Slaughterhouses: What are the problems with slaughterhouses?


Image: Tras Los Muros


Slaughterhouses are integral to the functioning of the meat industry, yet what happens inside slaughterhouses is often shrouded in secrecy. Most people don’t know how a living animal becomes the meat on their dinner plate or the steps an animal goes through as they are killed in a slaughterhouse.


Some slaughterhouses are large, assembly-line facilities that process thousands of animals per day, and these are generally overseen by regulations set by central governments or federal districts. Yet covert and unregulated slaughterhouses also exist — in backyards, on side streets, and at live markets.


Regardless of the size or official oversight of a slaughterhouse, the animals subjected to slaughter experience pain and distress during this harrowing process. Inhumane animal treatment is not the only concern associated with slaughterhouses — the meat industry is also notorious for its exploitation of workers and for harmful environmental practices.


What are slaughterhouses?


Slaughterhouses are facilities where animals like cows, sheep, chickens, and pigs are killed for meat, or because they have reached the end of their productive lives in the egg and dairy industries, for example. The methods used to kill animals in slaughterhouses vary according to location, cultural practice, and the available equipment and technology. In most areas of the world, there are both large industrial processing plants and small, often rural, unregulated facilities.


Many countries have implemented laws that regulate how slaughterhouses operate, both in terms of hygiene and public health as well as animal welfare. As early as 1978, the European Economic Community developed animal protection laws for slaughter, and the European Union has laws that are intended to protect animals being slaughtered. Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Chile are some of the countries in South America that have laws regulating animal slaughter. However, even in countries where laws exist to oversee slaughter practices, real improvement may require training of owners and handlers, compliance from big meat corporations, and the political will to make progress in animal protection.


How many slaughterhouses are in the world today?


80 billion land animals are slaughtered each year for meat globally. However, because of variability in types of slaughterhouses, regulatory oversight, and location, it is difficult to estimate the total number of slaughterhouses in the world.


Brazil has many slaughterhouses, and gathering information on the entire sector is difficult. Analysis suggests there were 72 plants active in the state of Mato Grosso, which has the largest herd of the Brazilian states, in 2016. The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs has approved 89 meat-processing plants in Brazil for export, some of which have the capacity to kill up to 300,000 birds, 5,000 pigs, or 1,250 cows per day. In the western region of Paraná, a slaughterhouse is under construction that will have the ability to slaughter 15,000 pigs per day, with a completion date sometime in 2023.


In China, there are around 5,000 pig slaughterhouses, where millions of pigs are killed. China is also home to the largest pig slaughterhouse in Asia. The Techbank Food slaughterhouse began operating in 2021, with an expected capacity of 5 million pigs slaughtered annually.


In South Africa, an estimated 431 slaughterhouses process cattle, sheep, and pigs. India has around 3,600 slaughterhouses according to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, and a number of unregulated facilities. In Mexico, a recent investigation into animal cruelty involved visiting 58 slaughterhouses across 10 states in the country.


Which country kills the most animals for meat?


Globally, the most cows are killed in Brazil and China, with both countries slaughtering around 39.6 million cows in 2018. The United States followed with 33.7 million cows slaughtered in the same year.


China ranked first for the slaughter of chickens, killing over 10 billion in 2018, followed by the United States, which slaughtered over 9 billion. In Brazil, 6.2 billion chickens were slaughtered.


China also slaughters the most pigs in the world — over 684 million per year compared to 124 million in the United States and 56 million in Germany, the two countries with the second and third highest rates of pig slaughter.


More than 141 million sheep are slaughtered in China each year, followed by 31 million in Australia and 23 million in New Zealand.


Overall, China kills the most land animals for meat worldwide.


Problems with slaughterhouses


Slaughterhouses focus on profit to compete, prioritizing speed and the ever-larger plants exampled above, rather than animal and worker welfare. The meat industry clearly represents institutionalized, systemic violence against animals, but workers are often exploited and abused as well. Without slaughter, there would be no meat industry — slaughterhouses are an integral part of a system that harms animals, people, and the environment.


Are slaughterhouses humane?


There is nothing humane about what happens to animals in slaughterhouses. Even facilities that claim to have welfare practices in place ultimately cause pain, distress, and fear in animals that begin from the moment they are packed into the transport truck to the slaughterhouse.


After potentially long periods of transport, animals usually arrive at the slaughterhouse exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, weak, and debilitated. In this terrifying situation, they are often beaten, dragged, thrown, and shocked with electric prods to force them to move toward certain death. Animals are subjected to the sounds and smell of other animals being killed as they await their turn.


Slaughterhouse facilities


Slaughterhouse facilities are frequently unsanitary and can serve as focal points for the spread of disease and bacteria. During the slaughter process, blood, urine, fecal matter, and other secretions can easily contaminate workers, tools, equipment, and surfaces. Even when slaughterhouses are inspected, the risk of meat becoming contaminated with pathogens is high.


Worker contact with the blood, bodily fluids, and feces of animals increases the risk of exposure to antimicrobial-resistant strains of bacteria and zoonotic diseases (diseases passed from animal to human). Most emerging diseases with pandemic potential are zoonotic diseases, many of which can occur in situations where sick and stressed animals are concentrated, like slaughterhouses.


In 2016, Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture estimated that 10% of all beef coming from federally inspected slaughterhouses failed to meet minimum inspection standards. In 2013, a country-wide assessment found that 80% of slaughterhouses inspected by the municipalities or states did not meet sanitation standards.


Common pathogens found in slaughterhouses that impact public health include Salmonella spp., E. Coli, Toxoplasma, tapeworms, and Brucella—all of which can lead to death. The transportation and mixing of unvaccinated and unhealthy animals in slaughterhouses can spread highly contagious diseases like foot-and-mouth disease.


Animal abuse in slaughterhouses


Animal abuse is rampant in slaughterhouses worldwide, regardless of the country in which they are located, the size of the facility, or the method of slaughter. No animal wants to go through abusive situations like these.


Slaughterhouse workers are often poorly trained and under pressure to move animals through the line as quickly as possible. Chickens are handled so roughly that their legs and wings are often fractured as they are removed from trucks or hung upside down in shackles on the slaughter line. They can also employ physical violence and intimidation to get animals to move.


Because of the speed and sheer numbers of animals, they can experience pain and suffering due to ineffective stunning. They sometimes end up having their throats cut while conscious or they enter the next stages of slaughter and are skinned or dismembered while still alive. In some slaughterhouses, pigs and chickens are dumped into vats of boiling water, and many who were not killed effectively are scalded alive. In areas of the world where captive bolt guns are not available, animals are bludgeoned or stabbed in the spine with a knife to immobilize them before being killed.


Worker exploitation concerns


Slaughterhouse workers are poorly paid, and face some of the most hazardous working conditions of any job. They are forced to perform high-speed repetitive actions in slippery conditions, often while working with sharp knives and other dangerous tools and equipment.


Worldwide, they face high rates of accidents and illnesses, as well as chronic pain and impairment in their hands, shoulders, and arms from repetitive physical actions and inadequate time to take breaks and rest. In 2019, Brazil’s social security report revealed that people who worked on the slaughter of pig, poultry and small animals ranked fifth highest in occupational accidents and second highest in illness rates among 670 economic sectors.


Workers are subjected to unsanitary conditions that promote disease. A survey of slaughterhouse workers in Kenya showed that soap and water for handwashing was not accessible to workers in all facilities. Of the facilities looked at, 40% did not have a toilet for workers, and less than half of the slaughterhouses provided protective gear to workers.


Slaughterhouse workers engage in violent and distressing work on a daily basis. This work takes its toll mentally, and workers experience higher rates of mental illness such as depression, anxiety, psychosocial disadjustment, and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).


Particularly in the United States, slaughterhouses tend to exploit vulnerable populations of workers, including non-English speaking immigrants and undocumented workers. By targeting these populations for employment, slaughterhouses are able to deny workers benefits like health and disability insurance and force them to work unreasonably long hours in dangerous and inhumane conditions. Slaughterhouses exploit the political and economic disenfranchisement of these workers to maximize their own profits.


Slaughterhouses are major water polluters


Slaughterhouses produce large amounts of organic and chemical waste, and runoff from slaughterhouses is a major source of environmental pollution. Many discharge their waste directly into the surrounding environment.


Contaminants like heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, and mercury, have been found in slaughterhouse waste, and other contaminants that enter the water and soil from slaughterhouses include antibiotics, synthetic hormones, polychlorinated phenols, and probiotics. Pathogens like Salmonella, Clostridium, Mycobacterium, and Staphylococcus can also spread to the environment and water from slaughterhouse waste. In many countries around the world, cases of anthrax in humans have been linked to the killing and dismembering of animals.


The degradation of slaughterhouse waste also releases carbon dioxide and methane and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.


How are animals killed in a slaughterhouse?


Industrial slaughterhouses are structured like an assembly line, where animals proceed through a series of steps before their body parts are sent for further processing and sale to consumers. Large animals like cows and pigs first enter the slaughterhouse in the stunning area, where they are rendered unconscious. They are then hung upside down. Their throats are cut and they bleed out. Next, they are skinned and their internal organs are removed. Their bodies are cut apart, washed, weighed, and then sent for further commercial processing. Chickens and other birds like ducks and geese undergo a similar process for slaughter, except they are first hung upside down and only then stunned, with an additional step that removes their feathers after they have been killed.


In some slaughterhouses, religious practices or laws prohibit stunning, and animals are killed while fully conscious. This may also be the case when slaughter takes place in rural areas, backyards, or live markets.


How to stop slaughterhouses?


Slaughterhouses are a significative part of an operating and profitable meat industry, and the best way to end the practice of slaughtering animals is to adopt a plant-based diet that is free of animal products. When more people refuse to consume animals and choose a diet rich with vegetables, fruits, grains and seeds instead, the meat industry is less able to profit from its exploitative practices.


Supporting or volunteering with organizations that investigate slaughterhouses and advocate for legal actions against facilities that abuse animals can also help. Getting the word out about the inhumane practices that occur every day in slaughterhouses raises awareness among consumers about where their meat comes from. Helping people understand how their food choices impact animal welfare, worker justice, and the environment can reduce the demand for meat that drives the existence of slaughterhouses.