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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How are cows killed?

Last night while making dinner, I was watching one of my favorite shows, "Bizarre Foods" on the Food Network. This particular episode was based solely on the state of Wisconsin.  In one of the stories, the show's host, Andrew Zimmern, traveled to a local slaughter plant owned and operated by a former vegetarian lawyer turned Buddhist butcher. The small plant bought and processed locally sourced cattle, hogs, and sheep and turned them into a variety of specialty meat products. Upon describing the slaughter process of this particular plant, Andrew commented that here, each beef animal was restrained individually and shot with a captive bolt gun, which was different from the way it was done in large slaughter houses. Seeing as I had spent countless hours over the past 3 years conducting animal health and welfare research in several different slaughter houses across the country, I knew this was not in fact true.  So just how are cattle actually killed in large slaughter houses? The answer is........ exactly the same as Andrew described!!!

Animals are quietly moved by trained animal handlers into specially designed, low stress handling corrals from the stockyards and lead into a portion of the corrals called the "snake" which uses the natural behaviors and tendencies of cattle to move them individually into a restrainer specifically designed to prevent cattle from injuring themselves or from becoming excited and scared.

Once the animal is in the restrainer, a specially trained worker utilizes a penetrating captive bolt gun to render the animal unconscious and insensible. The captive bolt gun (pictured to the right)  fires a high velocity pneumatically driven steel rod through the frontal bone of the skull and into the brain. It is called a captive bolt because the metal rod aka "bolt" is retained as a part of the gun after firing and not free to continue though the head. This does not cause true instantaneous death (but likely result in it), which requires destruction of the brainstem, but does instantly render the cattle completely unconscious and unable to feel any pain or process and receive information from any of their senses if performed correctly. Typically most plants run well in excess of 95% success rates for correct first shots that result in instantaneous unconsciousness and insensibility (Grandin, 2005).

The cattle are then "shackled" with a chain around their hind leg and quickly lifted over an in-floor tank where the jugular veins and carotid arteries are severed with a razor sharp knife. This process is known as exsanguination or "sticking"  and the massive and complete blood loss that results is what kills the animal (assuming the captive bolt has not already done the job). The blood does not go to waste however, and is collected processed for its valuable plasma portion. Slaughter houses practicing Kosher and Halal kill methods done in accordance to the respective religious guidelines do not allow for the stunning of animals prior to exsanguination via brain destruction and instead rely solely on exsanguination of a conscious, sensible animal. (This is about my extent of knowledge on these methods)

It should be noted that about 90% or more of large slaughter houses are routinely audited and inspected by there customers (i.e. McDonald's, Walmart, Whole Foods, etc.) to ensure the highest level of animal welfare practices demanded by consumers and set by veterinarians and other professionals. . Additionally, ALL plants producing meat for human consumption are subject to regulation and mandatory inspection from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Though smaller slaughter houses and specialty butchers may purchase and process fewer, higher priced animals (Organic, grass fed, etc.) the methods in which cattle are actually "killed" are not different in most cases.  Many times, smaller "Mom and Pop" slaughter houses might not even use a  specialized captive bolt gun and/or restraint devices, instead opting for a gun and a squeeze chute or a restraint free "knock box". In the hands of trained professionals however, these methods still work very very well.

Though not a process that anyone enjoys thinking about or doting over, folks everywhere are understandably interested about the way cattle are slaughtered and in my opinion, they deserve to know that the meat they enjoy eating is produced in an ethically responsible manor and comes from animals that are treated humanely. Humane slaughter methods must be ensured no matter if the slaughter house processes 2 or 2,000 animals a day.

Please don't hesitate to email me if you have any questions on the slaughter process in cattle:


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