DAY 361: UNDERCOVER IN A SPANISH SLAUGHTERHOUSE (part 2) Still no photos!
Entering the Spanish slaughterhouse was similar to entering an upmarket motorway hotel: polished, pleasant but bland.
The entrance was fronted by a main office with a carpet that had never seen a drop of blood. Well-dressed administration staff sat at tables with computers and clean white paper. One had a meat sandwich on her table. No doubt the pork inside was not from the ‘kill floor’ but had made it’s long circuitous route via processing plant, packing station, supermarket and fridge . The very same route that separates death from food in our culture. The route I was about to shortcut by opening the next door to the kill zone.
A man in a white jacket with very well spoken English took us down some steep metal steps. I wondered if was he from PR? How do you do PR for a slaughterhouse? I guess the whole of the meat industry is PR …
‘People think it will be world war 3 down here. But really it is very calm. First I will take you to the dirty zone’. I was nervous but kept up my banter with the guide. He was very upbeat, he could have been showing me around a perfume factory. I secretly pressed the ‘record’ button on my iphone that was in my pocket in anticipation for the noises: banging, slashing, screaming.
He opened the door.
Into the ‘dirty’ zone
The so called ‘dirty zone’ was in fact a vast hall where pigs were being efficiently unloaded off the back of a truck into small holding bays. There was no screaming. It was eery and calm.
Everything was rigid and rectangular – the architecture, the spaces, the ramps, the doors. Each pig came in as an individual: some small, some large, some fat, some thin, some afraid, others not, but crammed into the tiny space it was hard to tell them apart. Sprinklers systems then washed off their dirt so that those that came from rougher farms were indistinguishable from those that did not.
‘The water relaxes them’ our guide said, ‘We want them all calm. Some people think meat tastes better when the animal is anxious. We know that adrenaline makes the meat worse so we want them to feel at ease’ I was disconcerted by this, just as I was by the relative quiet of the pigs.
I learnt later that the ‘dirty’ zone is technical terminology for the area of the slaughterhouse where the animals enter the plant and the ‘clean’ side where the meat goes out. The precise point where the two intersect is technically where the skin is ripped off the dead body. The principle purpose of this divide is for food safety – the animals come in with all sort of dirt, vomit, faeces etc and must go out safe to consume – but the divide also creates a neat psychological separation between the animal as a being and as a commodity.
Pig becomes pork, dirty becomes clean, pain becomes forgotten.
By entering the dirty side we were entering the side of life and, of course of death. This is the side is where animals arrive as individuals, where they are stunned (or in this case gassed), where they are hung upside down and are spiked in the throat, where they are drained of blood and then shortly after lose their lives. Only once they lose their skin do they lose all visual identity of what they once were. When the meat enters the ‘clean’ side we are on the side of supermarkets, consumers, packaging and we can safely leave behind all those things we associate with animal life: pain, emotion, fear and also hope.
The pigs were then ushered into a long thin corridor at the end of which a vast metal arm with a panel on the end came down and separated off the front eight or so. These were then guided up a ramp where a man at the top loaded three at a time in to a small container. The door closed, the container rotated, and a gas containing mostly carbon monoxide was released. Two minutes later the pigs were dumped out, unconscious and limp, but still alive.
Manuel whispered into my ear. ‘This is the point where I have seen a few wake up’
I tensed in anticipation but each pig seemed to stay asleep as they were strung up by a single leg on a huge metal rig.
A line of pigs now hung from the conveyor belt and slowly moved forward. This was the back bone of the whole slaughter house. This conveyor belt formed a track that took the animal all the way through to the meat packing. I followed its slow methodical progress round a bend where I saw the first recognisable aspect of a slaughterhouse. A man held a long sharp knife and with great precision dug it deep into the throat and quickly stepped back as blood gushed out into a long metal trough beneath him. The room was hot, it was steamy and its floor was very very pink all over. The man moved back and forth in a monotonous dance, dig, retreat, gush, dig, retreat, gush…
The wrong reaction?
But I was suprised and somewhat dismayed by my own reaction. I was not horrified. I was not disgusted. I was vaguely interested.
How was it that all this compassion I had been trying to uncover for the last year wasn’t kicking in?
Why did I not care more?
Was I too overcome to feel anything?
I think I know the answer but I am not entirely sure. On one level I was relieved that these pigs, who’d had such a miserable life, were now meeting a fairly painless death.
But on another level my cultural normalisation was kicking in. I was seeing the pigs, that hung limply from the metal chains, as meat. As normal meat. I turned round to see where the pigs came in – alive – and where they pigs now hung – dying and couldn’t quite get my head around where the change happened. My culture and my compassion were not talking to each other. I found this confusing.
But I was relieved to notice that the dead pigs were out of site of the live pigs coming in. Pigs are smart. Pigs understand what is happening but not if they can’t see it or hear it
And then something disrupted the carefully orchestrated anaesthesia . One pig got loose from the ramp and escaped from the predetermined route, ran down a new path meant for workers and and then for a moment appeared in a large doorway that looked over the killing zone. I glimpsed at it as is stood confused but a moment later it was retrieved, sqeualing intensely, and put back on its proper path to death. In that instance of escape, it was for one last second, an individual again. I saw it’s eyes and face and then it was gone.
Our guide was unfazed.
‘We never ever want the conveyor belt to stop because then no one on the line can do any work and the whole slaughterhouse is dead. Things have to keep moving. Come this way and I’ll show you where we process our meat.’
Manuel whispered into my ear a little later.
‘I saw it’s eyes, it looked at me. I saw the fear in its eyes’