Rob Levitt, the owner of The Butcher & Larder, said his business strives to be as sustainable as possible.
Rob Levitt discusses the importance of humane animal treatment.
Electrical stunning, mechanical bolt, carbon dioxide poisoning: These are just some of the approved methods of livestock slaughter in the U.S.
Farm animals — more than 8 billion per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — move through slaughterhouses across the country, where they are “harvested” for human consumption. While many people may know that the meat on their plate was once a cow, pig, or bird (or even a horse), they may not know what the slaughter process entails. Many animal welfare advocates say it’s not a question of apathy, but of willful ignorance.
“I think human beings just have an inherent curiosity for the lives of animals and are genuinely concerned for their well-being. It’s closer to not wanting to know the details than not caring about the details,” said Ben Goldsmith, the executive director of Farm Forward, an animal welfare organization based in Portland, Ore.
The meat industry, which is regulated by the USDA, strives to assure consumers that the meat they buy was once an animal that was treated humanely. However, animal welfare advocates say that simply isn’t so. They say there isn’t enough regulation, the animals aren’t treated humanely, and much more can be done to improve their treatment.
“The take is, generally, it’s incredibly advanced, it’s extremely humane, they’re efficient and great, and because they’re so great, we don’t need as much oversight,” Goldsmith said.
In 1958, the USDA began enforcing the Humane Slaughter Act, a set of laws meant to protect animals throughout the slaughter process. It mandated, among other things, that pigs and cows “shall be stunned in such a manner that they will be rendered unconscious with a minimum of excitement and discomfort.” The animals are then cut and allowed to bleed out. While the act applies to mammals such as pigs, cattle, sheep, and goats, it — to this day — does not include poultry, which accounts for 95 percent of Americans’ meat consumption.
“The vast majority of animals slaughtered in the United States every day have no protection under federal law,” said Matt Prescott, the food policy director for the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C. “What we see from this is a system where birds are hung upside-down, in shackles, while fully conscious, violently sent down a conveyor-type system where their throats are cut and end up in tanks of scalding water. It’s hard to imagine a worse or more grisly system in which to slaughter animals.”
Poultry, which includes mostly chickens and some turkeys, is regulated by the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA under “Good Commercial Practices.” The service stipulates that “poultry must be slaughtered in accordance with good commercial practices in a manner that will result in thorough bleeding of the carcasses and ensure that breathing has stopped prior to scalding so that the birds do not drown” in their electrified water bath.
Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, said that “compliance with these requirements helps ensure that poultry are treated humanely.”
Despite that small inclusion, until poultry are added to the Humane Slaughter Act, animal welfare advocates say that their treatment will continue to be inhumane.
“I think the most beneficial thing that could happen to improve the state of slaughterhouses in the United States would be for the USDA to change its enforcement of the Humane Slaughter Act to include birds,” Prescott said. “Virtually every slaughterhouse in the United States would be operating illegally.”
But Tom Super, the vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council in Washington, D.C., said that companies must pass audits to make sure the birds are killed humanely, that each company must adhere to national guidelines, and that “everyone who interacts with birds has been taught proper animal welfare practices.”
“We take extreme caution to follow humane procedures, and employees go through training to ensure the proper handling of live birds,” he added. “The birds are kept as calm as possible and then rendered insensible, that is unconscious and incapable of feeling pain prior to slaughter.”
And if anyone doubts that the poultry industry has the best interests of the birds in mind, Super said it behooves them too. “We do this first and foremost ethically and also because we don’t want bruised birds entering the system, he said. “That does not make good business sense.”
Chicago slaughterhouse sets itself apart
In 1906, journalist Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” put Chicago’s stockyards on the map. Sinclair’s story, based on his own undercover investigations, exposed the brutality of how farm animals are killed.
Now, more than 100 years later, those well-known stockyards have dwindled down to one. Chiappetti Lamb and Veal is a fourth-generation family business in the Bridgeport neighborhood.
Lori Dunn, the executive director of pasture-raised programs for Franklin, Wis.-based Strauss Brands (partners with Chiappetti), said that their operation is different from most. She emphasized the company’s connection to independent family farmers. The lambs are raised, she said, “out on the open prairies” in South Dakota, and when the beef herds come of age, they are fed “a high-quality ration of grain.”
“One thing to keep in mind is that humane slaughter is everybody’s responsibility and obligation,” she said. “A lot of bad players dominate the press, and what the good people are doing never gets talked about.”
Chiappetti also lends its facilities to rabbis to perform kosher slaughter.
Kosher slaughter is a type of ritual slaughter performed within the Jewish community. It was developed as way to ensure that animals were killed humanely, and is thus widely believed to be a superior method of slaughter. Kosher law requires that an individual, called a “shochet,” must be trained religiously and certified in how to properly kill the animal.
According to Joe Regenstein, a professor in the department of food science at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. and the founder of the Cornell Kosher and Halal Food Initiative, explained that the kosher method of killing involves making sure the animals are lead calmly to slaughter, where the shochet uses a nick-free knife to sever the animal’s carotid artery and jugular vein. The process is meant to instantly kill the animal.
“The entire process is painless,” said Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, the director of kosher supervision for the Chicago Rabbinical Council. “The animal doesn’t feel the initial cut because it’s so sharp.”
A nick-free knife is essential, Regenstein said, sharing an anecdote about how carefully the knives are scrutinized pre-slaughter: “The rabbi handed the student a slaughter knife, ‘chalef,’ and asked how many nicks the knife had. The student took the knife and studied it carefully and was pleased to find two nicks. The rabbi sent him away and said to come back when he could show the rabbi all 14 nicks.”
Rabbi Jonathan Crane, a scholar in bioethics and Jewish thought at Emory University and a consultant for Farm Forward, said that although the intentions behind kosher are good, those intentions — just like those put forward by the USDA — are not always enough.
“The rabbi that comes in is there to certify that the animal has been killed according to the laws of Kashrut [Jewish dietary laws],” Crane said. “It could be the case that they turn a blind eye to errors due to profit and other pressures.”
Animal advocates agree that kosher does not necessarily equal humane.
“Some forms of religious slaughter were developed initially or originally as a way to minimize animal suffering,” said Prescott, of the Humane Society. “Today, those regulations are often used as a loophole. It doesn’t seem any better and even appears much worse.”
One of the most infamous instances of kosher gone wrong was in 2004 at a plant in Postville, Iowa. Through an undercover investigation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals revealed nearly 300 inhumane slaughter practices.
Dena Jones, the farm animal program manager for the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute, said that kosher is “a huge, contentious, sticky, delicate issue because it deals with people’s religious beliefs.”
However, she also emphasized that problems can arise from all methods of slaughter. “It can be inhumane either way,” she said, “but it’s our view that animals should be stunned before they’re cut.”
Views from the industry
“It definitely can be achieved. It definitely can be humane,” said Temple Grandin, a national expert in the field of livestock slaughter. Many animal advocates and industry players alike cite Grandin, who is renowned for her auditing system that aims to reduce the stress animals experience prior to and during slaughter.
Grandin said that slaughterhouses can be optimally designed to prevent excess suffering. An animal lover and meat eater, Grandin said that animal death is a normal part of life. “There’s nothing nice about the way wolves kill things,” she said. “People forget nature is really harsh. Nature is a lot harsher than slaughterhouses.”
And slaughterhouses have a lot more rules in place than nature does, say those in the meat industry.
“It’s incredible when you look at the scale of these plants just how well they do. They’re held to a very high standard” said Janet Riley, the senior vice president of public affairs and professional development for the American Meat Institute, a trade association in Washington, D.C. “Humane slaughter is an incredibly misunderstood topic.”
Jim Fraley, the livestock program director for the Illinois Farm Bureau in Bloomington, agreed with Riley.
“Animal welfare standards are exceptionally high when operating processing plants,” he said. “The plants I’ve seen wouldn’t be able to operate if their standards weren’t high.”
Part of the reason why the industry aims to comply with those standards is because it benefits them economically, said Yvonne Thaxton, a professor at and a director of the University of Arkansas Center for Food Animal Well-Being in Fayettteville, Ark.
“The whole corporate philosophy is that ‘We will take care of animals from the top down,’” she said. “I think the day has passed when companies tolerate egregious behavior.”
What animal advocates say consumers should know
Animal welfare activists see a different side of the same coin.
“Farm animals are considered commodities, so there’s always an economic decision about whether they’re going to receive care,” said Matt Rice, the director of investigations for Mercy for Animals, a national organization with a branch in Chicago.
He encouraged people not to think of farm animals as products but as equals.
“They have their own emotions and own thoughts, and they deserve to be protected like our animals at home,” Rice said.
Rice added that people shouldn’t distinguish between farm animals and companion animals: “People share their homes with dogs and cats, and yet they’re not making that connection between the animal they know and the meat on their plate.”
“The best thing anyone can do for farm animals is to stop eating them,” he said.
And meat eating offers no nutritional advantage anyway, said Eric Sharer, an Albany, N.Y.-based registered dietitian working for ChicagoVeg, a social community for local vegetarians and vegans.
Sharer dispelled the belief that animal protein is healthful, explaining that meat can actually weaken the immune system, cause inflammation, increase the risk for certain cancers and heart diseases, and impact the arteries. Vegetarian diets, and especially vegan diets, are optimal.
“In terms of health, it’s the only way to go,” he said. “It addresses diseases as well as prevents them. People should do the best they can to move in that direction. The faster they get there, the better.”
But what about those who can’t imagine a life without meat?
Rob Levitt said his business is the answer. Opened a couple years ago, Levitt’s The Butcher & Larder in Noble Square is one of the only sustainable butcher shops in the city.
“A farmer raises a whole cow; we buy the whole cow,” he said, adding that his business strives to use as many parts of the animals as possible.
Unlike other butchers, Levitt’s shop sources from only local farms. “The people who raise the animals are the same ones who deliver them to us,” Levitt said. “They’re completely transparent, they tell us everything about how these animals are raised and invite us to their farms.”
Levitt is an open book when it comes to discussing his meat’s origins. That’s how it should be, he said: “People should not be afraid to ask questions. That’s what we’re here for, is to tell you everything about how these animals go from being born to being in our case. And we want to share that kind of information.”
Robert Grillo, a vegan and the director of Chicago-based Free From Harm, a resource for those concerned about animal welfare, probably does not agree with the butchering of meat. But he likewise emphasized the importance of transparency.
“There’s so much in the way of ‘happy meat’ marketing and ‘happy animal’ storytelling,” Grillo said of the meat industry. “It uses fictional stories that we’ve been told about animals, widely held opinions that don’t really have any basis in fact. You can really be seduced, and I think a lot of people are today.”
The debate over humane slaughter — and whether or not it can ever be fully humane — is not likely to go away any time soon.
But Farm Forward’s Goldsmith said there are steps that curious consumers can take in the meantime.
“Each of us approaches these difficult issues when we’re ready,” he said. “We all have different ways of doing that: reading a book, seeing a video, asking a question.”
And asking questions is exactly what vegans and meat eaters alike can do to make sure that the animals they love and the animals they love to eat are treated humanely.
“We can’t let our guard down,” said Jones, of the Animal Welfare Institute. “We have to be the watchdog of the watchdog, the USDA, and make sure they’re doing their job. Because otherwise, complacency sets in.”