Most of us would prefer not to think about where the meat we eat comes from, but if pressed, we would picture a farm, a larger version of the one in our childhood books, with cows in a pasture, pigs wallowing in a pen and chickens in a hen house.... we're wrong.

Françoise Mouly, Meat For Beginners
RAW, Vol. 2, #2, 1990

I HAD SPENT THE MORNING at a South of England slaughterhouse watching truckloads of pigs getting briskly slaughtered and was returning home when our bus was halted by a funeral procession. Looking down from the top deck I could see the hearse with its polished coffin and gleaming brass rails, the half dozen other hired limousines and, beyond them, a string of family cars. Three or four solemn figures in black stepped out and conferred. They seemed lost, pointing this way and that. Then they climbed back in and the cortege slowly made off, our bus and the rest of the afternoon's traffic sucked along by default.

I'd seen three hundred pigs go down that morning, creatures known in vivisection circles as "horizontal man" because of the way the arrangement of their internal organs matches exactly our own — heart for heart, liver for liver — and because of the same warm, soft, slappy feeling to their bellies.

I looked down at the creeping ceremonial marking the passing of one human and reflected on the neurotic haste with which the pigs had been killed: 2 hours travelling time, then 15 minutes per animal as it was electrocuted, stabbed, degutted and despatched [sic] to the chillers. Where the animals would not cooperate in their own slaughter, they were punched, kicked and cursed the way women are cursed: "Cummon you dozy bitch ... you stupid cunt!" Where the animals would not cooperate in their own slaughter, they were punched, kicked and cursed.

What do you make of pigs? I had asked slaughterer Barry Frame some weeks earlier.

"Absolutely bloody stupid."

Why is that?

"They've got a mind of their own. If they make up their mind they don't want to go where you want them to go, they won't. They'll turn round and bloody run and you'll have to chase them back up again. They say sheep are stupid but I think pigs are a sight stupider than sheep."

How could they make your job easier?

"(Pause) I don't really know. I never really thought about that one."

OUR TRUCK DRIVER was a 29-year-old, mild-tempered man named Steve Fallow, who works for his father's haulage firm. We met at 6 am for the first of half a dozen calls that fetched up some 125 animals. The picture drawn by pigmen is of a cussed animal that refuses to abbreviate the passage from its mother's teat to the breakfast plate. But even the many farmers I've visited, who in the main kept their animals in a deep crust of unattended shit and urine, confining the breeding females to crates and stalls for the greater part of their lives that allowed scarcely the room to sink to the ground, subjecting them to a constant cycle of pregnancies; even they will admit that the pig, if permitted, is a clean animal who'll strain to deposit its waste well away from its living area; also a good mother with a talent for nest building; resourceful, physically powerful, unusually sensitive and, yes, with an appetite, sharpened by the tedium of life-long confinement, as voracious as own own.

Nothing but the squeal escapes. Pigs, Fallow tells me when we've set off, are happiest when traveling at a steady pace in temperate weather.

During the summer, particularly when the truck stops, they scramble furiously over one another to reach the air vents. Being unable to sweat, their body temperature soars. They also pile up in the winter, to keep warm. Either way, deaths often occur from heart attack or suffocation; the bodies are then deposited in pet food bins at the other end. Nothing but the squeal escapes.

I hear the scrambling as we drift past groups of forest ponies suckling their mothers in the middle of the road. By 9 am we're at the abattoir, a unit on an industrial estate that looks, from its bland exterior, like any other. No sign declares the name or nature of business, and it is a condition of my entry that I withhold the firm's identity. Suffice it to say it is one of Southern England's largest, disposing of some 1,500 pigs weekly; EEC-licenced and therefore regarded as being superior to the majority of the other 1,000-odd UK operations.

"The thing that appealed to me when I first looked at it," a 22-year-old ex-slaughterman, now in the army, told me, "is that you got a lot of blokes working together and they're working fast and hard and you think 'Christ, I'd like to have a go at that' because they all look so hard, like they can definitely look after themselves. And they can because it's a very, very tough job to do."

Tough work, tough ritual, tough play-fights that, this man recalls, usually ended with the chaps love-biting each other. After his first week, he was dumped in a tank of freezing water, hoisted 15 feet and had power hoses trained on him. He was in.

His colleagues penned him in a cow crush, ripped off his overalls, prodded him with electric tongs while dowsing him in water and threw him in a tangle of gorse bushes, "just for a joke."

But that was a caress compared to what a colleague got during an idle moment. They penned him in a cow crush, ripped off his overalls and prodded him with electric tongs while dowsing him in water. When he got out he was carried, almost naked, down the yard and thrown in a tangle of gorse bushes. "He was cut to pieces," says his former colleague. And no, "not because he was unpopular ... just for a joke." This is the nature of the regime our pigs entered.

THE FIRST THING THAT PROBABLY STRIKES THEM is the noise, in some locations like a roaring mechanical tide, elsewhere the explosive sound of metallic slamming and cranking, chains and hooks coupling and uncoupling, the hiss of power hoses, the bang of the "captive bolt" as it penetrates the skulls of cattle, and mingling throughout, the shrieks of terror from doomed beasts. Then they'd notice how the air is heavy with a demonic mist, a mixture of blood and foul water. It splashes and froths up from the bleeding troughs where animals are hung by a back leg after their throats are cut. And it washes in great black waves from the scalding tank as each newly slaughtered pig is dumped in.

Then there are the men — in their red and blue overalls, rubber aprons and hard hats; some of them with scabbards of knives, their forearms bared, blood splattering over their faces as they carve into the still twitching corpses. The blood covers their hands, wrists, up to their elbows. Even the meat inspectors, garbed in official white, are blood-splashed. It's in their hair and eyelashes, on the clipboards on which they note incidence of disease.

All the animals start in the "lairage," a large stone area divided by bar gates into a system of pens. From here cattle are driven single-file into the stunning box, a walled-in area 15 feet square, into which about a dozen animals at a time are coralled and shot through the skull, one at a time. They receive what the plant manager calls "electrical stimulation" of the brain. The manager has just such a phrase for every aspect of the killing process. He talks droningly of it, making it sound not merely commonplace but dull. The "stimulation" is accomplished by a pair of hand operated tongs, like giant pliers, that are clamped on either side of the pig's head just in front of the ears.

He would take his little trick items along to the pub and slap them on a table: an animal's eyeball, or its penis. The stunner himself, Paul Hammond, is a lank, bony-faced man of 28, bearded, with one wayward eye and forearms tattooed with the Reaper and wreathed skulls. He's been 10 years in the craft but just 6 months here. He told me his tattoos — ubiquitous among the plant's slaughtermen — dated from the days when he rode and brawled with a local biker's club.

That's when he met his wife Ruby, who also rode and still does. "Among me mates," she told me, "they thought 'ooh! how he can do that, he must have guts, he must be a bit tasty.' Except if they had him coming home covered in blood with bits of fat in his hair, that would put them off a bit."

The effect of his job on other men, notes Hammond, has been to get them to "stand back," especially in the early days when he would take his little trick items along to the pub and slap them on a table: an animal's eyeball, or its penis. "What seems to get into people's heads," he says, "is like 'I'd better watch him. He might start carving me up because if he can open up a pig and rip the guts out of that, what's he going to do to me?'"

OUR TRUCKLOAD OF PIGS is being readied for opening. As the first dozen are driven into the stunning pen, one urinates on the trot and makes a screeching noise I hadn't heard before. Blood and mucus fly from his snout, the eyes close, the front legs stiffen and when Hammond opens the tongs he falls, like a log, on his side. He lies there, back legs kicking, as Hammond turns to the next candidate. Most huddle against the entrance with their rumps towards him, heads passively bowed, snout to snout. They wait quietly until Hammond clamps another and then a couple break from the huddle and sniff a fallen comrade.

He tells me that the tongs should be held for a minimum of 7 seconds to ensure a proper stun before the throat is cut. But Hammond, urged on by his mates further along the slaughterline, is giving them 11/2 or less. ("If you were from the Ministry I'd have to do it longer.")

When he's stunned three or four, he shackles each of them with a chain around a back leg. They are then mechanically lifted and carried to an adjoining stone room where his colleague, Dave, cuts deep into the neck and the still pumping heart gushes out the blood. Hammond is supposed to stun and shackle one animal at a time since the delay involved in doing them in groups means they could go wide awake to the blade. The animals are probably conscious anyway given the 2-second stunning time he allows them.

Suddenly an electrocuted animal slips from its shackle en route to the sticking room, drops 5 feet to the stone floor and crash-lands on its head. Hammond continues jolting more creatures while the pig's back legs paddle furiously. Without restunning, he hooks it up again and sends it through to the knife. This crash landing routine is to be repeated several more times in the next few minutes — caused by a combination of haste and incompetence, particularly on the part of Dave who takes over the shackling after a third man replaces him on the knife.

One animal slams down twice. Dave curses it as it lies paddling, blood seeping from anus and mouth. Hammond, meanwhile, is ear wrestling a would-be escapee who is leaping at a small opening in the metal gate. "You can have it another fucking way then you idiot," Dave cries, as he helps slap the animal down.

THE SLAUGHTERMEN ARE PROMPTED by the pressures to increase slaughterhouse throughput or else by the urge farmers feel to get injured animals to slaughter before they expire and become worthless. A young slaughterman tells me of a farmer who had dragged his cow, its insides actually hanging out from a bad birth," to slaughter by hooking a hangman's noose around her neck and tieing the other end to a tractor. "He had literally peeled the skin from the base of its neck up behind the ears."

The same slaughterer tells me of the practitioner who, when faced with cattle unwilling to enter the killing box, would "stab their eyes so they couldn't see, then stick the boning knife actually in its arse, not in its back leg but its arse, to make it run forward."

It is interesting to note what still reaches a slaughterman's callused heart — callused, that is, by the work he's commissioned to do by the consumer.

It is interesting what still reaches a slaughterman's callused heart. For one it was young goats. "They cry just like babies."

For one ex-slaughterman I spoke to it was young goats. "They cry just like babies." For a veteran blood and guts disposal man at the South of England plant it is carrying three-day-old calves to the shooting box and destroying them with a captive bolt. "I reckon it's wrong."

Paul Hammond, though, this morning's pig stunner, is unmoved while telling me about the day when, assisted by two other men, he shot 2,500 diseased pigs on a farm, with women workers weeping for the younger piglets and the favored sows. "The way I look at it, if I can stop the disease spreading, that way it's not going to affect my livelihood and then I can carry on paying the bills."

He sounded similarly pragmatic when describing the swimming lesson some pigs get. "Sometimes if the chap sticking is rushing, he might not stick it right. It looks dead when it's all hung up but you put it in the hot water tank and it ain't. It thrashes about. It will die eventually, probably drown in the tank."

THE HOT TANK is the stage after the knife. Having bled over a long trough, the shackled animal, still kicking and writhing (an involuntary, autonomic response, say experts, even though these experts cannot agree about the onset of unconsciousness and death and when pain ceases) is elevated up a stone shaft, round a bend and into the tank. The scene here is sheer medieval: three stooped men with long hooked poles, dark steam rising about them, bend over the tank in which seven or eight exsanguinated pigs are floating, eyes open.

They thrust them under the muddy, dung stained water and then onto a giant, half-submerged cradle constructed like a dinner fork minus the handle. This lifts them into a smaller adjoining tank in which they are briskly rotated and scraped of bristles.

Immediately beyond this, a dozen other men work in line converting the exsanguinated corpse into a product fit for the supermarket cooler. The swiftness of the operation is stunning, not the least because the local authority inspectors, whose job is to look for tumorous and otherwise infected tissue, are encompassed by the tumult. As the pigs spin from the tank, two men shave them once more, another strikes out the toenails. They move down the line where the belly opened and the guts pour out. These are slung onto a metal table and an inspector prods them for the likes of worms and lymph nodes.

Reject material goes to the pet food bins. The rest slips down a chute to the gut room where it is partly untangled and readied for collection by the renderer, who'll sell it on for the manufacture of sausage skins, diabetic insulin, and cosmetic products such as lipstick.

Meanwhile, the body has moved forward and is having its heart, liver and lungs removed, known collectively as "the pluck." A second inspector checks them for respiratory problems, notably pneumonia, which is widespread due to intensive production methods. Livers get afflicted less often by roundworm, and the heart quite frequently by an inflammation of the pericardium. The third check is of ribs, lungs and abdominal cavity for cases of pleurisy, peritonitis and TB. And then, about fifteen minutes after the tongs were applied, the extirpated beast is carried down a level to be weighed, probed for fat ratio, stamped, chilled and trucked out.

IF THE ABILITY OF THE LOCAL AUTHORITY'S meat inspectors to do a sound job is in serious doubt, then even more dubious are the twice-yearly hygiene and welfare checks by the Ministry of Agriculture vets, acting on behalf of the EEC.

"We had one the other day," says Hammond, "which totally fucks up our routine." Among the things they like to see is the proper stunning, shackling and 'sticking' of animals; that, for instance, the men don't sit about the canteen in blood-splashed slaughtering gear (which I saw them do) and that knives are properly sterilized between activities — so that the same unwashed blade isn't used to cut a dung and mud-stained hide as is used to cut into the tissue itself.

A cousin asked, "You don't actually kill them, do you?" But Hammond thinks such routines are pointlessly time- consuming and, thus, are ignored day to day.

When the inspector comes, however, "you slow right down and do everything nice and properly and clean and tidy, which doesn't make a ha'pence of difference to the finished article." You think we run round a field waiting for them to die?

People can be very small-minded. "What's more, these blokes know it doesn't go on when they're not there."

"They only have to look at the graph of the weekly kill to see we're taking three times as long to do half the work."

As abattoirs go, this is not a rogue outfit but is regarded as top-notch and practicing "humane slaughter." And Hammond is not an outrageous example but a typical and experienced practitioner. Says Hammond: "A cousin of mine asked, 'You don't actually kill them, do you?' So I said, 'What do you think we do, run round a field waiting for them to die?' People can be very small-minded."

I thought about his remark as I gazed on the funeral procession. Tolstoy, for one, believed we apply different ethical standards to men and animals at our peril. "As long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields."


Killed With Kindness:
Philadelphia Inquirer, Sep 17, 1991
  Gentle and humane ritual slaughter, in accordance with the Torah.  
Danish Bacon:
Reuters, Jun 11, 1998
  NATO's taste in targets for its high-velocity weaponry leaves the English a little queasy.