The process was described to me before I walked onto the kill floor.
Jim Wood, the owner of Palmetto Creek Farms, gave me the rundown. "They can't see anything. There's nothing to hear. I don't think they have any idea what's going on."
I was handed a long lab coat and a hair net. I could feel my heart beating inside my chest. Please don't faint. Please don't faint, I repeated over and over again in my head. I was about to see a mammal die.
At this natural pork farm in Avon Park, in Central Florida, we entered the barn through a screen door. There were two pens with about ten pigs to the right -- the unfortunate victims of the day. I could feel my heart drop as a couple of them walked over to check me out.
Keith, Jim Woods' right-hand man, began rearranging the wooden fences. A pig strolled out and made its way around to the knock box. The door slid down behind him.
Keith quickly and carefully held the captive and put a stun-gun to the pig's head. BOOM. The pig quickly dropped to the roll-out cart on the floor, its muscles spasming violently. They slit the neck. Blood gushed out. Holy shit, I thought to myself, I cannot believe I just saw that. My nerves stood on end. Travis, another worker, rapidly lassoed the foot of the the flailing animal. It was hoisted up and pulled to the next room. The pigs in the pen across the room paid no attention, completely ignorant to their impending demise.
Keith pulled a clipboard off the wall to check off some boxes. Now that I had witnessed my first kill, he explained the process in more detail. "As it's falling, I close its eye to check for eye movement. I look for rhythmic breathing and vocalization. If it blinks back, breathes, or makes any noise, the animal has not been stunned properly. If that happens, we have a back-up gun already loaded."
"This is my least favorite part of the job" he noted. "If I never had to this again, I certainly wouldn't miss it. I live on this farm. This is my life. The rest of these go home at the end of the day. I am with these pigs from the day they are born until the day they die. I don't like to see them die. You have to compartmentalize it."
I walked in the next room to see the rest of the process. Still worried I might pass out, I found a piece of wall and leaned against it for added support.
The hog was dunked in a scalding bath, then placed on a "dehairer," a large medieval-looking device that flipped the pig around, steel cleats on rubber paddles removing its hair. Once the majority of the hair was removed, the workers scraped off the rest with knives. The body was then hoisted, hung, and singed with a torch to make sure no remnants of hair remained. It was then rinsed with 180-degree water. Sanitation complete, it was time for trimming and cleaning.
Woods and the inspector pointed out body parts and explained the process as they went through the motions. My fears of fainting started to wane. Yes, it was tough to watch, but I was now beginning to understand the process that is an integral component of the consumption of meat. Here, on this small farm, it takes about 30 minutes to clean the carcass from the moment it has been stunned. Today, it took longer due to the plethora of questions I directed toward them.
Hogs on the farm reach slaughter weight (225- 250 pounds) at eight to ten months. Palmetto Creek does not sell suckling pigs or roasters under 100 pounds. "We don't feel comfortable killing something that young," Woods said. They live their entire lives outside, on the same farm, familiar with their surroundings until the moment they are stunned. The hogs are even run through the knock box several times throughout their lives so its not frighteningly new to them the day they are put inside to be killed. According to Keith, "the only difference is, this time, the front door to the box is closed. They don't even have time to figure it out."
Juxtapose that to pigs raised on factory farms. Those usually live indoors with little room to move around. The lack of space prevents the hogs from burning calories, which helps them to reach slaughter weight in just six months. Lack of activity adds to their tension. Combine that with the strain of transportation from breeding farm to feeding farm to pen to processing plant, and these animals are stressed for the majority of their lives.
The hogs at Palmetto Creek Farms live well. They are treated with care and respect from the moment they are born to the minute they are slaughtered. I assumed I would feel traumatized by the experience, but I wasn't. It is not pleasant to watch anything die prematurely, but I knew these pigs are reared for the sole purpose of consumption. It's is not a fact that anyone tries to hide. The process is open. So open that Jim Woods allowed a writer to document the procedure -- "very rare for a slaughter," according to the USDA inspector. This is the way farming should be: transparent.