“There is always one pig who’s curious,” Agnete Poulsen began. “And when the gate opens, he’ll be standing there looking around.” She mimicked a pig’s swiveling head as he steps from the dim hold of the transport truck to survey the florescent labyrinth before him.
Poulsen’s voice playfully jumped an octave as she spoke for the pig. “What’s going on? What is this place? Why are we here? Come on, guys, let’s go and have a look!”
“Then off they go,” she said, returning to her usual genial tone. “None of them register that there is something else happening on the other side of the wall. They walk along as fast as they can—completely safe and calm and relaxed.”
As the head guide of the Danish Crown corporation, Poulsen has facilitated nearly a quarter-million visits through Europe’s second-largest slaughterhouse in the ten years since it opened in Horsens, Denmark. The company’s policy of transparency is in stark contrast to that of the American meat industry. US slaughterhouses are closed to the public, and more than half of all state legislatures have seen bills introduced to criminalize undercover reportage within slaughtering facilities.
Poulsen expounded upon Danish Crown’s policy as we donned identical body suits, hairnets, and rubber clogs. “We show 100 percent of what happens here,” she said, “not 99 percent. It’s the last percent that makes us honest. We make our living by killing pigs, and you cannot romanticize that.”
Poulsen spoke of her upbringing on a local farm as we finished adjusting the elastic bands of our billowing hairnets. “Now we are alike,” Poulsen quipped.
The tour began in the visitors’ gallery. It was designed to move guests through the 21-acre facility with the same efficiency as the livestock below. Poulsen gestured at the stockyards beyond the glass. “Pigs have a group mentality,” she remarked, “so we keep them with their friends from the farms. They prefer to go upwards instead of down, so the floor has a two-degree incline. They don’t like to go straight, so we have curves along the way. You’ll also notice that our workers wear green and blue clothes. There is no white, because pigs are prey animals and white reminds them of their predator’s teeth.”
Every day, 20,000 pigs enter the slaughterhouse under their own power, only to exit hours later as shrink-wrapped cuts of meat. The facility was devised to encourage the animals to move willingly. Electric prods are banned in Denmark, so the only driving tool available is a paddle, rigged to make a slapping noise when swung.
Poulsen was quick to point out the culinary benefits of Danish Crown’s low-impact methods. “Stressed meat is actually bad quality,” she explained. “It has bad texture, bad color, and it gets juicy in the wrong way. It’s like chewing into cotton.”
Most of the pigs we saw in the holding pens were sleeping. Poulsen called the cuddling and gentle-biting we observed “their way of getting close.”
“Is there meaning to the sounds they make?” I asked, referring to the sporadic waves of squealing.
“No, there's not."
We moved on to the killing zone without ceremony—just a word of warning. “This is not an area for the camera,” Poulsen noted. “Our employees love you, but the ones on the slaughterline have said, ‘Please, no pictures.’ They don’t want to be seen on Facebook holding up a knife covered in blood.”
“This is where it all happens,” Poulsen continued as I stowed my camera. “The beginning of it all. The beginning of the end.”
The glass made everything seem farther away than it was. We were above and off to one side—the perspective of an out-of-body experience or a third-person dream. I had never noticed before how delicately pigs walk on such small hooves. All that bulk and they don’t even sway. I had a flash of elegant women in high-heels. I saw parties, and dances, and little courtship glances. Here was life wearing the mask of a pig.
In my memory, the pigs seem to materialize out of a fog. There was a man in blue or green leaning over them—close enough to pat their heads if he had wanted to. It was almost as though he was just there to say farewell, but it must be that he pressed the button that sections off the next group of eight. I don’t remember his face. He might have been wearing a mask. A gate rose. The pigs walked under their own power until the very end. The black ribbon moved forward, and they were pushed, gently but inexorably, into the dark elevator.
Poulsen described what I could no longer see—Danish Crown’s method for stunning their animals before slaughter. “We send them 10 meters below the ground, into the chamber with the carbon dioxide. They fall asleep, and after three minutes they come up.”
I spoke later with Dr. Temple Grandin, a leading meat-industry consultant and designer of humane livestock handling procedures. Grandin believes that properly executed CO2 stunning is less stressful to pigs than commonly used electric stunning, because it allows the animals to remain together.
“What do pigs experience during carbon dioxide stunning?” I said.
“I’ve seen a lot of variation,” Grandin told me. “What reaction you get depends upon what genetics of pig you put in there. The ones with the porcine stress gene have a bad reaction—they panic.”
Denmark, though, she added, was one of the countries that had bred that detrimental gene out of their livestock. She described a CO2 induction that she had witnessed in the country. “The pigs backed up and sniffed, and then they rolled over and started convulsing. Once a pig falls over and goes into convulsions, it is unconscious.”
Back at Danish Crown, the gassed pigs emerged out of a chute in the various postures of slumber. A man deftly attached shackles to each pig’s hind legs and the bodies rolled up into the air. They swayed, gently, as they glided to the slaughterer. The man pulled a sapphire-colored tube down from above. At the end of the tube was a blade.
“The knife goes through the trachea into the big veins around the heart,” Poulsen narrated. “Then the heart itself pumps out the blood, and then it dies. The blood flows up the tube and is separated into protein and plasma. You can use it for human consumption, animal consumption, or medical use.”
Every part of the pig is used, Poulsen insisted. “The hair is for brushes, the skin is for gelatin, the manure is sent to a biogas plant to make energy. The warmth of their bodies is used to heat water.”
On our way down onto the slaughter line, we shuffled through a gauntlet of mechanized cleaning apparatus. “One of the largest hospitals in Denmark visited to see how we control bacteria,” Poulsen bragged. “We have cleaner hands than a surgeon.”
In a mist of blood, a massive circular saw split each carcass down its spine. Inverted pig halves floated in with a lazy, clapping sway as the slaughter-line workers churned around them without a wasted gesture. Their insides look just like ours.
“You can replace most of the human body with parts from the pig,” Poulsen remarked. “In another of our slaughterhouses they take out the heart valves of sows and export them to America for transplant.”
Tiny radio chips embedded in the ears of each pig coordinate with ultrasound machines to automatically scan and sort the bisected pigs according to meat quality and fat distribution. Computers plot out the most effective cuts for the automated saws to perform, as each carcass is gracefully routed by overhead conveyor to its correct location in the plant. This precision, along with a flexible workforce, allows Danish Crown to fulfill the highly specific needs of customers around the world.
“For Japanese products,” Poulsen noted, “we use four people to brush off and vacuum the meat. For Danish products, we use none. In Japan, the customer is so far removed from the product that they find something like a bone or a small piece of fat to be a foreign object. Of course, it costs extra, but we will always adjust to the customer demand. We replaced an electric guillotine robot with three workers just to be able to deliver heads to the Chinese market. The Chinese market wants split heads.”
As the carcasses are processed, they look less and less like the animals they once were. Feet, tails, and ears are removed in stages. Once the faces with their infantile eyelashes are gone, all that's left are cuts of meat. That’s how it was by the time we got to the American line.
The American line is where baby back ribs come from, Jens Hensen, head of media relations, told me over the phone several days prior. He sang a few lines from a popular restaurant’s television jingle: “I want my baby back, baby back, baby back…”
The burly butchers on the line were grinning when I pulled out my camera to film the plant’s fastest worker. “He’s a pretty little thing,” Poulsen joked. A couple of the butchers agreed. “That’s the most beautiful guy of the lot!” one shouted. “You can put me on the table next!” the other called out to him. And then, “Did you remember your sexy underwear?”
He was blushing like a teenager as he slammed thick rib slabs onto a counter before trimming and deboning them with the precision of a surgeon and the speed of an athlete. It was piecework, so the man was racing, but his body was so accustomed to the demands of the process that he wasn’t even sweating.
We talked to another of the butchers, a seven-year veteran named Daniel. His arm was encased in a Medieval-style chainmail armguard that rattled as we shook hands. I asked about the tattoos covering his bulging biceps. One was a portrait of his dog, with a banner beneath proclaiming her “Queen of the Streets.” He talked about how she loves the raw-meat smell that clings to his body. “She always licks my hands when I come home.” Another tattoo read, “You can’t change the past, and if you want to predict the future, you have to create it.”
Poulsen remarked on the tattoo: “Did you notice how it references the past? There are a lot of people here who have had some difficulties in their past. We’ve actually had prizes for giving people an extra chance.”
We said our goodbyes and watched Daniel return to the line. The personal rhythm of his walk gradually recalibrated itself to the movements of the men beside him—the universal rhythm of the plant. It was my rhythm too, as I darted through the periodic gaps in the endless moving line of hanging carcasses. The rhythm was there even in the in the company cafeteria—in the clanging of the forks and knives. Poulsen dreams of the rhythm. “When you go to sleep you just keep seeing the meat moving.”
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