So I used to be a lawyer
. This node explains part of the reason that I quit. Before I get started on the actual tour of the slaughterhouse
, though, I need to give you some background about me and a certain horrifying law known as Superfund
. It's a long node, so if you're impatient to skip ahead to the gory details, go ahead, I provide a heading when the actual slaughterhouse tour starts.
I studied Environmental Economics in college. I was an environmentalist, and I decided to go to law school in order to save the world from air pollution (or maybe it was water pollution, I don't quite remember). Anyway, I got into a law school with one of the best Environmental Law programs in the US. I took Environmental Law classes for all of my electives, and was hoping to get a job with one of the good guys, maybe the Natural Resources Defense Council or the Environmental Defense Fund.
Unfortunately, the good guys are perpetually low on funds, and it's nearly impossible to get a job with one of them unless you've been volunteering for the Sierra Club since you were in kindergarten. I wasn't hard core enough to get one of the coveted jobs, and I felt myself being channeled towards corporate law. This was not good. The big problem with being a corporate environmental lawyer is that almost all of your work comes from Superfund cases.
Superfund (a.k.a. CERCLA) is the law that the United States Government uses to force cleanup of hazardous waste sites, and it is one of the most mind-numbingly boring laws that you'd ever want to get involved with. Let's say the Environmental Protection Agency wants to clean up an old landfill that's polluting some nearby groundwater. Who do you think has to pay for it? Not the EPA, that's for sure. Not the landfill (they're bankrupt by now). Nope, the only people they can get are the companies that dumped hazardous material into the landfill in the first place. So the Superfund law authorizes the EPA to sue anyone who dumped any hazardous waste into the landfill (no matter how small the amount) for their fair share of the clean up.
As you can imagine, even a small landfill could have thousands of such dumpers. And every single one of them has to hire a lawyer, because often the damages will be more than several hundred thousand dollars per company. Once hired, the lawyers spend most of their time negotiating amongst themselves and with the EPA to determine who pays how much. It is exceedingly boring, and I wanted no part of it.
I therefore decided to forget about environmental law and become a litigator instead. I even joined a law firm that had no environmental practice at all, just to make sure that I was safe. But guess what. Upon arrival, the first case I got stuck on was a Superfund case! Turns out they do have a small environmental practice after all, and wouldn't floppy ears be perfect for the task!
Even worse, my client was a slaughterhouse. A pig slaughterhouse. A sausage factory. And here I was a vegetarian, thoroughly opposed to factory farming.
In the early 1970s, our client used to clean out its pig pits with water, and this produced a large amount of liquid waste. It was mostly mud, but it contained a fair amount of pig shit and blood too. They would have a garbage truck come once a week, suck the liquid waste out the pits, and dump it at a local landfill. They did this for a couple of years.
Skip ahead to the late 1990s. One of the landfills where they used to dump the waste was designated a Superfund site. Because pig shit and blood are not considered to be "hazardous waste", our clients thought they were off the hook. But it turns out that our clients occasionally used to clean out the pig pits with some Formula 409 or something like that, and that stuff was considered to be hazardous waste. Moreover, because the Formula 409 had been spread throughout the entire volume of the liquid waste, our clients were on the hook for the full volume of their waste, mud and all. Total bill: over $1,000,000. Yes, over a million bucks for some 409 in pig shit.
Our clients weren't too happy about this state of affairs, so we got called in to try to reduce the bill. I was the lowliest associate assigned to the case, and so I got to do document review. After working on the case for a few weeks, we had to get some more documents from the client. The partner in charge of the case arranged for me and another associate ("Mark") to interview the client and get the papers.
Slaughterhouse Tour Begins Here
Since it was a client meeting, I showed up in my best suit and shoes. It wasn't often that I got actual client contact. Mark and I had agreed to meet at a McDonald's across the street from the slaughterhouse. I got out of my car and I couldn't believe the stench. How could anyone possibly eat McDonald's food around here, I wondered? Mark showed up; he was hungry, and he got a hamburger. He admitted to feeling slightly strange about it, but what the hell, he was hungry.
When he had finished, we drove into the parking lot of the slaughterhouse. I got out of the car expecting the worst, but somehow the smell was better on the inside than the outside. I had been warned that the person we were meeting with ("Ed") was somewhat eccentric. Ed was the Chief Engineer, which meant that he designed and ran the complicated system of conveyor belts and killing machines that made up the slaughterhouse. Ed was not a particularly helpful client, and we knew that he was not at all happy about having to talk to lawyers and dig through documents from the 1970s. When we walked into his office, though, he seemed strangely happy to see us, with a big, malicious grin on his face.
He starts talking shit about the EPA and what bullshit this lawsuit is, and what a pain in the ass, etc. Then he suddenly looks at me and makes a comment about how my suit isn't really appropriate. I look over at Mark and realize that he's dressed awfully casually. Seeing the question in my eyes, Mark says, "You know we're taking a tour, right?"
I try not to look too shocked. "Uh, no."
"Rick didn't tell you?" Rick is the partner in charge of the case, conveniently not there for me to punch in the face.
Ed laughs, obviously pleased at my discomfort, and says it won't be a big deal. "You guys can handle it. It'll only take an hour and a half. Maybe I won't take you on the killing floor though."
I never considered saying no.
Ed gives me some sort of covering garment for my suit, but it does nothing for my shoes or the lower part of my legs. We walk from his office into a courtyard filled with pigs. Ed starts telling us the story of how they efficiently kill pigs and package the pig parts.
It all begins when a load of pigs arrives on a train, a couple thousand of them, delivered daily to the slaughterhouse. They are initially put into a large outdoor pen. Within a couple hours of arrival, they are put into a long line that leads to the killing floor. Forced to move forward, they can sense something wrong ahead, but they go with the flow because they are prodded along.
As promised, Ed doesn't take us on to the killing floor, so I leave those details to your imagination. After they are killed, the pigs get put in a huge oven that bakes off all of their hair. We don't see that either. The first room we see indoors is the room where the dead pigs leave the killing and baking area. They are hanging on huge hooks attached to the ceiling, moving along one right after the other, about 6 feet apart. The room is full of men with huge knives. As the pigs move by, each guy makes a particular cut in the pig. The first guy, for example makes a big slice down the middle of the pig, flaying it open. The second guy cuts a shoulder. Etc. Each guy does the same cut over and over. It's highly specialized and horribly repetitive.
When fully cut open, but still in one piece, the pig comes to a new type of worker - a representative of the United States Department of Agriculture. There are two such representatives in the room. Between the two, they examine every pig that comes through the line. They are looking for signs that the pig was not healthy. They have maybe 10 seconds per pig. They don't use sophisticated instruments, just their eyes. Ed mentions that they cull about one out of every thirty pigs from the line.
In the next room workers cut the pigs into smaller parts. Almost every part of the pig is packaged and sold, even the ears and snout. The few leftover parts are sent to the rendering room, which I'll discuss later. As in the previous room, each worker's task is specialized and repetitive.
Believe it or not, I'm not totally grossed out by all of this. I was a bit numb, but the pigs didn't spew blood everywhere or anything like that. Really, they just looked like pieces of meat.
After the slicing and dicing, the pig parts get separated on to conveyor belts that lead to different parts of the slaughterhouse. The ham hocks, for example, go out nearly as is, and they are sent into a room for final processing. They are immediately trimmed, bagged in plastic, and labeled. Ed says they make it to the market within 48 hours of slaughter.
The cheaper pieces of meat get sent to the hot dog, bologna, and sausage rooms. We get to see the big vats of liquified pig meat that eventually get turned into bologna. We get to see pre-hot dog material get pumped into hot dog skins, where they are cooked and cooled into little weeners.
My least favorite part of the tour, though, was when we went into the ham processing room. Ed stuck his hand into one of the conveyor belts and grabbed a piece of ham off the line and ate it, right then and there. "You guys want a piece?" he says, "I love this stuff so fresh." I swear to God, I kid you not. Even Mark was grossed out.
I can't remember all the details of the rest of the tour, but the thing that I was struck by most was the workers. I have never seen such a sad looking group of people in my life. They looked deadened by the experience, and to this day I believe that slaughterhouses are almost worse for the poor people who work there than the animals.
We spent a long time at the waste pits, of course. You don't want to know.
Perhaps the most horrifying part of the plant, though, was the rendering room. This room essentially consisted of a conveyor belt and a huge furnace. Anything left over from the earlier processes (including guts and burned hair) gets sent to be rendered. This "meat" is mixed together and then cooked for one hour at a very very high temperature. I can barely describe what comes out. Ed took out a handful, and I touched and smelled it (I was emboldened by this point). The final product consisted of clumps of shiny, thin, inch long fibers, which smelled vaguely meat-ish. Ed said that this "rendered" material is not fit for human consumption, so it is fed to chickens, and sold to pet food manufacturers. Take a look at your cat or dog food. When you see "meal" or "meat by-product" on the label, it is this rendered stuff.
That pretty much ended the tour. As we were leaving, Ed was telling us how he had previously quit, but he missed working in the slaughterhouse so much that he had come back. He said he never wanted to do anything else ever again. I don't think he was kidding.
Fortunately, there wasn't too much gore on my shoes when we left. And the dry cleaners completely got the smell out of my suit. So it's only my mind that remains polluted by the slaughterhouse tour.
This event is one of the reasons that I soon thereafter changed careers. If you enjoyed this story, then let me know, and perhaps someday I will node some of the other reasons.