I worked as a veterinarian in a major pig slaughterhouse, employed by the Swedish Food Agency to monitor food safety and animal welfare. Three thousand pigs were killed there every day and I was expected to certify it with my signature.
The main questions were: are these animals healthy enough to become sausages, and is the animal welfare legislation adhered to?
In my mind and on my desk, I had the EU-regulation stating that “animals shall be spared any avoidable pain, distress or suffering during their killing and related operations.”
Every day began the same way.
A thick odor of warm bodily fluids, steel and detergent hit me as I opened the door to the slaughter hall. There were pig bodies moving everywhere. They hung from the ceiling; their spines sawn in half. Men in blue plastic aprons and ear protection stood lined up along the assembly line with knives in their hands. The first one made a cut over the abdomen, like opening a zip. The second one tied a knot with the last bit of the colon and poured out the intestines. The third one fastened the heart and the lungs to a hook. And so it continued, organ by organ, worker by worker.
I made my way through this labyrinth of detachment, crossed between pieces of lost liver lobes on the tile floor. I walked to the beginning of the production line, into what was called the dirty zone.
The dirty zone
In a slaughterhouse, the dirty zone refers to where the living animals are. Dirty are those who still have intact skin. Those who seek mud and water when overheated, but must thermoregulate in manure. Those who may urinate when frightened and lay down in it. The process of slaughter is to undress their contaminated costumes and empty their insides, transform them into clean pieces without history or names.
I stood in the dirty zone and watched the pigs as they arrived tightly packed in trucks, up to 260 in each. I watched as they were forced out on the concrete floor where millions had walked in fear before them.
The smells, the sounds, the intuition: they hesitated, and got beaten. Plastic paddles slapped their backs. Some were limping, some had bitten tails, some coughed. When a pig arrived that could not walk, was in fatigue or respiratory distress after the journey, the slaughterhouse worker and I would nod at each other. He went for the captive bolt gun and shot the pig in the head, slit the vessels in the chest, let it bleed out in convulsions on the floor.
The other pigs were pushed into pens where they were left to wait, for minutes, hours or the night. There was just enough space for everyone to be contained. Some of them picked fights. Others tried to hide in the corner with their ears folded forward, as a bullied kid looking for refuge on a schoolyard. They were all different, all tried to handle the situation in their own way. Some were bold and curious; they would seek eye contact, nibble my jacket, discover my hand with wet snouts. Others tried to flee through the bars.
Moments of contact were always brief. The dirty zone is a busy zone. The pigs are six months old; they have grown to over 100 kilograms in another concrete pen somewhere in Sweden, and their time is due. An electronic counter registered how many were slaughtered and how many were left for the day. It kept ticking as the gates opened and a worker forced the pigs down a raceway, towards the stunning area. Hurry up, come on, yelled the men.
The pigs became anxious here, tried to turn the other way around, refused to walk. I always wondered what they sensed. The last bit they were pushed into the stun box by an uncompromising mechanical wall; a way to minimize the risk for human faults, according to the manufacturer. They climbed on each other and squealed as they tried to resist it.
Stunning by gas
One of the workers had warned me not to look down into the stunning shaft. He said: “I wouldn’t recommend it. It is not exactly something that the pigs like.” One day I did. I watched them through the steel bars as the box was lowered into the gas. First, the pigs sniffed in the air. Then they began to move, restlessly. They tried to back out, to escape. And then they screamed. It was a deep howl, the like of which I had never heard before. They gasped in desperation for air, tossing themselves against the walls. Suddenly they collapsed, shaking in spasms, their chests heaving. Time froze.
When it was over, the box ascended and the pigs rolled out on the conveyor belt. Heavy, quiet bodies. A man shackled and hoisted them so they hung upside down on a railing. Their journey on the assembly line began. The next man was dressed in gallon and had a double-edged knife. Blood flooded the floor. The counter on the wall kept ticking: 1200 pigs done today, another 1800 remaining.
Animal welfare and economy
A Swedish team of researchers filmed and analyzed the behavior of pigs being forced into a shaft with carbon dioxide, like the ones I saw. They concluded in a report from 2015: “These behaviours are suggestive of the animals’ survival instincts being triggered to the maximum capacity, which probably induced the highest level of fear and distress possible in the animals’ attempt to survive.” But already in 2004, EFSA’s expert panel established that carbon dioxide is an agonizing way to stun pigs.
After seeing what I saw, I read the EU-legislation again. I read the paragraph that explained why the recommendations to phase out the use of carbon dioxide for pigs was not included in the law: “because the impact assessment revealed that such recommendations were not economically viable at present in the EU.”
As a veterinarian and state employee, my signature was used to assure to the outside world that everything is all right between the slaughterhouse walls. It is not. I found it impossible to work in a system and under a law stating that pain, distress and suffering should be avoided, but in practice endorse all of it.
I resigned eventually, but I cannot stop thinking about the pigs. Their eyes and desperation follow me: I see their history unfold in every piece of sold meat. Meanwhile, counters in slaughterhouses, all over Europe, keep on ticking.
By Lina Gustafsson
Veterinarian and author of the book “The slaughterhouse diaries - a veterinarian’s tale”, published in Swedish in 2020 (Rapport från ett slakteri)