I wrote this article (below) in 1989 for Meat and Poultry magazine after I had completed the installation of the first center track restrainer. Working on this project made me do a lot of thinking about my relationship with animals. Every one of the cattle that passed through their system would never have been born if we had not breed them. We owe the animals that we use for food a decent life and a painless death. Back in the early 90's, conditions in many of the beef slaughter plants were really bad, but there were a few good places. The plant where I worked in installing the first center track restrainer was one of the good places. Since 1999, when McDonald's and Wendy's started their audits of beef and pork slaughter plants, conditions have greatly improved. Since 2010, the USDA has also greatly stepped up enforcement of the Humane Slaughter Act.
Baxter Black, a noted commentator on the livestock industry, said that many controversies concerning animal rights are fueled by the fact that city dwellers have never seen an animal die. Even on the farm, death is less evident than it used to be. As Keillor points out, people donít butcher animals on the farm anymore, and as I stated in a previous article, I think it is wrong for consultants to suggest that the meat sold in vacuum packages be divorced from the animal.
I will also comment from the viewpoint of an animal-handling equipment designer. To design a good restrainer system, you have to really care about the animals it will hold. You have to imagine what it would be like if you were the animal entering the restrainer. It is a sobering experience to be a caring person, yet to design a device to kill large numbers of animals. When I complete a project I am left with a feeling of great satisfaction, but I usually cry all the way to the airport.
While city people never see meat animals die, meat plant workers who stun, shackle, and stick animals on high-speed slaughter lines get an overdose of death. Most of them become detached and do their jobs as if they are stapling boxes. A few will become sadistic, but others, such as rabbis at kosher plants, perform slaughter as a sacred ritual. And it is a ritual -- with "no foolishness, no joking around," Keillor writes.
Plants with humane handling and stunning practices have managers who enforce these practices ó- managers who are somewhat removed from the killing but are the plants "conscience." The people who participate in high-speed killing become too numb to care. It is up to the managers to preserve the ritualistic character of the slaughter, to hold on to that respect.
When I first started in the meat industry, I often stunned animals. As the chain speeds increased, I simply couldn't do it anymore. At the slower speeds, I could take pride in doing the job well and treating every animal as an individual. The is why I think development of automatic stunning is important for the psychological well-being of plant employees. Employees working in plants with automated stunning have said they like the system because a machine does the deed.
The new double-rail restrainer system will open the door for future automation of stunning and shackling of the cattle. Separating the animal's rear legs and better head positioning will enable the development of automation.
Cattle enter the system more easily, with less balking and excitement. One cannot have respect for an animal if it is being pushed, shoved, or jammed in the restrainer entrance. The animal should be able to walk in with dignity.
When I was at Arizona State University, my roommate, who happened to be blind, summed up how I feel. After she touched cattle walking up a ramp she wrote, "The stairway to heaven is dedicated to those people who desire to learn the meaning of life, and not to fear death. You, through respect, for these animals, can come to respect your fellow man as well." Touch, listen, and remember.
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