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10 Questions

10 Questions You’ve Always Wanted to Ask an Abattoir Worker

We spoke to a guy whose job is to kill almost 1,500 cattle every day.

by Gavin Butler
12 March 2019, 1:38am

None of these people were our contact. This is just a stock image from Shutterstock

Comfortably eating meat in 2019 requires a degree of self-deception. I don’t think it matters who you are. A deep part of you knows that very bad things happened to bring you that burger, that sausage, or that not-quite-chicken nugget. Things that might just make you give up meat if you saw them happen. And that is why so many blissfully ignorant carnivores choose not to watch videos from inside slaughterhouses or battery farms: because it’s just a little bit easier this way.

But not everyone has that luxury. There are people who make their money on the frontline; people whose job it is to pull the trigger and turn living, breathing animals into food. And we want to know what that’s like. How does it feel killing over 1,000 animals every day, week in, week out?

Greg (not his real name) spent four years meat worker on the “kill floor” of a cattle abattoir. Growing up in suburban Queensland, he described his childhood and early life as “normal, I suppose.” His mum and dad both worked regular jobs, he played a lot of video games and spent his time at the skatepark after school, and eventually got the job at the slaughterhouse through his brother, who still works there.

We asked Greg about his time spent on the front line of the meat industry. What it looked like, how it affected his views toward animals, and whether he ever felt guilty about slaughtering innocent creatures for a living.

VICE: Hi Greg. Can you start by running us through the particulars of the job?
Greg: Sure. I was the guy with the bolt gun who killed the cattle. A standard routine in farming is to funnel cattle into single formation to get vaccinated and wormed. That formation is replicated onto the "knock box" so that they don’t stress out. They’ve been through this process before so they’re very calm. The first thing is their head gets clamped, gentle enough so they can move a little but can’t back up. Then there’s a big black curtain blocking their field of view to stop them seeing anything. And before the cows know what’s happening they get a bolt gun to the brain which kills them instantly.

The bolt gun is very powerful, and it’s very easy to locate where the brain is in the cow’s skull. It’s similar to the device used in the film No Country for Old Men, but way bigger. It’s strung from pulleys in the ceiling, and it’s got three triggers. When it’s pushed to the animal’s head it will fire only when all three triggers are pressed. A cow’s brain is no larger than a tennis ball, so the damage from the gun will always be instant and painless.

It’s one of the most vital points of the kill floor. We’d quality control monitor every beast that’s processed to see if it was stressed when it died, resulting in tough and lower quality meat.

When you hold a bolt gun to a cow’s head, what did you think about?
Whenever I worked in the knock box I was more focused on not missing the target. The last thing you want to do is miss and have to try for a second shot.

Did you have targets or KPIs for how many animals you needed to kill in a day?
Yes: at the time I was working the average would be 714 head of cattle per shift, so 1,428 animals a day. Sometimes there were more if enough staff were there, or sometimes less if there were breakdowns, delays, or if the trucks couldn’t get the cattle in due to bad weather.

Did you ever feel guilty?
No, never. There was no time to feel guilty. I just feel bad seeing bad countries killing cows, pigs, and chickens in very inhumane ways. Knowing the process at the plant I worked at made me realise the reasons for Australia's strict standards. I never lost sleep unless it was from pain due to the physical strain of the job. The thought of the meat on the hook being a living animal less than half an hour ago never crossed my mind.

What is your most horrific memory from working at the abattoir?
It was the first time I saw a fetus. It was early days on the job and I was watching the fellas on the gutting table and it just fell out of the cow with the rest of the gut, still in its sac. It happens pretty often. They’re not too big—normally the biggest is the size of an NRL ball—and they just get discarded with the rest of the offal. The offal room processes the stomach for tripe, and they send it down its own chute. I have no idea where that chute leads to.

But yeah, it is what it is. It’s not like they can pregnancy test every cow before they get trucked out. They’re never very developed, either, because if cattle are visibly pregnant the farmer won’t send them.

Do you still eat meat?
Of course—not many people I know have gone off meat after working in the meat industry, whether it be at the abattoir or local butcher. If anything you gain an appreciation for higher quality meat.

Has it changed the way you see animals at all?
Not really. I love animals, and I still see cows as animals. I also see cows as animals being raised for one of a few reasons: milk, breeding, food, or leather.

How do you feel about vegans who say “meat is murder”?
I know vegans, I work with vegans, and I have educated vegans. They are persistent with their understandings and I respect that—I can see why they choose to go vegan. I’ve also eased the minds of a few after explaining the process.

Let’s go back to the process. After you’ve killed the cow, what’s the process of turning it into meat?
Well the knock box is the position on the line where the cattle get "knocked". That’s stage one I suppose. Then they’re lifted by the back hoof onto a rail and bled out. Then they’re rodded [the process of sealing the oesophagus by drawing it out with a metal rod and clamping it so that the stomach contents don’t spill out], and then the hocks, horns, and so forth are removed. There’s one or two people at each stage doing the same thing along the line until the cow's skinned, gutted, and ready for the chillers so the boning room can part it out the next day. The kill floor is pretty much the floor where all of this happens.

What was the best part of the job?
The people. I made some lifelong friends. Being so close to each other you can just shit-talk, and we’d talk about life all day.

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