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The Killing Floor

Can slaughter be humane?

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Imagine watching a cow get slaughtered at the tender age of 11. Would that image, burned as it was into your adolescent brain, thrust you into your first dalliance with herbivorism? Would you, for reasons dietary or moral, have continued to boycott meat as you grew into adulthood? Would you have been moved to do something silly with your life like standing naked on a street corner slathered in fake blood and covered with Saran Wrap in the name of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals?

If so, then you would not be me, except of course for the seeing a cow get slaughtered part. That's not to say that I'm indifferent to arguments for vegetarianism, not even extremely sanctimonious ones made by even more sanctimonious novelists named Jonathan Safran Foer. It's just that the very human notion that livestock provide a service — monetary and otherwise — trumps those arguments. And because, you know, bacon is delicious.

That's why when the time came to document how the rising popularity of farm-raised livestock is changing the meat industry, I volunteered. See, unlike someone who may have moral objections to eating meat, I don't mind getting pig blood on my shoes.

Neither does anyone working at Belmont Butchery in Carytown.

Tanya Cauthen, proprietor, strides in from her cooler trailer with a side of hog draped over her shoulders and cleaver-shaped earrings dangling from her lobes. The pig is a Berkshire, a heritage breed purchased from Black Eagle Farms, which before shipping the animals off for slaughter, raises them naturally and “without any of the artificial hormones or antibiotics commonly or any other added crap” found in factory farmed-raised meat,” Cauthen says.

A former chef, Cauthen oversees what may be the most pleasant part of the process that ends with you, the carnivore, eating contentedly. Unlike the image sold by certain pig-centric children's films, most swine are not that pleasant to look at. They wallow in dirt and their own feces. So lying on Cauthen's cutting table in slab form being expertly cut into sections, this may be the prettiest this particular sow has ever looked.

The real work of transforming a pig into something attractive enough to eat happens out in the sticks, in cold and spare rooms with the aroma of antiseptic, much like the one at T&E Meats in Harrisonburg.

Owner Joe Cloud is one of a handful of in-state proprietors who provides slaughtering services to local farmers and their boutique-breed livestock. After being dropped off by Cloud's clients, the animals are kept overnight in the aging, manure-smelling barn at the facility. The next day they're coaxed one at a time up a wooden chute and onto a killing floor, where a guy in an apron waits to help animals shuffle off this mortal coil.

“I know it looks violent, but it's really the most humane way to do this,” Cloud says. A Harvard-educated former city planner, Cloud says that business has nearly doubled since he bought the place in 2007. And by business he means killing and processing the meat from slaughtered animals.

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Tanya Cauthen breaks down a Berkshire heritage-breed pig into shoulder, ham and loin cuts to be sold in her shop Belmont Butchery. It's disrespectful, she says, not to find uses for every part of the animal.

“People want to feel connected to their food now,” he says. “Industrial meat serves its purpose but it doesn't give you a feeling of connection to the animals or to the people who took time to raise it.”

I watch Jeff, an apron-clad T&E worker, load a charge into a fixed bolt stunner. It looks like something you'd find in a gear-head's collection of power tools, except that it shoots a retractable 4-inch bolt when fired and is used to make farm animals dead. He steps over to a pink 200-pound sow, which on this morning is particularly “ornery,” and struggles to keep her still enough to find the “sweet spot” between her eyes and the top of her skull. Eventually he does. There's a quick pop and the pig drops to the floor with a penny-sized puncture wound in its skull.

Thus begins a multistage process that ends with the pig's carcass hanging in T&E's large meat locker. It isn't as brutal as you might imagine. Truth is, I didn't find it altogether off-putting as an 11-year-old either. But nothing that involves as much spilled blood as slaughtering livestock could be called gentle. What it is, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies that judge these things, is humane.

Back in Richmond, Cauthen goes into thick detail explaining how to butcher while taking a boning knife to the side of a pig. Pork is separated into three main sections: shoulder, ham and loin; it's “disrespectful” to the animal not to find some use for every part of it, even the eyeballs; because animals do not have straight lines you cut according to anatomy; and so on. Just as important: Many factory-farm-raised pigs have fecal matter in their digestive tracts when they're slaughtered. If possible buy meat that doesn't, Cauthen advises: “It will taste better.”

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