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Squashing the Beef


"There is trauma in a slaughterhouse and some seeped into me."

I have always enjoyed eating meat. In the house where I grew up, dinner wasn’t considered complete without it. You had to eat pork chop/pot roast/chicken to be eligible for dessert.

But, as I wrote in “The Way of All Flesh,” my cover story for the May 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine, after my first few days of work as a federal meat inspector in the Cargill Meat Solutions plant in Schuyler, Nebraska, I wasn’t so sure. Restaurants in town offered mainly Mexican fare or American. The slabs of steak, so similar in appearance to the freshly-slaughtered flesh I palpated and cut into each day, looked a little less tasty; but ground beef, often hidden inside the bun of a hamburger or tortilla of a taco, still seemed okay.

That changed a couple of weeks in. I think it was after spending some time around the corrals outdoors where cattle were gathered, awaiting their final walk into the plant, that I thought about the living cows when I thought about beef. At the plant, they were located just a few yards apart from each other. A cow took its final steps up a curvy ramp, designed by the animal scientist Temple Grandin to ease their stress by allowing them to see a couple of body-lengths ahead but restricting their view of distractions. About ten feet after the ramp ended, inside the factory’s walls, chains were wrapped around its rear legs, a bolt was driven into its brain, and it was hoisted aloft for prompt disassembly. A worker with a knife severed the carotid artery, and its blood was pumped out by its still-beating heart.

Cargill was proud of that ramp and upset when I reported what I saw with my own eyes: workers using electric prods to urge the cattle on their way. That was against policy, they said, so obviously I was mistaken.

I guess the ramps are a good thing; I’m in favor of humane treatment of animals. But as an observer I couldn’t help but wonder why exactly so much energy was expended to comfort the animals in the minute or two before their death. Doesn’t killing an animal nullify any such good deed? In the larger scheme of things, Is the three-year life experience of a cow that much changed if it’s a bit more nervous at the end, a bit less comforted? Might the ramps’ real purpose be to serve as a kind of fig leaf for the taking of a life, to comfort consumers who are starting to consider the stories behind the food they eat?

The problem with cows as a food source, perceivable to anyone who has stood near one, is that, like horses, they look at you with those big brown eyes. Seeing and smelling them reminded me of a description in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, which we played for our kids as an audiobook on long drives:

The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell, as if nothing bad could ever happen in the world again.

E.B. White had stood near cows for sure.

Anyway, 5,100 of them a day were “processed” at that Cargill Meat Solutions plant. The more I thought about that, witnessed it, the more offensive it seemed, the less necessary. I knew on the one hand that the demand was driven by people like me who ate beef. But on the other, I couldn’t deny that now and then I really did enjoy a hamburger, couldn’t pretend I didn’t have that appetite. This cognitive dissonance reared its head whenever the thought of dinner came up, often when I was looking at a menu. I resolved it by choosing something other than beef for what remained of my two months in Schuyler.

Until my very last evening there. My meat inspector friend Stan, in whose garage I’d drunk many a beer and on whose pool team I had played in the local barroom league, had been talking about taking me to dinner at his favorite restaurant ever since we became acquainted. With me about to leave town, it was now or never. Unfortunately, the specialty of this restaurant was T-bone steak.

As Stan and I and his wife, Josephine, ordered our dinners that night, I thought, What the hell. I’ll either gag or I won’t. They, of course, had no inkling of the turmoil in my mind. The steaks arrived. I lifted my knife. To my surprise, the steak tasted really good. I savored every last bite while at the same time wondering how that was possible, and what to do about this appetite of mine. I resolved to eat less beef, more thoughtfully. And that’s how my article for Harper’s ended.

My old life resumed. At home, my wife cooked the family favorite beef stir-fry dish that, just a couple months before, she’d told our kids to enjoy because, with me heading to work in a slaughterhouse, it would likely be the last time we had it. I’d told her then that I thought she was wrong, and reminded her of this as we ate it again.

But that was the last time.

As the weeks and months unspooled upon my return, as the pain in my wrist and arms from the repetitive motion slowly ebbed, so did my appetite for that beef dish. And most other kinds of beef. I didn’t lose my appetite for chicken (which I should have, if my principles were better aligned with my appetite). Even more to my regret, I didn’t lose my appetite for pork sausage or, particularly, bacon. Ah, bacon! But with beef it was easier, and just seemed better, not to go there. I didn’t want to picture the big slabs of raw meat I had worked with in the factory, didn’t want to look at steaks in the supermarket, didn’t want to partake of a cooked filet. And my interest in hamburger ebbed to the point where it was easier simply to declare to friends and family that I didn’t eat it anymore … though in truth a flicker of interest in it may live on in my brain stem. But I don’t go there; I don’t eat beef anymore.

What makes an appetite? Habits learned when young, I’m sure, at least in part. But habits are also subject to intellectual oversight and can be altered by social pressure and, possibly too strong a word, trauma. There is trauma in a slaughterhouse and some seeped into me. I was slow to declare I would no longer eat beef because I am wary of declaring dominion over a part of me that I do not completely rule. But after monitoring my post-slaughterhouse appetite for many months now, I think this election can be called. I do wish it had happened sooner, in time to include in the article and win friends among animal welfare activists, whom I admire. But just as Diana Ross sang “you can’t hurry love,” I’m not sure how much you can hurry a change in what tastes good to you.

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October 2015

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