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Workers and cattle in a slaughterhouse.

A slaughterhouse, also called an abattoir (from the French verb abattre, "to strike down"),or freezing works (New Zealand English), is a facility where animals are killed and processed into meat foods. The animals most commonly slaughtered for food are cattle (for beef and veal), sheep (for lamb and mutton), pigs (for pork), horses (for horsemeat), goats (for chevon), and fowl, largely chickens, turkey, and duck, for poultry meat.

In the United States, around ten billion animals are slaughtered every year in 5,700 slaughterhouses and processing plants employing 527,000 workers; in 2007, 28.1 billion pounds of beef were consumed in the U.S. alone. In Canada, 650 million are killed annually. In the European Union, the annual figure is 300 million cattle, sheep, and pigs, and four billion chickens.

Slaughtering animals on a large scale poses significant logistical problems and public health concerns, with public aversion to meat packing in many cultures influencing the location of slaughterhouses. In addition, some religions stipulate certain conditions for the slaughter of animals so that practices within slaughterhouses vary.

There has been criticism of the methods of preparation, herding, and killing within some slaughterhouses, and in particular of the speed with which the slaughter is sometimes conducted. Investigations by animal welfare and animal rights groups have indicated that a proportion of these animals are being skinned or gutted while apparently still alive and conscious. There has also been criticism of the methods of transport of the animals, who are driven for hundreds of miles to slaughterhouses in conditions that often result in crush injuries and death en route. Slaughtering animals is opposed by some vegetarians and animal rights groups on ethical grounds. However, more radical environmentalists consider domesticated animals to be “goofies” or “freaks” of nature - deformed animals whose wild genetic homeostasis has been destroyed - with the implication that these animals are not animals at all (in the natural sense), and are thus undeserving of this kind of (shallow) moral or ethical consideration. For them, it is overshadowed by deeper issues such as the extent to which their production systems have displaced the pre-existing diversity of natural animals (wildlife), and has negatively impacted natural ecosystems and human society.


Slaughterhouses act as the starting point of the meat industry, where stock come from farms/market to enter the food chain. They have existed as long as there have been settlements too large for individuals to rear their own stock for personal consumption.

Early maps of London show numerous stockyards in the periphery of the city, where slaughter occurred in the open air. A term for such open-air slaughterhouse is a shambles. There are streets named "The Shamblesmarker" in some English towns (e.g. Worcestermarker, Yorkmarker) which got their name from having been the site on which butchers killed and prepared animals for consumption .


In the latter part of the 20th century, the layout and design of most US slaughterhouses has been significantly influenced by the work of Dr. Temple Grandin. It was her fascination with patterns and flow that first led her to redesign the layout of cattle holding pens.

Grandin's primary objective was to reduce the stress and suffering of animals being led to slaughter. In particular she applied an intuitive understanding of animal psychology to design pens and corrals which funnel a herd of animals arriving at a slaughterhouse into a single file ready for slaughter. Her corrals employ long sweeping curves so that each animal is prevented from seeing what lies ahead and just concentrates on the hind quarters of the animal in front of it. This design also attempts to override the animal's survival instincts and prevent them from reversing direction.

Grandin now claims to have designed over 54% of the slaughterhouses in the United States as well as many other slaughterhouses around the world.


A steer restrained for stunning just prior to slaughter.
The slaughterhouse process differs by species and region and may be controlled by civil law as well as religious laws such as Kosher and Halal laws. A typical procedure follows:
  1. Cattle (mostly steers and heifers, some cows, and even fewer bulls) are received by truck or rail from a ranch, farm, or feedlot.
  2. Cattle are herded into holding pens.
  3. Cattle are rendered unconscious by applying an electric shock of 300 volts and 2 amps to the back of the head, effectively stunning the animal, or by use of a captive bolt pistol to the front of the cow's head (a pneumatic or cartridge-fired captive bolt). Swine can be rendered unconscious by CO2/inert gas stunning. (This step is prohibited under strict application of Halal and Kashrut codes.)
  4. Animals are hung upside down by one of their hind legs on the processing line.
  5. The carotid artery and jugular vein are severed with a knife, blood drains, causing death through exsanguination.
  6. The head is removed, as well as front and rear feet. Prior to hide removal, care is taken to cut around the digestive tract to prevent fecal contamination later in the process.
  7. The hide/skin is removed by down pullers, side pullers and fisting off the pelt (sheep and goats). Hides can also be removed by laying the carcass on a cradle and skinning with a knife.
  8. The internal organs are removed and inspected for internal parasites and signs of disease. The viscera are separated for inspection from the heart and lungs, referred to as the "pluck." Livers are separated for inspection, tongues are dropped or removed from the head, and the head is sent down the line on the head hooks or head racks for inspection of the lymph nodes for signs of systemic disease.
  9. The carcass is inspected by a government inspector for safety. (This inspection is performed by the Food Safety Inspection Service in the U.S., and CFIA in Canada.)
  10. Carcasses are subjected to intervention to reduce levels of bacteria. Common interventions are steam, hot water, and organic acids.
  11. Carcasses (typically cattle and sheep only) can be electrically stimulated to improve meat tenderness.
  12. Carcasses are chilled to prevent the growth of microorganisms and to reduce meat deterioration while the meat awaits distribution.
  13. The chilled carcass is broken down into primal cuts and subprimals for boxed meat unless customer specifies for intact sides of meat. Beef and horse carcasses are always split in half and then quartered, pork is split into sides only and goat/veal/mutton and lamb is left whole
  14. The remaining carcass may be further processed to extract any residual traces of meat, usually termed advanced meat recovery or mechanically recovered meat, which may be used for human or animal consumption.
  15. Waste materials such as bone, lard or tallow, are sent to a rendering plant. Also, lard and tallow can be used for the production of biodiesel or heating oil.
  16. The waste water, consisting of blood and fecal matter, generated by the slaughtering process is sent to a waste water treatment plant.
  17. The meat is transported to distribution centers that then distribute to retail markets.

International variations

The standards and regulations governing slaughterhouses vary considerably around the world. In many countries the slaughter of animals is regulated by custom and tradition rather than by law. In the non-Western world, including the Arab world, the Indian sub-continent, etc., both forms of meat are available: one which is produced in modern mechanized slaughterhouses, and the other from local butcher shops.

In some communities animal slaughter may be controlled by religious laws, most notably halal for Muslims and kashrut for Jewish communities. These both require that the animals being slaughtered should be conscious at the point of death, and as such animals cannot be stunned prior to killing. This can cause conflicts with national regulations when a slaughterhouse adhering to the rules of kosher preparation is located in some Western countries.

In many societies, traditional cultural and religious aversion to slaughter led to prejudice against the people involved. In Japanmarker, where the ban on slaughter of livestock for food was lifted only in the late 19th century, the newly found slaughter industry drew workers primarily from villages of burakumin, who traditionally worked in occupations relating to death (such as executioners and undertakers). In some parts of western Japan, prejudice faced by current and former residents of such areas (burakumin "hamlet people") is still a sensitive issue. Because of this, even the Japanese word for "slaughter" (屠殺 tosatsu) is deemed politically incorrect by some pressure groups as its inclusion of the kanji for "kill" (殺) supposedly portrays those who practice it in a negative manner.

Some countries have laws that exclude specific animal species or grades of animal from being slaughtered for human consumption, especially those that are taboo food. The former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee suggested in 2004 introducing legislation banning the slaughter of cows throughout Indiamarker, as Hinduism holds cows as sacred and considers their slaughter unthinkable and offensive. This was often opposed on grounds of religious freedom. The slaughter of cows and the importation of beef into the nation of Nepalmarker are strictly forbidden. Several U.S. states have banned the slaughter and consumption of dogs. The sale and consumption of horse meat is illegal in The United Statesmarker, although horses are slaughtered for meat export to Europe and Japan for human consumption and for the U.S. pet food market.


Most countries have laws in regard to the treatment of animals at slaughterhouses. In the United Statesmarker, there is the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, a law requiring that all swine, sheep, cattle, and horses be stunned unconscious with just one application of a stunning device by a trained person before being shackled and hoisted up on the line (chickens are exempt from this Act). The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is opposed to the Humane Slaughter Act, and violations of the Act carry no penalties. Since stopping the line to re-knock conscious animals causes "down time" and results in fewer profits, the Humane Slaughter Act is usually bypassed and ignored by USDA supervisors . There is some debate over the enforcement of this act. This act, like those in many countries, exempts slaughter in accordance to religious law, such as kosher shechita and dhabiĥa halal. Most strict interpretations of kashrut require that the animal be fully sensible when its carotid artery is cut.

The novel The Jungle detailed unsanitary conditions in slaughterhouses and the meatpacking industry during the 1800s. This led directly to an investigation commissioned directly by the President, and to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which established the Food and Drug Administration. A much larger body of regulation deals with the public health and worker safety regulation and inspection.

Animal welfare concerns

For her book Slaughterhouse, Gail Eisnitz, chief investigator for the Humane Farming Association (HFA), interviewed slaughterhouse workers in the U.S. who say that, because of the speed with which they are required to work, animals are routinely skinned while apparently alive, and still blinking, kicking, and shrieking. Eisnitz argues that this is not only cruel to the animals, but also dangerous for the human workers, as cows weighing several thousands of pounds thrashing around in pain are likely to kick out and debilitate anyone working near them.

According to the HFA, Eiznitz interviewed slaughterhouse workers representing over two million hours of experience, who, without exception, told her that they have beaten, strangled, boiled, and dismembered animals alive, or have failed to report those who do. The workers described the effects the violence has had on their personal lives, with several admitting to being physically abusive or taking to alcohol and other drugs.

The HFA alleges that workers are required to kill up to 1,100 hogs an hour, and end up taking their frustration out on the animals. Eisnitz interviewed one worker, who had worked in ten slaughterhouses, about pig production. He told her:

It is observed that animals lose weight when stressed and meat loses taste quality. This does motivate companies to try to control the stress levels of animals as much as possible.

Major slaughterhouses

The largest slaughterhouse in the world is operated by the Smithfield Packing Company in Tar Heel, North Carolinamarker. It is capable of butchering over 32,000 pigs a day. In the US, the majority of major meat packing plants are located in the Midwestern and High Plains regions.

The Dutch Stork Food Systems is the world's largest manufacturer of chicken slaughtering installations with an annual turnover of 149m.nnn

See also


  1. Williams, Erin E. and DeMello, Margo. Why Animals Matter. Prometheus Books, 2007, p. 73.
  2. "U.S. Beef and Cattle Industry", United States Department of Agriculture, cited in Torres, Bob. Making a Killing. AK Press, 2007, p. 45.
  3. "Slaughterhouses", Global Action Network, accessed March 18, 2008.
  4. Stevenson, Peter. "Animal welfare problems in UK slaughterhouses", Compassion in World Farming, July 2001.
  5. For example, see *Eisnitz, Gail A. Slaughterhouse. Prometheus Books, 1997. *Hershaft, Alex. "Review of Gail Eisnitz's Slaughterhouse, written by the president of FARM, retrieved March 17, 2008. *McNeil, Donald. "Videos cited in calling kosher slaughterhouse inhumane," The New York Times, December 1, 2004, cited in Williams, Erin E. and DeMello, Margo. Why Animals Matter. Prometheus Books, 2007, p. 60. *Stevenson, Peter. "Animal welfare problems in UK slaughterhouses", Compassion in World Farming, July 2001. *Torres, Bob. Making a Killing. AK Press, 2007. *Also see a PETA video taken inside AgriProcessors Inc. in Iowa in 2004 (warning: graphic images). [1]
  6. See, for example, Vansickle, J. "Quality Assurance Program Launched," National Hog Farmer, February 15, 2002, which reports that each year 420,000 pigs are crippled and 170,000 killed during transport to slaughterhouses, cited in Williams, Erin E. and DeMello, Margo. Why Animals Matter. Prometheus Books, 2007, p. 49.
  7. Helen Spurway, “The Causes of Domestication,” Journal of Genetics 53(1955):336-337
  8. P. Shepard. Coming Home to the Pleistocene. (Washington: Island Press, 1998)
  9. Grandin, T. "Best Practices for Animal Handling and Stunning", Meat & Poultry, April 2000, pg. 76.[2]
  10. USDA
  11. Daily Chronicle: "Bill banning horse slaughtering fails."
  12. Eisnitz, Gail A. Slaughterhouse. Prometheus Books, 1997, cited in Torres, Bob. Making a Killing. AK Press, 2007, p. 46.
  13. "HFA Exposé Uncovers Federal Crimes", Humane Farming Association, accessed March 8, 2008.

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