Vegantrav's Reviews > Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight

Every Twelve Seconds by Timothy Pachirat
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's review
Feb 05, 2012

it was amazing
Read in February, 2012

Every Twelve Seconds will be of interest to anyone concerned about food safety, the exploitation of workers in modern industrialized society, and the abuse and mistreatment of animals.

Every Twelve Seconds is a first-hand account of the gruesome operations of an Omaha slaughterhouse. The author, Timothy Pachirat, is a professor in the Department of Politics at The New School University, and he obtained an entry level position at the slaughterhouse in order to see and document exactly how cattle are killed and processed. He worked in several different areas and was able to see the entire scope of the operation in the five and a half months that he worked at the abattoir.

As a vegan, I am predisposed to be sympathetic to Pachirat’s project, but were I someone who eats meat, I have no doubt that I would still be horrified by what is revealed in the pages of Every Twelve Seconds.

First, if you eat meat, you should definitely cook it at as a high a temperature as possible to kill the bacteria that are present. There is no question that most of the meat that is eaten is tainted with fecal matter and other contaminants, which explains why we often see outbreaks of E. coli-based food poisoning.

Additionally, your meat comes at a high cost to the workers who produce it. As the title of the book indicates, the slaughterhouse where Pachirat works kills a cow every twelve seconds. Speed, rather than quality, is the primary driving force in the slaughterhouse: the longer it takes to process a cow, the more hours that the company must pay the workers, and the more hours that the workers work, the less profit the company makes.

With speed being of primary importance, USDA inspectors are viewed as the enemy. The management and all the workers, whose jobs depend upon pleasing their managers, do whatever they can to deceive the inspectors and to skirt, as much as possible, the food safety regulations, which invariably slow the production line, that the USDA inspectors are trying to enforce.

The workers themselves are almost exclusively immigrants or the very poor and uneducated. They work grueling hours, often 10 or more hours a day, six days a week, and their pay is usually barely above minimum wage. Their jobs are highly dangerous because they are working with knives, implements, and machines for deconstructing the bodies of cows into meat: cuts (including loss of fingers) and crushing wounds and repetitive motion injuries are a constant hazard. The slaughterhouse itself assaults the senses with a stench that even soaks into the workers themselves to the extent that they can’t even wash it off. The workers are constantly scrutinized by supervisors and managers and can be fired on a whim for minor infractions or for being too slow or even for taking unapproved bathroom breaks. It is extraordinarily stressful work, both physically and psychologically. Due to these working conditions, the turnover rate is astronomical, nearing 100% per year for most slaughterhouses.

At one point in the book, Pachirat describes the plight of the knocker: the knocker uses a captive-bolt stun gun to render the cows unconscious; he places the gun against the forehead of a cow, which is often thrashing its head wildly in terror, and shoots the bolt into the cow’s forehead to knock it out. Often, it takes more than one shot to knock out the cow because it won’t hold still. Most of the workers in the slaughterhouse believe that the knocker’s job is the worst possible job. The knockers often suffer nightmares and need psychiatric help due to the effects of their job. One of Pachirat’s co-workers succinctly describes the problem with the knocker’s job when Pachirat inquires what’s wrong with the job: “Because, man, that’s killing; that shit will fuck you up for real.”

Of course, there is also the problem of animal abuse: cows often are not properly stunned and so can move down the production line while still conscious: in this conscious condition, they will have their carotid arteries and jugular veins slashed, but before they bleed out and die and while still conscious, they will have their tails and rear right leg cut off. Now, this isn’t the norm: most cows are stunned before the processing begins, but there are still a number of cows who do slip through to the production line without being knocked out. There is also a problem when a cow falls in the chutes that lead to the kill area: many times, the workers will not try to help the cow up but will instead let it be trampled by the other cows that are being forced through the chutes with electrical prods. When the workers do try to help a downed cow, they can be unbelievably cruel: Pachirat relates one instance in which a nose clamp is put into a cow’s nostrils, and the workers pull so hard that they rip through the cow’s nose. For the animals, their deaths are fraught with terror and horrific abuse: death in an abattoir is anything but a good death.

Pachirat argues that the problem with the slaughterhouse is that it is completely hidden from public view: the vast majority of the public has no idea what goes into the production of meat in terms of how unsafe it really is, in terms of how it exploits the workers, and in terms of how the animals are abused. Pachirat is hopeful that, if the true nature of the slaughterhouse were known, conditions could be improved, but he is also realistic enough to know that, even if the things he exposes in this book were to become common knowledge, the public might very well find some way to sequester this knowledge, to block it out, so that they could eat their meat in peace and with a clear conscience.

I do not see how anyone provided with the information that Pachirat documents in this book could continue to eat meat with a clear conscience. This is a book that should unsettle meat eaters; it should disturb them deeply; and if their consciences and sense of compassion—both for the workers and the animals—serve as their guides in any moral way, then what is revealed in this book should spur them to re-think whether their decision to eat meat is really ethical.
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