FEATURE: Milton Mills, M.D.

(Here is Dr. Milton Mills' original feature).

A Trip to The Slaughterhouse

A slaughterhouse in Berkeley? I was surprised. "They couldn't have something like that going on in the middle of a city", I thought. But they did. With an eye towards convincing people that an unsanitary slaughtering process is one of the many reasons meat eating is unhealthy, I decided to do a stealthy expose' of what I believed would be a dirty and messy process. I parked in front of the McDermott's Meat Company thinking that the building was not what I had expected. It was a rather unimposing structure, not particularly large, no imaginative design, just a functional box. As I put on overalls and a pair of old shoes, I wondered what I would see inside. Blood and gore? Giant machines? What?

I crossed the street and instinctively avoided the front office and headed for the factory itself. I hurried through the gate, attempting to look as though I knew where I was going, and almost bumped into a young man wearing a blood stained apron and one of those little white hardhats the meat guys at Safeway wear. "Can I help you?" he asked. "Well yes", I stammered, "uh, I want to take a tour of the slaughterhouse...who do I see?" "I'm your man!", he replied. The young man introduced himself as Jim McDermott, a member of the family that owned the plant. Jim not only agreed to let me see the plant, but volunteered to show me around. "What a nice guy", I thought--not at all like what I had expected. 

First, he showed me the holding pens in back of the plant where hundreds of cows stood around, oblivious to what was happening inside. From the pens, the cows were herded single-fine into a chute that lead into the slaughterhouse. As the animals entered the chute, they caught the scent of blood and began to bellow and tried to back out. The expression on their faces was not just fear, it was absolutely, desperate terror. They looked at me with a wild-eyed stare that seemed to say "help me!", but I couldn't. It was then that I began to experience a creeping sense of helplessness and mortification.

A series of gates in the chute allowed only one cow at a time to move ahead, and they were forced forward by repeated applications of a cattle prod. The final stop was just inside the slaughterhouse and looked like a giant, three-sided concrete bathtub with a left wall made of steel. This was the stunning pen; it could hold only one animal at a time. Standing on a platform overlooking the pen was a big, menacing-looking man with a steel cylinder about fourteen inches long in his hand. This device was a "stun gun"; it had a five-inch rod protruding from its front end. When a cow was secured in the pen, the man would push the rod in and place an explosive charge in the rear of the cylinder. He would then lean over the animal and place the front of the cylinder on the cow's forehead and squeeze the trigger. BANG! With a loud, sickening crack, the rod punched a hole five inches deep through the cow's skull into its brain. The stunned animal would collapse, and the steel wall of the pen flipped over, rolling the cow out onto the floor of the plant. Sometimes, some of the larger animals would kick and writhe on the floor necessitating repeated applications of the stun gun to immobilize them. But most of the time the majority of the animals lay still. 

Overhead was a system of chains and hooks that moved throughout the plant. The pot-bellied man stepped down to where the stunned animal lay, and wrapped a chain around one of its ankles. He then pulled a lever and the cow was hoisted up upside-down so that its lips were about three feet off the ground. Suddenly the whole conveyer system lurched, and the cow moved forward about twenty feet to the next station. There, in what looked like a large open shower stall without a shower, stood a bare-armed man in a plastic apron with a large knife and a sharpening file. As the cow came to a stop in front of him, he inserted his knife at the spot where the neck meets the chest and sliced all the way down to the lips. Blood gushed out in torrents because the cow's heart was still beating. With thick, wet, slapping sounds blood splashed all over the sloping floor and ran down a drain to collect in a holding tank. I was told it would be sold for fertilizer--nothing is wasted. The man's arms were covered with blood up to his elbows. He calmly took a small water hose and rinsed off his arms and then washed the blood off his apron and boots, and waited for the next animal. 

From there the carcass went from one station to another. It had its hooves clipped off, its hide stripped, its head removed, its chest sawn open and its belly slashed. It was disemboweled, sliced into halves, rinsed off and sent to the cooler. The whole process was hideously efficient. I stood there getting sick from the smell of blood and becoming increasingly disturbed by what I was seeing. Although it was a ghastly spectacle, everything was relatively neat and clean*--nothing like what I had expected. I had expected the process to be physically brutal, but I had not anticipated that it would be so spiritually cruel and psychically bruising. I had envisioned a medieval dungeon with blood-spattered walls and a floor littered with entrails and body parts. I'd thought the slaughtering process would be a long and arduous task accomplished by grotesque men who enjoyed hearing the shrieks and moans of dying animals. Instead, I saw ordinary men performing their jobs in a perfunctory, disinterested fashion inside a modern semi-automated factory with relative ease and surprising speed.

I then realized what so disturbing. I had just witnessed sanitary, systematic, legally sanctioned mass murder. I had watched huge, half-ton, living animals reduced to sides-of-beef in a few simple steps. How could it be so easy? I wondered where their life force had gone. I thought about the casual indifference with which we humans often take away that which we cannot give. It all seemed so wrong in a deep and profound way. It seemed as if the whole process was being watched in horror by silent celestial witnesses. I felt guilty, as though I had been a party to the whole thing. I wanted to leave.

I thanked Jim and walked quickly out of the building and over to my car. As I took off my overalls and put on my good shoes, I was even more disturbed by being able to leave what I had just witnessed so easily. There was no ascent from hell, no Sisyphean journey; all it took was a walk across the street. It could have been almost any street. As I reflected on what I had just seen, I realized the most poignant difference between what I had expected and what I had actually experienced what was I felt in my soul. I had not expected to be so deeply moved and utterly shaken by the wholesale, ineffable killing that took place. It is an awful and unsettling thing to look into the eyes of a creature that knows it's going to be killed and not be able to do anything to stop it. It left me with a feeling that was something akin to shame. I got into my car and drove away, wiser but saddened. 

*From time to time throughout the slaughtering process, particularly during the procedures where flesh was cut and scraped off the head and other bony parts, tissue destined for human consumption would fall on the floor and simply be picked up and placed in bins from which ground beef and hotdogs would be made. Furthermore, the USDA inspector present that day spent less than five minutes "examining" the huge pile of internal organs of selected animals while I was there. The numbers of animals coming down the pile was simply too great to be more thorough. In my opinion, such cursory, inefficient inspection renders the designations "USDA inspected" or "USDA choice" essentially meaningless.