When I was five years old, I found out where meat came from and decided to become a vegetarian. I remained that way for nearly two decades.
Since then, I've returned to omnivorism—though lately I've found myself not really enjoying meat. It's a bit inexplicable, but it got to the point where I was eating a mostly vegetarian diet and was, much to the chagrin of my friends and family, considering going back to a murder-free diet. Meat is delicious, but it's also bloody.
I decided that the obvious thing to do would be to go to a commercial slaughterhouse. Visiting one would probably make my mind up for me.
I made a few calls, and it turns out commercial slaughterhouses aren't that keen on wafty ex-vegetarian writers coming down to see them stick a few hundred innocent throats. But then a friend told me about Anna's Happy Trotters. Based in Yorkshire, near Howden, the operation is run by a woman named Anna Longthorp, who slaughters around 250 to 300 pigs a week. That's a lot of trotters.
After a brief email exchange, Longthorp graciously invited me to come see her farm, which I did one shimmering Friday morning.
Before I know it, I find myself with Longthorp in the weaning unit of Anna's Happy Trotters, the first of several stops that her pigs make on their way from birth to butcher. It's shockingly spacious: acres of churned-up ground, punctuated every few metres by little metal bomb shelter-like huts that house the sows and piglets, where they stay until they are four weeks old. They are then transferred to the fattening unit.
"Do you ever give them names?" I ask Longthorp, as one comes up for a nose.
"Of course not," she replies, eyeing me as if I've asked if I'd asked if I could ride one of the sows back to London whistling the banjo tune from Deliverance.
Longthorp comes from a pig farming family, and started working on her parents' farm at weekends when she was 12. (Her father, Richard, started raising pigs 25 years ago, and has been the chairman of the National Pig Association for the last three years.) She tried going to university—a sports science course at Loughborough—but quickly decided it wasn't for her. She then spent four years in Australia, mostly on farms, before returning to the UK.
Surely it isn't easy to be a woman in such a male-driven industry, I say.
While Longthorp doesn't see her gender as an issue within the pig farming industry itself, she concedes that in the wider meat industry, it's sometimes been harder for her to "be taken seriously as a woman." She puts this down to the fact there's fewer women in directorial and managerial roles there.
We watch as a couple of workers herd the little pigs onto a truck. "Come on chumbawumbas. Come on chumbawumbas," one of them says, gently but intently moving them up the ramp. The different stages of Longthorp's operation are in place to decrease the stress on the animals, and make the transition from one environment as gradual and worry-free as possible—a relaxed ocean of Babes.
I tell Longthorp that this looks nothing like the awful videos of animal abuse that were released earlier this year. "Our main priority is animal welfare," she tells me. "If people don't share the same views they don't work for us."
The UK is far ahead of other countries, especially those outside of Europe, when it comes to animal welfare. The EU Pig Directive law of 2013 stated basic standards of living for the animals, including the banning of sow stalls: tiny metal cages that sows are kept in during pregnancy, which allow for nothing as basic as movement or any chance of a decent quality of life.
Longthorp has been to lots of abattoirs, and reckons most UK commercial operators comply with regulations, especially if they want to be "Red Tractor"-assured. Earning that designation requires that the animals are inspected four times a year, as well as being ethically reared and slaughtered.
An unfortunate but perhaps predictable result of the UK compliance with new regulations has been a higher premium on domestically raised pork. This has led to an increase in cheaper exports from the continent, where producers work under the same directives but are audited far less often.
As we arrive at the fattening unit, Longthorp looks at me and says, "This is the bit everyone loves." I have been promised lots of happy piggy time. We step over the electrified fence in to the first pen and a couple hundred curious pink faces scuttle out to see what the craic is.
Impatient for attention, I try the proactive approach and stride into them. All this does is send them scattering all round, but within a couple of minutes I am surrounded by grunting, wet snouts and muddy trotters.
They nibble at my wellies, get gobfuls of my overalls, nuzzle at my hands, and, while the majority don't like being patted, their inquisitive, nosey nature is pretty canine. I'm reminded of going to open farms when I was a kid, but instead of one big shit-strewn motherfucker with its back to me in a barn, I've got 200 little dudes desperate for some hang time.
Leaving them behind, we move over to another section of the farm, where the pigs go after another four weeks. Their run is accordingly bigger here, and they are much more content with you being hands-on.
I suddenly remember that most pigs head to slaughter at around 24 weeks old, meaning that I could very well be putting one of these piggies in a bun in four months' time. That hits home even further when I ask Longthorp how much they weigh when they go to leave the fattening unit.
"About 100 kilos live weight, so about 70 kilos dead weight," she replies, and I start to feel a real sense of dread about going to the abattoir.
Longthorp met her boyfriend Chris—who is also the father of her 18-month-old son Richard—when she brought pigs to his abattoir, the same one we're heading to now. When we arrive, Chris is waiting for us with a stun gun in his hand, which comes alive with a violent hum at the touch of a button on the wall.
The animals were brought in the night before—as with the weaning unit, to make the whole process more gradual, less traumatic for the animal and the meat, which tenses up with fear and shock. "Come on, come on," Chris says to the pigs, which are now clambering over each other to get away. But, of course, there is nowhere to go.
Chris gets the two sides of the gun clamped on either side one pig's head, and within five seconds it's gone—attic lights blown forever. The whole body tenses, there's a brief violent spasm, and then flops: 100 kilos of flaccid, not-quite-dead weight.
There are about 20 pigs to be killed in this batch, and we watch about half of them get stunned. It probably takes three or four minutes, throughout which no one talks, other than an odd "come on." From there, the pigs' ankles are hooked to a chain and winched into the next room where, for now, we can only just see the face of the man cutting their throats.
Longthorp can probably spot my inner grimace and reassures me that the jerking going on with the hanging animals is involuntary. Very well, I'm thinking, but look at all that fucking blood on the walls.
Mick, the guy sticking the throats, is the only person in the building qualified to do the actual killing. When the winched pig comes towards him, he carves instantly into the throat and draws down, and a gush of dark crimson flows out. From being stunned to being stuck takes barely 30 seconds. Then, it's only another couple minutes before they've sloshed out several kilograms of blood, which flows into a drain in the floor below.
The pigs continue to hang and drain as they sway and bump into each other in queue for the scalding bath. The bath softens up their skin before they go into a dehairing machine, which is like a cross between a tumble dryer and razor. The pigs emerge from looking pretty and glowing pale pink, like a Percy Pig.
Any excess hair is then taken to with a torch by Chris. Hooks are then put through their trotters and they travel down the line and around us—and we have to bob out the way as they come past, on their way to be gutted. As another worker splits open the pigs with a knife and separates the bloodied entrails from marketable organs like the liver, I turn to Longthorp and as her how she feels about all of this.
"I can't hear you," Longthorp shouts above the dehairing, bath-bubbling, and flame-throwing. "Shall we go outside?"
Soon we're away from the din of the slaughter, and Longthorp turns to me. "I feel that if they are being killed in the right way, then I'm OK with it. If we took them to a shithole to be killed, as far as I'm concerned, all our good work before would be undone."
Respect is at the heart of Anna's Happy Trotters. Seeing this firsthand didn't hurtle me back into the arms Quorn—in fact, quite the opposite. Not everyone has the opportunity to see the sausage get made, as it were, but doing so reassured me that if we choose to eat meat, there are some people out there producing it in the best way possible.
We can all get a cheap cut of meat and eat it and forget about its provenance, disregard the misery that had to be endured to get it into our faces. While many of us omnivores can't reasonably say that we'll never eat a factory-reared animal product—life is demanding and sometimes only a fast-food hamburger will do—we can make a bit more effort to support producers like Anna's Happy Trotters.
All photos by Michael Griffiths.