We started at the end, where boxes of meat are stacked and loaded for shipping. It’s cold. We saw bins of trim to be ground in to hamburger, each one tested for bacteria. We saw row upon row of workers performing different stages of fabrication, the cutting and carving of the carcass into wholesale cuts. The workers sharpen their knives continually, the steel hanging on a chain belt at their waist. They put the weight of their body behind the cut, in and out around the spine, cleaning meat off bone with expert swiftness. The bones are tossed on a conveyor to be processed into bone meal, which, along with blood meal and tallow are two by-products – nothing is wasted.
Then we walk through spacious coolers where carcass halves sway in long lines, the t-bone exposed for grading. A row of inspectors constantly guard the public against every possible defect.
Suddenly it’s warm as we get closer to the actual killing area. I’ve never been this close before. And having never hunted a living animal for food, it was unsettling, mesmerizing, fascinating. I want to stand and watch long enough for it to sink in, long enough to make sense of it. But we don’t want to break the rhythm of the line and so hurry through. The workers at the top of the line, skinning and removing the entrails, stand like warriors, performing their task with a matter-of-factness I find incredible. They do this for a living; without them we would be out of business. I realize how grateful I am to work on the opposite end of the beef business.
Finally we go out of doors to the receiving area – the animals here are familiar, walking upright with bright, trusting eyes. There is reverence in this space. Unloaded quietly, the cattle can drink in every pen. The area is covered, clean and dry, with sure-footed surfaces. Cattle naturally like to circle back to where they started, so the alleyway curves back towards the arriving trucks. They climb a concrete chute, also curved, and one by one enter the stunning box. They have no idea what awaits them. I saw no fear, no angst.
What’s that word I keep thinking of? Oh yes, visceral. I look it up on wikipedia. Viscera refers to the internal organs of the body cavity, the stomach, intestines, etc. Visceral is also used to describe a deep inward emotion, an instinct as opposed to intellect, as in a “gut feeling,” one that is felt rather than thought out. I decide it’s a good word to describe the kill plant, on both accounts.