In order to live, do you have to be prepared to kill? In the long run, does the will to live depend on the willingness to take the life of another in order to preserve your own?
These questions had been on my mind during my visits to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last summer, when I made the rounds with the acute psychiatric service in Rotterdam, I asked myself how far the caregiver must go in order to keep the suicidal person from carrying out their plan.
Is living an obligation? And if so, what is killing? A necessary evil or a privilege? In order to answer those questions, or at least try to, I decided to embed myself among the butchers.
Somewhere within the quadrant ‘soldier–suicide–caregiver–slaughterer’, life itself must be tucked away.
As I grow older, it seems to me that the hunger for life is not so very different from the hunger for death, a hunger which apparently is in us too. The hungering itself is what it is all about; what it is precisely one hungers for is of less importance.
Cesare Pavese published diaries and letters under the title This Business of Living. He wrote: ‘Death will come, and she will have your eyes.’
If living is a craft, killing must be too; perhaps being dead is a craft as well.
One Monday morning at six o’clock I find myself in the canteen at North Holland Butchers, a small-scale slaughterhouse in Oost-Graftdijk, about twenty miles north of Amsterdam. The owner is Bob Bakker, a thin, sinewy man in his thirties, I would guess, with large ears and a penetrating gaze.
‘Today we’re going to slaughter cows, pigs, goats and sheep. No horses,’ Bob says.
Sitting across from me at the table is Edwin. Edwin works for the NVWA, the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority. He is here to inspect the animals.
‘Officially, we don’t talk to journalists,’ Edwin says. ‘We have press officers for that.’
There’s no use insisting, I decide. We go downstairs, to where the abattoir and pens are located, the place where the animals wait to meet their fate. Edwin sticks a thermometer in a cow’s anus. Then he shows it to Bob.
‘No two ways about it,’ Bob says. ‘She’s got a fever and is unfit for slaughter. This one’s going with the cadaver disposal, to be incinerated.’
The cadaver disposal service is simply a truck that picks up the animals that have been declared unfit for slaughter.
Edwin wipes off the thermometer.
The look in Bob’s eye reminds me of the look I’ve seen in the eyes of some soldiers. He stares off into the distance, as though he sees something behind you, and however friendly he may be, his eyes never smile.
We go out into the yard. ‘There’s the cadaver service,’ Bob says. He points to something that looks like a truck, coming along the dyke. ‘I’ll give him a call.’
We’re sitting in the kitchen at North Holland Butchers. There is a can of apple and sugarbeet syrup on the table. You are allowed to smoke in here, or at least that’s what Bob, the owner, is doing. Van Nelle, full-strength roll-ups.
‘I’ve been in meat my whole life,’ he says. ‘I worked as a cattle dealer for a while too. Back then I sent animals out to be slaughtered. Now I do it myself. Even as a kid, I used to hang around the butcher shop.’
There are little plastic replicas on the windowsill: a sheep, a cow, a goat and a pig.
The floor shakes. ‘When you hear a thud like that,’ Bob says, ‘it means a cow has hit the floor. Whenever I hear a sound I don’t recognise, I run downstairs right away.’
I listen. It sounds as though they’re operating a piledriver, but with long intervals between the blows.
Downstairs you also have the cooling cells, where the cow is transformed into steak.
‘This place used to be run by an Islamic emergency butcher, let me put it that way,’ Bob says. ‘But I took it over about six years ago.’
‘What’s an emergency butcher?’ I ask.
‘If an animal gets hurt on the farm and can’t be brought here, the emergency butcher goes there and puts the animal down and the rest of the processing happens here. That’s what an emergency butcher does.’
‘Listen, I respect everyone’s beliefs, but the Muslims won’t have their animals slaughtered here because I do pigs. So they have no respect for me. You can slaughter a sheep really well in the ritual way. You set it down on its rear end and let it lean against you, sheep like that, and then you cut it open. That’s fine. But killing a cow or a bull like that, no way, not as far as I’m concerned. It’s the Jewish and Muslim way, but I wouldn’t start doing that, not for all the money in the world. It’s inhumane.’
A cattle dealer comes in and bums a cigarette. I hear another thud from downstairs.
Bob slides his rolling tobacco over to the cattle dealer. ‘I put pictures of my kids on the pack,’ he says.
The cattle dealer and I stare at the picture of an almost toothless mouth that they put on cigarettes these days, to discourage smokers.
‘The romance is gone,’ Bob says. ‘Cattle dealing and slaughtering, there’s nothing romantic about it any more. Das war einmal.’
I realise that even for the one wielding the knife, death needs to be romantic.
Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle is set in the cattle yards and slaughterhouses of Chicago in the early twentieth century. The conditions for the workers, most of them immigrants, are horrific, and so Sinclair writes: ‘it was to be counted as a wonder that there were not more men slaughtered than cattle’. At the end of the novel, the hope of socialism breaks through the clouds on behalf of the lumpen proletariat.
Socialism finally won, particularly in the Netherlands. Bob’s employees seem more like buddies than employees; no one mistakes a human for a cow any more.
‘After World War II,’ Bob says, ‘we worked hard on setting up the bioindustry, because we never wanted to go hungry again. Now we’re trying to tear it down. You know why some people worry themselves sick about animals? It’s because people aren’t starving any more. If you have to choose between a tulip bulb and a slice of bacon, you’ll choose the bacon.’
I nod. After the successful spread of socialism through mankind, especially in Western Europe, it was only a matter of time before a certain kind of socialism for animals would emerge. Cruelty became less and less accepted and, even though a life without any cruelty is probably an illusion, some people feel nostalgic for the days in which cruelty and the act of killing appeared to be a necessity.
The paperwork is finished. Most of the animals waiting in the pens are declared fit for slaughter. Later on, the cadavers will be inspected as well. ‘The government doesn’t do anything to help me out here,’ Bob says. ‘They send inspectors to inspect whether the inspectors inspecting the inspectors are doing their work right.’
We go back downstairs. The cows have already been taken care of, we’re now going to start on the pigs.
In a little pen, a piglet is waiting to be stunned, which means it will be rendered brain-dead.
‘It’s important that the heart goes on beating,’ Bob says. ‘Otherwise the blood can’t get out.’
The sweetish odour of fresh blood is not as bad as I’d expected.
‘We don’t stun the pigs with the bolt gun,’ says Bob. ‘When you do that, they go into convulsions and haemorrhage under the skin. They get those little red dots in the meat. Consumers don’t like that.’
Bob picks up the electric forceps which beep as soon as the pig is brain-dead. He places the forceps on the piglet’s head skilfully, almost lovingly is what I feel like saying. If I were to be slaughtered, I would want someone like Bob to do it.
The piglet is hung on a hook, its throat is cut quickly. It spasms a few times, and that’s it.
‘It’s no longer conscious,’ Bob says. ‘You can tell by waving your hand in front of its eyes. The reflexes are gone.’
I wave my hand in front of the piglet’s eyes. No more reflexes.
Once a pig has been drained – that is to say, once most of the blood has run out – it’s put in a machine full of hot water that reminds me of a clothes dryer.
The machine shivers. The pig’s bristles are being soaked off.
A couple of minutes later the pig is removed from the machine. The smell is sickly, as though we’ve been making pork stock. Each animal has its own unique ID number, which means that in theory you can always trace any cut of meat. The pig’s ears are cut most of the way off, leaving only its ID badge stapled to the stump that dangles to one side.
Dave, a handsome young man with impressive tattoos, starts pulling something out of the pig’s feet.
‘What are you doing?’ I ask.
‘I’m extracting the hoofs,’ Dave replies. He removes the pig’s hoofs the way another person might uncork a bottle of champagne.
Nothing is thrown away; I’ve learned that much by now. As Bob told me earlier: ‘At a butcher’s or in a slaughterhouse, if you ask, “Can I throw this away?” you won’t be executed on the spot, but you’re close.’
The pig’s hoofs, however, end up on the floor. I think about taking one home as a souvenir, but decide against it.
The radio is on. A hit is blasting out above the noise of the slaughter.
The next step is to burn away the last of the bristles.
I wish that I could say: ‘I love the smell of burnt pig bristles in the morning.’ Unfortunately that’s not true.
Then the pig is cut open and its entrails deftly removed. This morning that job goes to Hans, a man in his fifties who has been working for Bob for two years. There’s another Hans too, the co-owner of the slaughterhouse. He’s also helping out today.
The entrails are hung up beside the pig, because they also have to be presented for inspection. Numbers are written on the pig’s legs.
The lungs, heart, liver, kidneys and spleen are beautiful, the very opposite of filthy. The way they hang there next to one another, it’s like contemplating a still life. The butcher is a painter too.
After the pigs are finished, it’s the lambs’ turn. They are paralysed with the bolt gun, then cut open.
‘If you walk around yelling, they go completely bonkers,’ Bob says. ‘But if you stay calm, the animals stay calm too.’
‘Fly me to the moon,’ Hans sings before applying the bolt gun and paralysing the lambs.
Wouldn’t it be good for my article if I were to kill a lamb myself?
Wouldn’t it be good, for me as a person, to master the craft of killing?
Today we are going to slaughter eleven sheep, two ponies, twenty-one cows and seventeen pigs.
‘The ponies are obese,’ Bob says. ‘In France they make salami out of them, but in Holland there’s no market so they’re going to be pet food.’
‘So why are we slaughtering ponies?’ I ask.
‘Their owner came down with Q fever and he can’t take care of them any more.’
Today we’re slaughtering Sabrina and Pebbels. Their passports are on the table – ponies are classified as horses and have equine passports. Later on, once the animals have been inspected, the passports will be invalidated with a punch, probably to prevent fraud.
It’s dawn and the mist is hanging over the fields.
‘Did you sleep well?’ I ask Bob.
‘Snuggled up nice and warm behind the mother hen,’ he replies.
To him, people are animals too. What does he see me as? A fox prowling suburban rubbish bins by night?
From downstairs comes the sound of the grinder, like a heavily loaded freight elevator being pulled up slowly.
First the pigs.
‘There are almost no women working in slaughterhouses,’ I say to Bob.
‘In the big industrial abattoirs there are,’ he says. ‘Polish women. Good-lookers too, often enough. What they earn in Holland is a fortune back where they come from.’
Within less than half an hour, four of the pigs are dead. I’m startled by how quickly I grow accustomed to the killing, as though I’ve been wading through blood, fat and entrails for years.
I know who I am now: a methodical, cultivated killer.
The only thing I can’t get used to is the pop music from the radio. I would rather do my slaughtering to Tchaikovsky, the finale from Swan Lake.
A young man with a cognitive disability cleans the pens. Sometimes, using an electric prod, he also herds the cattle into the cage where their transformation into prime rib begins.
‘It’s not nice,’ he says, ‘but you like a nice piece of meat on your plate too, don’t you?’
And there he goes, off in pursuit of another cow. She puts up a struggle.
The fragility of life is staring me in the face. It’s not an easy thing to live with.
My beloved is waiting for me, back at the hotel. Standing in a pool of blood, I decide to break up with her. Then I change my mind; I want to fuck her to death. I will turn the bed into a sea of entrails, lungs, kidneys, blood and shit.
Never have I been as horny as here, in the slaughterhouse.
‘I really hate the fair,’ Bob says during coffee break the next morning. ‘Greece is fun, I’d rather go there.’
This morning the men are talking about the annual fair that is coming to town. Around here, it is still an attraction.
A little while ago, two bulls were killed downstairs. I’ve been allowed to see everything so far, but not the death of the bulls. ‘Those bulls were still awake,’ Bob says. ‘If a bull like that gets to you, he’ll rip you apart. We know what we have to do, but you’d just be standing there with your little notebook. I always say: better to be a ’fraidy cat than to be roadkill.’
That’s something I know about, from my days with the army. If you’re not actually doing the fighting or killing, you need someone to protect you. Bob will protect me against the murderer called bull. And you identify with the person who walks beside you. Among psychiatrists I become a psychiatrist; among butchers I become a butcher. If I had been with pigs in a pen, I would have become a pig.
The dehumanisation of the other, turning the other into a thing, is a group process. Would the pigs have identified with me, too?
‘A pig will eat anything,’ Bob says. ‘That’s why you have to hang up toys in the pigpen, otherwise they’ll eat each other, purely out of boredom. A farmer had a heart attack once while he was in the pen. By the time they found him, his nose, fingers and ears had been chewed off.’
‘And what about sheep?’ I ask.
‘Rams fight to establish who’s the boss. The littlest one usually wins. A smaller ram can get to the bridge of a larger ram’s nose more easily, he slams it up into the skull, the bone shoots up into the brain and if the other ram dies, he’s the winner.’
We go back to the abattoir.
‘Some people think that slaughtering animals is cruel,’ Bob says. ‘But you know what’s cruel? The Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve. They have cows, deer and sheep wandering around there, supposedly in the wild, where there’s not even enough room for them to graze.’
After the warmth of the abattoir, the cold air of the cell where the butchering is done feels uncomfortable.
Someone once asked me: ‘Travelling to war zones, Guantánamo Bay, working as a masseur in Romania, staying in a psychiatric hospital with the patients – what effect do all those projects have on you?’ My brief answer was: more and more, I am prepared to do anything.
I probably won’t emerge from the slaughterhouse a vegetarian, but I wonder whether there’s a real moral difference between killing an animal and killing a human being.
The sociologist Johan Goudsblom wrote: ‘Morality is wielding power without referring to it.’ These days I would say: morality is mostly a verbal antidepressant; a story people tell each other to make themselves feel better.
My last day at North Holland Butchers. I’m going to miss Bob Bakker and his men. One can feel at home even in the slaughterhouse, on condition, perhaps, that you are not the one being slaughtered, but I’m not even sure about that. ‘I’m going to Germany tomorrow to slaughter animals there,’ I tell Bob. He answers: ‘I have to be able to see the spire of my village church every evening.’
Hans is busy sawing the carcass of a cow in half. There’s water coming out of the saw, which is there to keep the saw from burning the meat. ‘You used to have cows that weighed 300 kilos,’ Hans says. ‘These days they weigh 700 kilos.’
Bob is working a little further along. Once again, I ask him about death’s handiwork. ‘You wait till they stop moving, then you grab them,’ Bob says. ‘Horses are sensitive.’
Is that what the predator knows by intuition? To wait until the prey stops moving, then grab them?
I recall seeing Bob pat a sheep’s back before holding the bolt gun to its head. The left hand pats while the right hand kills: that must be what they mean by dying peacefully.
‘Everything that comes in here has to be killed. That’s the law. All kinds of animals come in here from different farms, and the inspectors are afraid of infection.’
You could also call slaughtering euthanasia.
‘I prefer the meat of females,’ Hans states as he goes on butchering the cow. ‘Females are a bit fatter. Bull meat is coarser.’
Outside, the sunlight is dreary. In front of the slaughterhouse I say goodbye to Bob.
‘I pick up the animals from the farmer myself, often enough. I used to help sometimes with catching sheep, but not any more,’ he says. ‘I go to the livestock markets too. I always wear a long black coat. So they know what I’ve come for. That used to be a tradition, you wore blue when you were buying cattle for milk production, black for slaughter.’
I feel like giving Bob a hug. The man who walks the livestock markets in a long black coat.
I keep thinking about the poem ‘Die Einsamkeit der Männer’ (‘The Loneliness of Men’), by Wolf Wondratschek: ‘Da sitzen Männer vor einem Haus / und trinken und traümen vom Töten.’ (In front of a House the men are sitting / and drinking and dreaming of Killing.)
Most of the cows here are Galloways, but they’re gradually switching to Charolais. The cows are still inseminated naturally by a bull, which is uncommon and not without attendant risks. One bull, for example, recently injured its shoulder while mounting a cow and had to be put down. The butcher at Gut Hesterberg is named Detlev. The Berliner Morgenpost once described him as the yoga teacher among butchers. The newspaper was right about that.
With admirable calm, he leads a cow into the pen. Then he climbs a little set of steps, so the animal can’t see him, and places the bolt gun against the cow’s head. ‘You have to see an imaginary cross between the eyes and ears. Right where the two lines intersect is where you aim.’
The cow drops to the floor.
Here I’m allowed to help out too. I removed the cow’s hide. It’s striking, how easily it lets go: the skin of an animal that was alive only three minutes before.
It’s gentle work, in fact. It reminds me vaguely of caressing my beloved, although I usually do that without the knife.
The cow’s warm paunch is taken out and remains lying on the floor. It’s a wonder to see how much shit there is inside a cow.
Here at Gut Hesterberg, where only four to six cows are slaughtered each week and where they lead a natural life for as long as possible, the butchering is done in pairs. One person shovels the shit into a wheelbarrow while the other splits the cow down the middle.
Because the slaughtering at Gut Hesterberg is at such a far remove from the industrial processes now so common in slaughterhouses around the world, the killing and butchering resembles a ritual. A sacrifice is being made here, but which god has to be appeased?
In ancient Jerusalem, the priests who made the sacrifices were butchers. Indeed, Detlev reminds me more of a priest than a butcher. The sacrificing of animals instead of humans to deities is probably a step forward, from the perspective of mankind at least, but looking at Detlev on his steps I still see a sense of guilt, at least an echo of shame. Or is Detlev just a shy person who doesn’t want to be observed? I cannot help but think: God is a carnivore too.
In his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer says there is no solid reason – except for sentimentality – why we should eat cows and not domestic pets. Is sentimentality a solid reason? More and more people object to the idea that killing animals is fundamentally different from killing people. Perhaps morality without the sentimentality is a kind of bookkeeping.
A cow is putting up a struggle, it doesn’t want to enter the pen. When I come for a look, Detlev the butcher hisses: ‘Go away.’
It takes them almost fifteen minutes to get the cow into the pen. Then it is over. ‘Only a woman could be so stubborn,’ Detlev says after the killing is done.
He hands me a knife and lets me cut the entrails out of the cow.
I’m not wearing gloves and the entrails feel pleasantly warm. Lukewarm.
‘Do you know what that is?’ Detlev asks.
‘No idea,’ I say.
The veterinarian arrives to inspect the carcasses. He is a hunter, too. ‘The animals here are petted to death,’ he says.
Later, he adds: ‘The animals smell blood. They think: what’s going to happen to me in there?’
In the restaurant, I eat prime rib with Karoline, whose father started Gut Hesterberg, and her husband Gerry. The first meat I’ve had since I started slaughtering animals. It tastes lovely.
‘We actually eat meat only in a professional capacity,’ Karoline says. Then she adds: ‘Pork should really be banned, at least that cheap pork.’
When I leave Gerry says, ‘You should come back sometime. We’ll get good and drunk.’
Karoline told me that she had wanted to go and live in Berlin, but knew that leaving the cows would mean undoing everything her father had worked so hard to build. Even for these restaurateurs and butchers, cows, living or dead, and visitors are not enough. They need people like me, curious assistant-butchers.
‘I competed in dressage and jumping, but I stopped a while back,’ says Antoon Schouten, the co-owner of Schouten’s Pig-breeding Farm, along with his wife, Wilma. His daughter, Yolanda, still rides.
We are sitting in the garden behind their house. It is a lovely late afternoon. There is a vague smell of pigpen in the air.
Yolanda, a biology teacher, serves us coffee. The family is receiving me as though I were a new friend.
‘We put a lot of energy into producing a good cut of meat,’ Antoon says. He has so much callus on his thumb that it looks like he’s growing a second one.
‘We have a bad reputation: we’re animal abusers, polluters. These days I often don’t even tell people what I do,’ Wilma says. ‘I don’t feel like having to defend myself all the time.’
We sip our coffee.
‘It’s all so horribly inhumane,’ she continues, ‘but once they’ve got a pork chop on their plate, you don’t hear them whining any more. Back in the old days, everyone came from a farming family. Today children barely know where milk comes from. The problem cases come to us too. The boys no one knows how to handle. They’re allowed to come and work here. The farmer is the one who gets to solve everyone else’s mess.’
The family owns 300 breeding sows and 2,500 pigs.
‘We have a biological air cleaner,’ Antoon says, which is meant to reduce ammonia emissions. ‘You can go in the stalls in your Sunday best and you still won’t smell of it.’
‘How much does a pig cost?’ I ask.
‘There’s a stock market price, and they pay me by the kilo,’ Antoon replies. ‘But for 155 euros you can take a pig home with you, except you’ll have to pay the butcher another eighty euros or so.’
We walk past the pens. ‘The piglets are the cutest,’ Wilma says.
We stop and look at them. The sow is surrounded by metal bars, which keep her from moving freely. My attention is drawn immediately to one piglet that seems a bit crippled.
‘That one’s not going to make it,’ Wilma says.
Maybe I can take the crippled piglet home with me and put it in the backyard at my mother’s house. Does it deserve to be saved any more than its non-crippled colleagues?
‘We try to keep the brothers and sisters together as much as possible,’ Antoon says.
I look at the pigs. Do they know that they are brothers and sisters?
On the occasion of my visit, Antoon inseminates a sow. A nozzle is placed in the vagina. The fluid with which the sperm is mixed reminds me of dishwashing liquid.
A pair of something like large plastic clamps is placed on the sow’s back, to make her think the boar’s front legs are resting on her.
There is also a boar in among the sows, separated from them by a few metal bars.
‘Without the smell of the boar, they won’t go into heat,’ Antoon explains.
Heat, a nicer word than horny.
People, too, should say: ‘I’m in heat. Inseminate me now. Preferably not artificially.’
Along the walkway, I see three dead piglets in a dumpster.
IJsselstein / Schijndel
It is four in the morning when I climb into Jan van Hemert’s truck. We’re going to pick up pigs at Antoon Schouten’s place.
‘I’ve been doing this for thirty-five years and I started when I was eighteen,’ Jan says. ‘My father was in pigs too. It just comes naturally.’
We look up at the full moon.
‘I’ve already delivered a truckload to Westfort. They start slaughtering early there, so the first pigs have to get there late in the evening.’
‘Do you have a social life?’ I ask.
‘I always go to bed at one in the afternoon,’ Jan explains. ‘Then at least there’s something like a daily rhythm. When I started dating I was already driving pigs, so my wife doesn’t know any better. I hit the road every day, even when I’m sick. When you’re in pain, it doesn’t make any difference whether you stay at home or whether you’re sitting in the truck. I don’t go on vacation. When the kids were little we did. I’ve seen every Center Parcs holiday village in Holland.’
‘How many pigs fit in this truck?’ I ask.
‘Two hundred and five. Fewer and fewer all the time, really. Animal welfare is a big deal these days.’
At around five o’clock we pull up to the pig shed.
Jan scatters sawdust on the floor of his truck. Then he picks up something that looks like a big green rattle, and hands me one too. The rattle is used to herd the pigs into the truck.
The truck has three levels, to use the space as efficiently as possible.
The open space between shed and truck is the only bit of daylight the pigs see, but it’s still dark, so they don’t notice that much.
‘Pigs will walk towards the light,’ Jan says. ‘So if we turn off the lights in the shed and turn this one on, the pigs will come out by themselves.’
Before entering the truck, the pigs are given a second ear tag, in case the original gets pulled out.
I’m allowed to tag a few pigs. It’s no easy task, holding onto a pig by its ear like that.
‘Come on, fellows,’ Antoon shouts from inside the shed.
‘They’re going to bump up against your knees pretty hard,’ Jan says.
And from the doorway Antoon says: ‘Walking pork cutlets.’
That’s what they are. Do the cutlets have a soul?
In among the pigs I realise that Christ did not die so much for mankind as for the pigs. The first shall be last, and in the world to come the cutlets will lead the way.
With that pious, rather Catholic thought, I feel absolved of all sins.
‘Look how peacefully they’re sleeping,’ Jan says about the pigs we unload at Westfort Meat Products.
I’m not sure that peaceful is quite the right word for it.
Using the big green rattle, the pigs were first driven into the pens, where an ingenious system of stiles then funnelled them slowly, almost automatically, towards the atmosphere-controlled elevators. In those elevators, a gas is used to render them unconscious, unlike at North Holland Butchers, where they’re paralysed with an electrical current. If I were a pig I would opt for gas, but of course I’ve never been in one of those elevators.
Quite a few of the pigs are covered in scratches from fighting.
After Jan has disinfected his truck, I meet up with René van Rijn, a husky, helpful and competent man who will guide me around Westfort. René has tattoos that show you he works with pigs.
‘What’s that noise?’ I ask. It reminds me of a badly tuned machine.
‘Those are the pigs,’ René tells me. ‘We slaughter 40,000 of them a week, at two locations. A little less at the moment, because of the summer holidays. The staff here aren’t allowed to wear jewellery. These days that includes wedding rings too, I think. At our competitor’s, the men who couldn’t worm the wedding ring off their finger were allowed to have them resized, at the boss’s expense.’
The other slaughterhouse is in Gorinchem, but the plan is to close that one down once the slaughterhouse in IJsselstein has been approved by the Chinese. China is an important market for Westfort.
A veterinarian from the NVWA is keeping an eye on the pigs. He looks grumpy. Every once in a while a pig is led off to one side. Those are the ones that will be slaughtered at the end of the day, at half-speed, to see whether the animal really is healthy.
Jeroen, a young man wearing spectacles, has the job of herding the pigs to the stile and then into the elevator. The elevator goes up and down; it takes about ninety seconds. When the doors open the pigs roll out and are hung up by a back leg and then ‘stuck’: that is, their jugular is severed. The blood is collected. The pigs’ stomachs are empty when they’re slaughtered, to prevent the meat from becoming contaminated if the entrails are cut open by mistake.
Jeroen lets me take over. I drive the pigs into the stile with diligence, exactitude and even something like elation.
Half an hour later, René says: ‘So now you’ve helped about 250 of them go west.’
I did it humanely. I didn’t hit the pigs. Every once in a while, I shouted: ‘Come on, guys!’
In the anime film Spirited Away, by Hayao Miyazaki, ten-year-old Chihiro Ogino discovers that her parents have been turned into pigs because they ate food that was intended for the gods. Walking around the new Westfort slaughterhouse, I think about that scene. There are pigs hanging everywhere – a tableau not entirely devoid of beauty – but sometimes I see people hanging there instead.
René, my guide, tells me that his hobby is dog breeding. ‘Right now I’m working with an Italian breed, the Mastino Napoletano,’ he says. ‘They compete in shows.’
In one of the pens where the living animals await the rest of the process, I see a dead pig. That happens sometimes. The day before I saw a pig come out of the truck with a broken leg. Injured pigs are stunned by hand, with the electric forceps. It squealed for a moment, then its jugular was cut. Within five minutes the blood had been mopped up.
The slaughterhouse has two sections: the machine line, where the workers wear blue overalls, and the clean line, where they are dressed in white. The machine line is where the slaughtering is done, where the carcasses are bled dry and the bristles removed. The rest of the butchering takes place on the clean line, where the animal is weighed and inspected.
The slaughterhouse is a factory: noise, conveyor belts, fairly monotonous work. There’s not much automation to be seen. Many of the workers are from Poland or Cape Verde.
I watch a man as he cuts the jugulars with deep concentration. Pig after pig. Then the conveyor belt moves on. My estimate is that locating the jugular, severing it and hanging up the pig so that the blood leaves freely, with the front legs clamped between two sprockets to keep the spray of blood from dripping onto the pig, takes an average of ten to fifteen seconds per animal.
‘We need to be sure that the pig is really dead before it gets to the slaughterer,’ René says. ‘So there’s an optical sensor a little way further back, to make sure the animal has stopped moving completely.’
The only thing a robot is used for is cutting the pig in two. The robot is in a cage, for safety reasons: because the robot sees no difference between pigs and humans, it will cut in half anything that appears before its laser-controlled ‘eye’. The robot’s movements seem awfully human. I feel a bit sorry for the robot, having to work in a cage like that.
Today I’m allowed to hang up the pigs that roll out of the elevator by a hind leg. Strenuous work. The pigs are piled high on the conveyor and you have to be careful not to accidentally hang them up by a front leg.
‘We slaughter 650 animals an hour,’ René says. ‘By world standards, that’s more or less the maximum you can do with one slaughtering line. If you have a few lines, though, you can do more than a thousand an hour.’
Two per cent of all boars have a highly specific hormone-related smell that the consumer may find unpleasant. A Polish woman scorches a spot on the skin and another woman sniffs at it to see if the boar has the penetrating odour.
It’s a wonder to see, the way she sniffs at every pig that passes. I’m reminded of Chaplin’s Modern Times.
The department supervisor, Jan, lets me cut a pig in half with an axe and pull lard out of its carcass.
‘Not easy, is it?’ Jan says. ‘That’s what these guys do all day. And do you know how much they earn?’
‘Fifteen euros an hour?’ I guess.
‘Closer to ten,’ Jan says. ‘I bet you wouldn’t do it for that.’
I look around at the men. Sometimes one of them almost collides with a colleague; the conveyor belt moves faster than his hands can grab.
‘My father was good with languages,’ says Rob Lunenburg. ‘I thought that was so cool. I’ve worked in the meat industry in Italy. And in France.’
The company used to be called Lunenburg Meats, back when they still did the slaughtering in Oudewater itself. Now it’s a part of Westfort, and the pigs slaughtered in Gorinchem are butchered here.
There are about 400 people working in Oudewater: Poles, Bulgarians, Czechs, Cape Verdeans and Dutch.
At four in the morning, not a minute later, the conveyors start to roll. The pigs on their hooks begin to move. The butchers in their work clothes are ready for them, the knives have been sharpened. The factory is also a theatre production.
The colours placed at strategic spots above the conveyor belt show what is being boned where. The organic pigs have already been done; there were only a few of those. The colour has been changed to yellow now, which means that the ICM (integral chain management) pigs are being boned.
During our break in the canteen, I have the impression that the Poles are sitting with the Poles, the Bulgarians with the Bulgarians.
‘Later, at eight, some of them will have a hamburger,’ Rob says. ‘But by then they’ll have a full shift behind them. And if two of them get into a fight, they both have to leave. We can’t have that, not with all these knives around.’
After some elaborate hygienic measures, we go back into the plant.
An expert, in no way connected to Westfort, told me in an email: ‘Robots are cleaner and easier to disinfect than people. They can also work in the dark, and in the cold.’ When labour is cheap, though, robots don’t pay. By email, Westfort lets me know that using robots doesn’t fit in with their company strategy. ‘Pork is a natural product, and a robot would have to be able to “read” a particular cut of meat. Each ham or loin, after all, is different. In this case, robotisation has not (yet) been perfected. In addition to that, many of our products are made specifically for a given customer. All customers have their own requirements. Here too, robotisation has not (yet) been perfected. In practical terms, therefore, the use of robots presents problems.’ The term ‘natural product’ pleases me. Will there come a day when pork is no longer a natural product?
Standing next to Adri, who will be retiring soon, I get to cut away pork rind. Meat that is still warm – right after the slaughter, in other words – is easier to cut than meat that has already cooled.
‘The guys who do the boning are paid by the pig,’ Rob says, ‘but we have a maximum limit on that, otherwise they get sloppier with boning.’
A Polish girl with bright red lipstick catches my eye. Her gaze is intense. The people here don’t talk much as they work.
‘Our people have to get up early,’ Rob says. ‘They work hard for not all that much money – we can’t do anything about that. What we can do is try to keep the working environment as pleasant as possible.’
My final chore is to put pork tenderloins into boxes. This is what Libania, standing next to me, has been doing for years. She enjoys it. Her husband drives a truck for Westfort.
Sometimes I put a tenderloin in the wrong way around. ‘No,’ she says, ‘you have to put the pretty side up.’
I am not going to leave the slaughterhouse an animal activist, nor as a vegetarian either, I’m sure of that by now. Some moralists will find that heartless of me. And perhaps it is.
No, I suspect that if I leave the slaughterhouse as anything at all, it will be as a people activist.
Photograph © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos