allows me to keep eating meat.

  • Cindy Wines

    I feel so bad for these innocent animals. At the feed lots, living in their own filth. Living for only so long and then their “ride” on this truck, feeling the wind coming through the slots is to their death. As Charles Krauthamer said, future generations will be appalled that we raise animals en mass and then truck them off to slaughter. Hopefully, in the future, generations will be more aware that we should not be eating the flesh of innocent animals. Gardein and so many companies have come out with fake meats that have the texture and taste of meat without killing an animal!!


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