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(Photo: pixelpeter/Shutterstock)

Support Industrial Slaughterhouses

• March 10, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: pixelpeter/Shutterstock)

Local meat is a booming business, but the mobile slaughterhouse units used to process it are polluting our backyards with plasma-flecked wastewater, blood, and offal—dangerous byproducts that they’re ill-equipped to handle properly.

Last week, on the New York Times’ Sunday opinion page, Nicolette Hahn Niman, a California rancher who owns BN Ranch with her husband Bill Niman, posed an op-ed kind of question: “When was the last time you saw someone wearing a T-shirt that said ‘Support Local Slaughterhouses’?” The answer that immediately popped into my mind was “never, thank God.” But Niman was asking the question rhetorically. She thinks it’s a great idea.

The first point to note regarding Niman’s plea to localize slaughter is that it’s essentially self-serving. The pretext to her argument was an 8.7 million pound beef recall by the Rancho Feeding Corporation, a Bay Area slaughterhouse with whom Bill Niman has worked for over 40 years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to recall Rancho’s meat prevents BN Ranch from selling over 100,000 pounds of its own frozen supply of grass-fed beef. That’s unfortunate for the ranch. But the subsequent call to localize slaughterhouses—which have been consolidating since the 1970s— should give the rest of us pause.

Obvious statement alert: Slaughterhouses are nasty and resource-intensive operations. Any hope that they’ll become less nasty or resource intensive if scaled down and dispersed is belied by the use of mobile slaughterhouse units (MSUs). Mobile slaughterhouses are currently beloved by locavore-carnivores as a USDA-inspected alternative to industrial-scale operations. MSUs drive to the farm, kill and process a handful of animals on location, provide a USDA stamp of approval, and then trundle off, leaving behind a happy local farmer and cuts of meat he can now legally sell to conscientious carnivores willing to spend more for “humane” meat. No more hacking a cow into quarters and selling them to that eccentric woodsman with a deep freeze.

The efficiency of an industrial slaughterhouse, macabre as it may be, is a spectacle to behold. A farm animal entering the front door will reach the exit about 19 minutes later.

But small slaughterhouses also leave behind a mass of viscera—namely plasma-flecked wastewater, blood, and offal. In rule-abiding industrial slaughterhouses, these byproducts are effectively disposed of and processed. The efficiency of an industrial slaughterhouse, macabre as it may be, is a spectacle to behold. A farm animal entering the front door will reach the exit about 19 minutes later. It will do so not only as chops destined for the meat counter, but as pelts bound for Turkey, lungs sent to dog-treat manufacturers, bile for the pharmaceutical industry, caul fat (the lining of organs) for Native American communities, and liver destined for Saudi Arabia (which, go figure, distributes cow liver globally).

As MSUs demonstrate, smaller slaughterhouses are much less capable of processing or recycling these organic byproducts. Even if they could, their decentralization would, from a distribution perspective, pose a thorny logistical problem. Example: Large slaughterhouses are critical to the trade in animal blood, which is transformed into blood meal for animal feed. Dispersed slaughterhouses would make it economically prohibitive to collect and recycle this industrial byproduct. Because of their scale, mobile slaughterhouses are authorized to leave behind a literal bloody mess after a day on the farm. Eight slaughtered cows—a plausible number for a small-scale rancher to slaughter with an MSU—generate about 800 pounds of blood. Current USDA rules on what to do with it are less than assuring.

“Blood and waste water might be dispersed on the producer’s property,” according to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). This dispersal should happen “well away from any stream or drainage.” There is no oversight, but it suggests, “Bleeding animals on a sloped concrete pad equipped with lines to a drain field is recommended.” And when it comes to the viscera, “farmers can make their own arrangement.” The decentralization of slaughter might make it easier for small farmers to kill their animals. But fragmenting the process disperses the blood and guts of slaughtered creatures across the landscape rather than consolidating it in places that are, for good reason, located in the middle of nowhere.

Well, middle of nowhere for you and me. There are about 1,100 federally inspected slaughterhouses in the United States. Each of them exists in someone’s backyard. But someone is not everyone. Here’s a haphazardly chosen short list of places that have a slaughterhouse in their town limits: Tuscumbia, Alabama; Moscow, Idaho; Boscawan, New Hampshire; Ladonia, Texas; and El Rito, New Mexico. A map is here.

Aside from housing an abattoir, these towns share other similarities. They typically have household median incomes far below national and state averages, a sparse population, comparatively low property values, and an undereducated workforce. San Francisco, California, lacks a slaughterhouse; so does Brooklyn Heights, New York; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Search “slaughterhouse and Chapel Hill” and you’re likely to get hit with a lot of Vonnegut.) It seems safe to predict that even as small-scale animal farming proliferates in these well-to-do areas, slaughterhouses will be kept at bay. All of which raises an interesting follow up question to Niman’s proposition: In whose backyards will local slaughterhouses live?

Not Brooklyn’s. When the borough’s Columbia Street Waterfront District began to gentrify, the lone local slaughterhouse—Yeung Sun Live Poultry—came under heavy fire as a noxious nuisance that sent blood and feathers into the streets. Neighbors complained of escaped animals running around the area, cowering in traffic. Upwardly mobile residents were, according to a 2011 Times story on the feud, “too posh for poultry.” The reaction was hardly new. The area once hosted three slaughterhouses, but complaints reached a crescendo a decade ago, with a district manager receiving from an angry resident a jar of slaughterhouse ooze that had pooled in the street. When the Yeung Sun Live Poultry was accidentally felled in 2011 by city workers digging a tunnel, residents reacted with a sigh of relief.

Recent research on the long-term impact of slaughterhouses on local communities suggests that the blood and guts aren’t the only reason communities will continue to say no thanks to the prospect of a new slaughter facility. It’s unlikely that local slaughterhouses will mean more local jobs. The small farmers who are leading a revival of family farming in the United States are generally not the sort of folk who will take a position in the local slaughterhouse. People who work the slaughterhouse floor are the most socioeconomically marginalized and politically disenfranchised people working in North America. Annual turnover rates are often higher than 100 percent. It’s one of the most dangerous jobs on the face of the Earth. And, as new research is showing, it leads to crime.

Dr. Amy Fitzgerald, a criminologist at the University of Windsor, draws a disturbing and data-driven conclusion between slaughterhouses and local crime. Analyzing slaughterhouses in 581 counties over eight years, Fitzgerald crunched the numbers to conclude that “slaughterhouse employment increases total arrest rates, arrests for violent crimes, arrests for rape, and arrests for other sex offenses in comparison with other industries.” Why would slaughterhouses have a greater impact on local crime than other industries? In talking to The Toronto Star, Fitzgerald linked the connection to the act of slaughter. She said of slaughterhouse workers,  “One of (the explanations) is the violence they witness and sometimes have to participate in might result in some kind of desensitization.” When’s the last time you saw a T-shirt saying “Support Local Crime Increase”?

Perhaps the strangest aspect about the call to localize slaughterhouses is that it’s being made this late in the game, at least a generation after the backlash against factory farming inspired a shift toward smaller-scale animal agriculture. In a sense, the key question—how can animals raised under alternative conditions be slaughtered under alternatives conditions—should have been the first order of business among those seeking to reform the industrial food system. At the same time, it’s understandable that this question has been put off as long as it has. There’s no way, after all, to avoid the fact that the proposal bangs right into a hard conundrum: People might want local meat but—because that meat requires the violent death of an animal that didn’t want to die—they will always prefer that death takes place in someone else’s backyard.

James McWilliams
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @the_pitchfork.

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