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Workers and cattle in a slaughterhouse

A slaughterhouse or abattoir Listeni/ˈæbətwɑr/ or meatworks is a facility where animals are killed for consumption as food. Slaughterhouses that process meat not intended for human consumption are sometimes referred to as knacker's yards or knackeries.

Around nine billion animals are slaughtered every year in the United States, including 35 million cattle and buffalo, 111 million pigs and 8.9 billion poultry.[1] In 2012, 25.8 billion lbs of beef were consumed in the U.S. alone.[2] Around 650 million animals are slaughtered annually in Canada, mostly poultry and including 12–13 million cattle.[3] The world's largest food-processing company is JBS SA in Brazil; in its facilities around the world it slaughters 85,000 head of cattle, 70,000 pigs and 12 million birds every day.[4]

Slaughtering animals on a large scale poses significant logistical problems and public health requirements. Public aversion to meat packing in many cultures influences the location of slaughterhouses. In addition, some religions stipulate certain conditions for the slaughter of animals.

There has been criticism of the methods of transport, 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 in some cases animals are skinned or gutted while alive and conscious. In some cases, animals are driven for hundreds of miles to slaughterhouses in conditions that often result in injuries and death en route.[5] Slaughtering animals is opposed by animal rights groups on ethical grounds.[6]


Typically 45–50% of the animal can be turned into edible products (meat). About 5-15% is waste, and the remaining 40–45% of the animal is turned into byproducts such as leather, soaps, candles (tallow), and adhesives.[citation needed]


In the slaughterhouse, Lovis Corinth, 1893.

Until modern times, the slaughter of animals generally took place in a haphazard and unregulated manner in diverse places. 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 slaughterhouses was shambles.

There are streets named "The Shambles" in some English towns (e.g. Worcester, York) which got their name from having been the site on which butchers killed and prepared animals for consumption.

Reform movement[edit]

The slaughterhouse emerged as a coherent institution in the nineteenth century.[7] A combination of health and social concerns, exacerbated by the rapid urbanisation experienced during the Industrial Revolution, led social reform to call for the isolation and sequester and regulation of animal slaughter. As well as the concerns raised regarding hygiene and disease, there were also criticisms of the practice on the grounds that the effect that killing would have both on the butchers and the observers, "educate[d] the men in the practice of violence and cruelty, so that they seem to have no restraint on the use of it." An additional motivation for eliminating private slaughter was to impose a careful system of regulation for the "morally dangerous" task of putting animals to death.

The old open air Smithfield in 1855, before the construction of the Meat Market.

As a result of this tension, meat markets within the city were closed and abattoirs built outside city limits. An early framework for the establishment of public slaughterhouses was put in place in Paris in 1810, under the reign of the Emperor Napoleon. Five areas were set aside on the outskirts of the city and the feudal privileges of the guilds were curtailed.[8]

As the meat requirements of the growing number of residents in London steadily expanded, the meat markets within the city attracted increasing levels of opprobrium. Meat had been traded at Smithfield Market as early as the 10th century. By 1726, it was regarded as "without question, the greatest in the world", by Daniel Defoe.[9] By the middle of the 19th century, in the course of a single year 220,000 head of cattle and 1,500,000 sheep would be "violently forced into an area of five acres, in the very heart of London, through its narrowest and most crowded thoroughfares".[10]

Decoration from the Fish Market (currently abandoned).

By the early 19th century, pamphlets were being circulated arguing in favour of the removal of the livestock market and its relocation outside of the city due to the extremely poor hygienic conditions[11] as well as the brutal treatment of the cattle.[12] In 1843, the Farmer's Magazine published a petition signed by bankers, salesmen, aldermen, butchers and local residents against the expansion of the livestock market.[10]

An Act of Parliament was finally passed in 1852. Under its provisions, a new cattle-market was constructed in Copenhagen Fields, Islington. The new Metropolitan Cattle Market was also opened in 1855, and West Smithfield was left as waste ground for about one decade, until the construction of the new market began in the 1860s under the authority of the 1860 Metropolitan Meat and Poultry Market Act.[13] The market was designed by architect Sir Horace Jones and was completed in 1868.

A cut and cover railway tunnel was constructed beneath the market to create a triangular junction with the railway between Blackfriars and Kings Cross.[14] This allowed animals to be transported into the slaughterhouse by train and the subsequent transfer of animal carcases to the Cold Store building, or direct to the meat market via lifts.

At the same time, the first large and centralized slaughterhouse in Paris was constructed in 1867 under the orders of Napoleon III at the Parc de la Villette and heavily influenced the subsequent development of the institution throughout Europe.

Regulation and expansion[edit]

Blueprint for a mechanized public abattoir, designed by slaughterhouse reformer Benjamin Ward Richardson.

These slaughterhouses were regulated by law to ensure good standards of hygiene, the prevention of the spread of disease and the minimization of needless animal cruelty. The slaughterhouse had to be equipped with a specialized water supply system to effectively clean the operating area of blood and offal. Veterinary scientists, notably George Fleming and John Gamgee, campaigned for stringent levels of inspection to ensure that epizootics such as rinderpest (a devastating outbreak of the disease covered all of Britain in 1865) would not be able to spread. By 1874, three meat inspectors were appointed for the London area, and the Public Health Act 1875 required local authorities to provide central slaughterhouses (they were only given powers to close insanitary slaughterhouses in 1890).[15]

The eminent physician, Benjamin Ward Richardson worked as a sanitary reformer, and spent many years in developing more humane methods of slaughter. He brought into use no less than fourteen possible anesthetics for use in the slaughterhouse and even experimented with the use of electric current at the Royal Polytechnic Institution.[16] As early as 1853, he designed a lethal chamber that would gas animals to death relatively painlessly, and he founded the Model Abattoir Society in 1882 to investigate and campaign for humane methods of slaughter.

The invention of refrigeration and the expansion of transportation networks by sea and rail allowed for the safe exportation of meat around the world. Additionally, Meat-packing millionaire Philip Danforth Armour’s invention of the 'disassembly line' greatly increased the productivity and profit margin of industrial meatpacking businesses: "according to some, animal slaughtering became the first mass-production industry in the United States." This expansion has been accompanied by increased concern about the physical and mental conditions of the workers along with controversy over the ethical and environmental implications of slaughtering animals for meat.[7]


In the latter part of the 20th century, the layout and design of most U.S. slaughterhouses was influenced by the work of Dr. Temple Grandin.[17] She suggested that reducing the stress of animals being led to slaughter may help slaughterhouse operators improve efficiency and profit.[18] In particular she applied an 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[19][20][21] 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 – along with the design elements of solid sides, solid crowd gate, and reduced noise at the end point – work together to encourage animals forward in the chute and to not reverse direction.[22]

As of 2011 Grandin claimed to have designed over 54% of the slaughterhouses in the United States as well as many others around the world.[citation needed]

Mobile design[edit]

By 2010 a mobile facility the Modular Harvest System had received USDA approval. It can be moved from ranch to ranch. It consists of three trailers, one for slaughtering, one for consumable body parts and one for other body parts. Preparation of individual cuts is done at a butchery or other meat preparation facility.[23]


A row of hanging carcases

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 U.S. procedure follows:

  1. Cattle (mostly steers and heifers, some cows, and even fewer bulls) arrive via truck or rail from a ranch, farm, or feedlot.
  2. Place animals in holding pens.
  3. Incapacitate them by applying an electric shock of 300 volts and 2 amps to the back of the head, effectively stunning them,[24] 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. Hang them upside down by both of their hind legs and place them on the processing line.
  5. Sever the carotid artery and jugular vein with a knife. The blood drains from the body, causing death through exsanguination.
  6. Remove the head and feet.
  7. Cut around the digestive tract to prevent fecal contamination later in the process.
  8. Remove the hide/skin by "down pullers", "side pullers" and "fisting" off the pelt (sheep and goats). Hides can also be removed by laying the carcase on a cradle and skinning with a knife.
  9. Remove internal organs and inspect them for parasites and signs of disease. Separate the viscera from the heart and lungs, referred to as the "pluck" for inspection. Also separate livers for inspection. Drop or remove tongues from the head, and send the head down the line on head hooks or head racks for inspection of the lymph nodes for signs of systemic disease.
  10. A government inspector inspects the carcass for safety. (This inspection is performed by the Food Safety Inspection Service in the U.S., and Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Canada.)
  11. Reduce levels of bacteria using interventions such as steam, hot water, and organic acids.
  12. Optionally electrically stimulate cattle and sheep (only) to improve meat tenderness.
  13. Chill carcases to prevent the growth of microorganisms and to reduce meat deterioration while the meat awaits distribution.
  14. Cut the chilled carcase into primal cuts, subprimals and/or leave intact as a "side" of meat. Beef and horse carcases are always split in half and then quartered, pork is split into sides only and goat/veal/mutton and lamb is left whole.
  15. The remaining carcase may be further processed to extract any residual traces of meat, usually termed advanced meat recovery or mechanically separated meat, for human or animal consumption.
  16. 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.
  17. The wastewater, consisting of blood and fecal matter, generated by the slaughtering process is sent to a waste water treatment plant.
  18. The meat is transported to distribution centers that then distribute to retail markets.

International variations[edit]

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[which?] 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,[citation needed] 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 religious preparation is located in some Western countries. In Islamic and Jewish law, captive bolts and other methods of pre-slaughter paralysis are generally not permissible, due to it being forbidden for an animal to be killed prior to slaughter. Various halal food authorities have more recently permitted the use of a recently developed fail-safe system of head-only stunning where the shock is less painful and non-fatal, and where it is possible to reverse the procedure and revive the animal after the shock.

In many societies,[which?] traditional cultural and religious aversion to slaughter led to prejudice against the people involved. In Japan, where the ban on slaughter of livestock for food[specify] 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[which?] 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 Bihari Vajpayee suggested in 2004 introducing legislation banning the slaughter of cows throughout India, 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 Nepal are strictly forbidden.


USDA inspection of pig

Most countries have laws in regard to the treatment of animals at slaughterhouses. In the United States, there is the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, a law requiring that all swine, sheep, cattle, and horses be stunned unconscious with application of a stunning device by a trained person before being hoisted up on the line. 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 dhabiha halal. Most strict interpretations of kashrut require that the animal be fully sensible when its carotid artery is cut.[citation needed]

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 President Theodore Roosevelt, 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[edit]

For her book Slaughterhouse, Gail Eisnitz, chief investigator for the Humane Farming Association (HFA),[25] 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.[26]

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.[27]

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.[27] Eisnitz interviewed one worker, who had worked in ten slaughterhouses, about pig production. He told her:

Hogs get stressed out pretty easy. If you prod them too much, they have heart attacks. If you get a hog in the chute that's had the shit prodded out of him and has a heart attack or refuses to move, you take a meat hook and hook it into his bunghole. You try to do this by clipping the hipbone. Then you drag him backwards. You're dragging these hogs alive, and a lot of times the meat hook rips out of the bunghole. I've seen hamsthighs — completely ripped open. I've also seen intestines come out. If the hog collapses near the front of the chute, you shove the meat hook into his cheek and drag him forward.[28]

Over the last few decades, some research has been done toward making slaughterhouses more humane; one well-known scientist in this field is Temple Grandin.


Historically, some doubted that fish could experience pain. However, laboratory experiments have shown that fish do react to painful stimuli (e.g. injections of bee venom) in a similar way to mammals.[29][30] The expansion of fish farming as well as animal welfare concerns in society has led to research into more humane and faster ways of killing fish.[31] In large-scale operations like fish farms, stunning fish with electricity or putting them into water saturated with nitrogen so that they cannot breathe, results in death more rapidly than just taking them out of the water. For sport fishing, it is recommended that fish be killed soon after catching them by hitting them on the head followed by bleeding out, or by stabbing the brain with a sharp object[32] (called pithing or ike jime in Japanese).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Meat Atlas, Heinrich Böll Foundation and Friends of the Earth Europe, 2014, p. 15.
  2. ^ "Cattle and beef: Statistics & Information", United States Department of Agriculture.
  3. ^ "Realities of farming in Canada", Canadian Federation of Humane Societies; "Slaughterhouses", Global Action Network; "Cattle inventories", Statistics Canada.
  4. ^ Meat Atlas, Heinrich Böll Foundation and Friends of the Earth Europe, 2014, pp. 12–13.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Hansen, Marci, "Animal Rights" in Sherrod, Lonnie R. (ed.), Youth Activism: An International Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (Greenwood Publishing, 2006), pp. 70–1.
  7. ^ a b A Social History of the Slaughterhouse. Human Ecology Review. 
  8. ^ Paula Young Lee (2008). Meat, Modernity, and the Rise of the Slaughterhouse. UPNE. p. 26. 
  9. ^ Defoe, Daniel (1726). A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain. p. 342. ISBN 0-300-04980-3. 
  10. ^ a b The Farmer's Magazine. London: Rogerson and Tuxford, 1849. 1849. p. 142. 
  11. ^ Dodd, George (1856). The Food of London: A Sketch of the Chief Varieties, Sources of Supply, Probable Quantities, Modes of Arrival, Processes of Manufacture, Suspected Adulteration, and Machinery of Distribution, of the Food for a Community of Two Millions and a Half. Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans. p. 228. 
  12. ^ Kean, Hilda (1998). "'Wild' domestic animals and the Smithfield Market". Animal rights: political and social change in Britain since 1800. Reaktion Books. p. 59. ISBN 1-86189-014-1. 
  13. ^ Thornbury, Walter (1878). "The Metropolitan Meat-Market". Old and New London: Volume 2. pp. 491–496. Retrieved 2008-02-01. 
  14. ^ Snowhill (London Railways) accessed 13 April 2009
  15. ^ Chris Otter (2006). "The vital city: public analysis, dairies and slaughterhouses in nineteenth-century". Cultural Geographies. 
  16. ^  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainPower, D'Arcy (1901). "Richardson, Benjamin Ward". In Sidney Lee. Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement​. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 
  17. ^ Grandin, T. "Best Practices for Animal Handling and Stunning"", Meat & Poultry, April 2000, p.76.
  18. ^ Grandin, T. and Deesing, M. "Humane Livestock Handling" 2008. Storey Publishing, North Adams, MA, USA.
  19. ^ Grandin, Temple (September 2011). "Directions for laying out curved cattle handling facilities for ranches, feedlots, and properties". Dr. Temple Grandin's Web Page. Dr. Temple Grandin. Retrieved 2012-12-10.  "Round crowd pens and curved single file chutes work better than straight ones, but they must be laid out correctly. A curved chute works more efficiently than a straight one because it prevents cattle from seeing people and other activities at the end of the chute." "A round crowd pen will work better than a straight crowd pen because, as cattle go around a 180° turn, they think they are going back to where they came from "
  20. ^ Grandin, Temple (July 2011). "Sample Designs of Cattle Races and Corrals". Dr. Temple Grandin's Web Page. Dr. Temple Grandin. Retrieved 2012-12-10.  Why does a curved chute and round crowd pen work better than a straight one? As the animals go around the curve, they think they are going back to where they came from. The animals can not see people and other moving objects at the end of the chute. It takes advantage of the natural circling behaviour of cattle and sheep.
  21. ^ Grandin, Temple (1993). "Teaching Principles of Behavior and Equipment Design for Handling Livestock". J. Anim. Sci. J. Anim. Sci. Retrieved 2012-12-10.  Some of the design principles that are taught are the use of solid sides on chutes and crowd pens to prevent animals from seeing out with their wide-angle vision and layout of curved chutes and round crowd pens. A circular crowd pen and a curved chute reduced the time spent moving cattle by up to 50% (Vowles and Hollier, 1982 [Vowles, W. J., and T. J. Hollier. 1982. The influence of yard design on the movement of animals. Proc. Aust. Soc. Anim. Prod. 14:597]).
  22. ^ Grandin, Temple (July 2010). "Improving the Movement of Cattle, Pigs, and Sheep during handling on farms, ranches, and slaughter plants". Dr Temple Grandin. Retrieved 2012-12-10.  Cattle will move more easily through a curved race. Solid sides which prevent the cattle from seeing people and other distractions outside the fence should be installed on the chutes (races) and the crowd pen which leads up to the single file chute. The use of solid sides is especially important in slaughter plants, truck loading ramps, and other places where there is lots of activity outside the fence. Solid sides are essential in slaughter plants to block the animal's view of people and equipment. A curved chute (race) with solid sides at a ranch facility. It works better than a straight chute because cattle think they are going back to where they came from. The outer fence is solid to prevent the cattle from seeing distractions outside the fence... The facility must be located in a pasture that has no nearby equipment, moving vehicles or extra people, or put inside a building that has solid side walls. In many facilities, adding solid fences will improve animal movement... Solid sides in these areas help prevent cattle from becoming agitated when they see activity outside the fence -- such as people. Cattle tend to be calmer in a chute with solid sides. Cattle move more easily through the curved race system because they can not see people and other distractions ahead.
  23. ^ Muhlke, Christine (23 May 2010). "FIELD REPORT; A Movable Beast". The New York Times. p. 22. 
  24. ^ "Guidelines for the Slaughter of Animals".  USDA
  25. ^ Humane Farming Association Website
  26. ^ Eisnitz, Gail A. Slaughterhouse. Prometheus Books, 1997, cited in Torres, Bob. Making a Killing. AK Press, 2007, p. 46.
  27. ^ a b "HFA Exposé Uncovers Federal Crimes", Humane Farming Association. Retrieved March 8, 2008.
  28. ^ Eisnitz, p. 82, cites in Torres, Bob. Making a Killing. AK Press, 2007, p. 47.
  29. ^ Sneddon, LU (2009). "Pain perception in fish: indicators and endpoints.". ILAR Journal 50 (4): 38–42. PMID 19949250. 
  30. ^ Oidtmann, B; Hoffman, RW (Jul–Aug 2001). "Pain and suffering in fish". Berliner und Münchener tierärztliche Wochenschrift 114 (7-8): 277–82. PMID 11505801. 
  31. ^ Lund, V; Mejdell, CM; Röcklinsberg, H; Anthony, R; Håstein, T (2007-05-04). "Expanding the moral circle: farmed fish as objects of moral concern.". Diseases of aquatic organisms 72 (2): 109–118. doi:10.3354/dao075109. PMID 17578250. 
  32. ^ Davie, PS; Kopf, RK (August 2006). "Physiology, behaviour and welfare of fish during recreational fishing and after release.". New Zealand veterinary journal 54 (4): 161–172. doi:10.1080/00480169.2006.36690. PMID 16915337. 

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