THR Web Features   /   July 16, 2020

The Dirty Work of Killing

What COVID-19 has done to the American meat industry.

Joanna Sierks Smith

( Illustration by Lubov Chipurko/Shutterstock.)

In the last several months, slowdowns and stoppages at slaughterhouses around the country have left many contract farmers with barns full of hogs that are supposed to be dead already. In the tight choreography of industrial pork production, where the precise timing of animals’ deaths is planned long before they’re even born, too many living, breathing pigs is a real dilemma. Giant corporations like Smithfield and Tyson have first given farmers instructions on how to stall animals’ growth. Crank up the heat so they’re too hot to be hungry! Give them food they dislike so they eat less of it! But that only buys time. 

Farmers are now also getting directions on how to efficiently “depopulate” their barns: to kill their animals on-site, thousands in a single day, and get rid of the bodies. Some farmers have gassed whole barnfuls of hogs. Others have resorted to shooting them. This is not normally a part of industrial farmers’ job descriptions. They are used to having their animals loaded onto trucks and driven away; death on an industrial scale happens elsewhere, out of sight. Politicians in Iowa have already petitioned the White House to make mental health resources available to farmers grappling with the trauma of killing so many animals themselves. “There are farmers who cannot finish their sentences when they talk about what they have to do,” one Minnesota hog farmer told the New York Times. “This will drive people out of farming.”

But COVID-19 didn’t create mass killing on this monstrous scale. It simply pulled it into the light. The modern industrial slaughterhouse has been carefully designed and meticulously protected by state laws and litigious corporations to keep mass animal killing hidden from public sight. Executing thousands of pigs in a day may be new to America’s farmers, but it’s part of a normal workday for the men and women who staff enormous slaughterhouses.

For most of human history, the killing of tens of thousands of animals at one time would not have been kept quiet—it would have been staged as a spectacular public sacrifice or an exuberantly wanton act of war. It would have been memorable, designed to send a message. Today, we treat it as a quiet logistical problem, a routine piece of what we bloodlessly call the “food system.” At Smithfield’s pork plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina—by many estimates, the largest hog slaughterhouse in the world—workers on the kill floor are tasked with slaughtering approximately 34,000 hogs each day. They clock in, kill thousands, and then clock back out. No one is calling for federal mental health aid for those men and women. They are expected to shoulder both the dangerous labor of meat processing and the psychological weight of killing. And now they’re expected to risk their lives for it, as COVID-19 spreads rapidly in processing plants across the country. 

There’s nothing predestined about this system. A century ago, the work of killing was spread out among thousands of small slaughterhouses that dotted the country. It was also spread out among farming families who lived on meat from animals that they had raised, killed, and butchered themselves. But over the last century, as meat consumption soared, the economic logic of consolidation took hold. The number of animals slaughtered annually in America has grown tremendously, but the number of people actually doing the killing has fallen. By confining slaughter to a relative handful of massive plants, the industry has concentrated the physical and psychic toll of killing to a small group of low-paid workers, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color and immigrants. 

It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that meat consumption has risen as fewer Americans participate in or even think about the slaughter that allows it. The shock and grief now being felt in America’s farming communities makes clear that slaughter still holds its emotional charge; taking the lives of animals is still a heavy business. There’s a reason it has historically been wrapped up in ritual. We like to think that these are primitive sensibilities that we’ve moved beyond. But they’re not, and we haven’t. And that’s exactly why we have confined the killing to spaces on the peripheries of our society, why we’ve silenced the workers who carry it out, and why we’re so traumatized when something like a global pandemic suddenly brings the scale of the slaughter to light.

I work with a number of independent farmers who continue to slaughter their animals by hand, and I recently asked one of them if any specific killings stood out as particularly difficult. He nodded. One morning, he had to kill ten lambs. A predator had gotten into the pasture and mauled them, he told me, and they were beyond saving. Then he grew taciturn and changed the subject. Ten animals, and this man was unable to talk about it without emotion. Ten animals, and he was unable to hold my gaze as he described it. Compare that to the 3,000 that some farmers are now having to kill. And then compare that to the 34,000 that Tar Heel’s workers are expected to kill every day.  

Our meat industry functions on an utterly inhuman scale. Not because of COVID-19, but because that’s how we’ve built it. Animal sacrifice may sound primitive to modern ears, but at least our ancestors understood the importance of keeping their eyes open.