Bloodly Meat

It started out as a letter of complaint from a man who claimed to have first-hand knowledge of atrocities within a Florida slaughterhouse.But as layers of shameful, shocking facts were revealed, investigative reporter Gail A. Eisnitz uncovered the worst of the worst of American capitalism -- the inhumanity, greed, willful neglect and a broad-based cooperative effort to hide the sins of the U.S. meat industry.The result is "Slaughterhouse," a modern-day, non-fiction counter-part to Upton Sinclair's classic "The Jungle." In that book, which was recently heralded as one of the "100 Best Novels of the 20th Century" list, an immigrant family comes to America and is forced to survive amidst the appalling conditions of Chicago's stockyards and slaughterhouses. Nearly a century later, it remains as a damning indictment of meat processing.If you haven't read that novel lately (and I suspect that most anyone over 30 hasn't touched it, since forced to circa early-1970's), it still packs a wallop, and has a worthy successor in Eisnitz's heartbreaking, horrific "Slaughterhouse."Eisnitz, who has written about the abuse of animals for many years and is chief investigator for the Humane Farming Association, was no stranger to inhumanity against animals when she was contacted by Timothy Walker, a whistle-blowing former worker with the animal welfare division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).After repeated attempts to appeal to his chain of command about Kaplan Industries, a Florida slaughterhouse where animals were regularly beaten and skinned alive, Walker took his concerns to Eisnitz, and her trek across the country from one slaughterhouse to the next began.The first thing she uncovered was that most of America's small and mid-sized slaughterhouses have been replaced by large, high-speed operations, each capable of killing more than a million animals a year, some up to an animal every three seconds. In nearly every instance, and supported by the testimony of dozens of workers, Eisnitz learned that accelerated line speeds and a "profit-first" production mentality means the slaughter line rarely stops for anything -- injured workers, contaminated meat, or slow, disabled or live animals.Page after page of atrocious and primitive slaughter conditions are detailed, and much like Eisnitz, the reader begins to numb to the blood and cruelty. The accounts roll by like a living hell assembly line, with Eisnitz sparing none of the incessant gore of sticking, stunning, shackling, slashing, boiling, beating, poking and prodding. This is not done for shock value. The only shock is that this is daily routine in places where there seems to be no control, inspection or adherence to standards -- the places responsible for putting dinner on our tables.In one early segment, Ed Van Winkle, a battle-scarred survivor of the John Morrell & Company slaughterhouse in Sioux City, Iowa, describes his frustration with the slow-death process for hogs on the slaughter line at his plant."Because of the line speed, the sticker only gets one good chance to make a good stick hole," he explained, " or the hog bleeds real slow. The sticker doesn't have time to go digging around for arteries. If the hog is conscious and tries to hold onto its blood by constricting its muscles -- that's his blood and he's not letting go of it -- the blood comes out in a trickle and it takes a long time for him to bleed out."Bad-sticks usually don't have a chance to bleed out. They end up drowning in the scalding tank before they ever bleed to death. These hogs get up to the scalding tank, hit the water and start screaming and kicking. Sometimes they thrash so much they kick the water out of the tank. Not a lot of water, but it was obvious what was going on because I could hear them screaming. Sooner or later they drown," he said. "There's a rotating arm that pushes them under, no chance for them to get out. I'm not sure if they burn to death before they drown, but it takes them a couple of minutes to stop thrashing. You think management cares about the pain of being drowned or boiled to death?"Just like Eisnitz did, we wonder about the men and women who perform these gruesome tortures. Though there are some cases of individuals who enjoy this work, for the most part, these are decent people with few choices for making a living, and they've paid the price for it. Animals suffer and die, but many workers live with disfigurement, debilitating and painful injuries, tyrannical working conditions with no hope of change and fear of retribution if they complain, and a litany of emotional and social problems like substance abuse and domestic violence as a result of working on the slaughter line.One former worker tells Eisnitz: "But when you're standing there night after night, digging that knife into these hogs, and they're fighting you, kicking at you, squealing, trying to bite you -- doing whatever they can to try and get away from you -- after a while you don't give a s-. You're just putting in your time. And then it gets to a point where you're at a daydream stage. Where you think about everything else and still do your job. You become emotionally dead. And you get just as sadistic as the company itself."Yet another partner in this danse macabre is the consumer of the 43 billion pounds of pork and beef, 43 billion pounds of poultry and 76 billion eggs that are produced annually in the U.S. Over the past 15 years, deaths from foodborne illness have quadrupled here, and some of the accounts of children who died slowly and painfully as a result of eating contaminated meat are simply heart-breaking.One doesn't have to be a vegetarian or animal rights activist to realize that this is a damning indictment of the meat industry. "Slaughterhouse" is a courageous piece of investigative journalism by a reporter who suffered an enormous toll to tell this story, and it deserves to be read and given thoughtful consideration.Nancy Sundstrom is the book editor for Northern Express Weekly in Traverse City, Michigan.

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