This Is What Humane Slaughter Looks Like. Is It Good Enough?
Modern Farmer visits one of the most uncompromising cattle ranches in the U.S. to find out.
Photography by Michael Friberg
A $5.25 all-beef hot dog at the Stang’s Hot Dogs and Sausages stand in the Corte Madera mall in Marin County, California, is labeled with enough buzzwords to satisfy the most discerning of foodies. “Contains no nitrates.” “Organic grass fed.” “Certified humane raised.” Its producer, Prather Ranch Meat Company, claims to be the most sustainably raised meat available, and Prather’s hot dog is the most popular item on Stang’s menu. “People pay extra for it,” says owner Jon Stanger. “The name Prather Ranch holds a lot of weight around here.”
The sprawling and lovely 34,000-acre ranch headquarters is located at the northernmost corner of California, near the Oregon border, with the volcanic Mount Shasta providing a scenic backdrop for the sometimes thousands of grazing cows. Prather’s website describes the operation as “a unique closed-herd operation that raises its own hay, breeds its own cattle and does its own slaughter and processing.” The ranch was one of the first ranches to be certified organic for beef products and to gain Certified Humane Raised and Handled approval.
The phone in Prather’s modest beige office rings a lot. But when people call these days, it’s most often not to ask what the cows are fed, or if they’re on antibiotics or hormones, or how lushly and freely they range.
It’s to confirm how peacefully they died.
Technically, humane slaughter became law in the United States with the 1958 Humane Slaughter Act, intended to prevent the “needless suffering” of livestock during slaughter. Compliance, though, historically has been hit-or-miss, and in the intervening decades, after sensational undercover investigations and Internet animal cruelty videos and activist PR campaigns, eaters have begun to demand information about the way meat meets its maker.
If Prather Ranch’s callers are any indication, that concern is growing into its own movement. And while it’s one thing to understand slaughter practices on a theoretical level, it’s another to be in the same room when a cow dies.
To that end, I wanted to find out about slaughter from the most progressive part of the meat industry. Are big slaughterhouses as bad as we imagine? Should we be paying as much attention to how animals die as to how they live? Even under the best circumstances, just how humane can slaughter ever be?
Slaughter is an issue as personal as it is philosophic as it is systematic. And it’s at this confluence that autistic animal welfare advocate Temple Grandin arrived to standardize humane slaughter practices in the United States.
Before Fast Food Nationand PETA, Grandin was lying down among the cows on her aunt’s ranch. She could relate to cows and, she said, think like them. In her book Animals in Translation, Grandin explains that going through life as an autistic person —feeling anxious and threatened by unfamiliar surroundings—is not unlike what cows feel when passing through handling facilities. Grandin describes being spooked by others’ quick movements toward her, and says that’s how she understood that an unfamiliar object in a cow’s line of vision as it proceeds through the chute would scare it and stop the cow (and lineup) in its tracks (leading to both animal stress and a loss of productivity at the slaughterhouse).
But, back in the ’70s, when she was stalking slaughterhouses for her gradschool research, Grandin had trouble getting cattlemen to take her criticisms about their livestock treatment seriously. She found that cattle were being stressed-out unnecessarily by their handlers. Cattle were slipping and falling and getting hurt. In her estimation, by the ’80s things were “very bad.” By the early ’90s, “atrocious.”
Then in 1993, ground beef served at Jack in the Box killed four children in an E. coli outbreak, and even the fast-food giants were forced to make improvements.
Today, Dr. Grandin is a best-selling author, and her Animal Welfare Audit is the standard in the industry. Half of the cattle in the United States and Canada are now handled by equipment Grandin designed. Some of the nation’s largest beef servers and suppliers— McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Cargill, Tyson— pass the points of her audit: at least 95 percent of animals stunned on the first shot (usually with a captive-bolt gun that shoots a steel bolt into the head). No more than 1 percent falling. No more than 3 percent mooing. No more than 25 percent being hit with an electric prod. At this point, she says, “You can take someone right to the stunner line at one of the biggest slaughterhouses in the world,” and they’ll approve of what they see.
She’s a meat eater herself. We met one recent morning at the Iowa Farm Bureau’s annual convention in Des Moines this past winter. “Boy they had some delicious bacon this morning at the hotel,” she tells me, talking even faster than Claire Danes’ portrayal of her in the 2010 HBO movie about her life. “It had pepper stuff on it, it was great.”
In her keynote address in the vast, modern auditorium before a crowd of around 1,100 farmers, scientists and agronomists, she says that nonhumane “handling’s no longer my biggest concern.”
Still, she stresses, without constant management and supervision, people backslide. They drop piglets, or tear tags out of cows’ ears, or use herding dogs that bite. Some slaughterhouses leave cattle in outdoor lots too long when it’s 95 degrees, or workers mix growth drugs into feed incorrectly and overdose the animals.
Overall, though, Grandin concludes at the Iowa convention that aside from some disturbing trends in heat stress and the use of sow-gestation stalls, “Handling’s, like, great,” not least of all because stressing out and abusing animals in the last five minutes before their slaughter leads to lactate releases that make meat tough. According to Grandin, a video of a farmer beating a pig with a gate rod isn’t any more representative of widespread practices than a fiery crash in one Mothers Against Drunk Driving video indicates that every driver on the road is hammered. The current state of humane slaughter affairs is so good that when Grandin spoke to the gathering of Midwestern farmers, her talk was not about handling, but about messaging—“How Farmers Can Connect With Their Consumers.”
“How would [your methods] play with your wedding guests from New York?” Grandin asks them. New Yorkers, she explains, are the people least likely to understand what really happens on your farm. If you can sell it to them, you can sell it to anybody, because it’s the most uninformed people, who spend their lives in offices, abstracted from farming reality, who have the most radically negative views about farms.
In other words, Grandin is describing my general type—suburban raised, urban dwelling, mechanically unskilled — rather pointedly. It was time to witness that $5 hot dog being slaughtered for myself.
Now for full disclosure: I am far from dispassionate toward cows. When I was 23, I spent a few days on a free-range organic farm in Australia, at which point I resolved to someday buy a cow and name her Jenny. At the end of a 300-mile, five-hour drive from San Francisco and at the very end of a long gravel road, I said a polite hello to the cows that stood silently welcoming us to Prather Ranch.
Over bowls of beef stew in their home next to the slaughterhouse, Mary and Jim Rickert, general managers and partial owners, explain that they are serious about humane slaughter—their small, USDA-inspected abattoir onsite is a rarity in the business—because it’s just “common decency and good sense.” Still, they do sometimes get attached to the cattle and occasionally spare one they become too close to, keeping it as a pet. Mary shakes her shoulder-length brown hair when asked if she’d be participating in the slaughter of 21 of their cows tomorrow. “I don’t like to watch,” she says.
Early the next snowy morning, we enter a compact room in the Prather slaughterhouse. All the available space is taken up by one hanging cow being sliced, another hanging cow being skinned and a third, just-stunned cow hanging and being cut open while 5 gallons of blood gush from its body a few feet away from me. Moments ago, we heard this very cow mooing from the knock box on the other side of the wall.
Mary had warned us that “vocalization is not necessarily a good thing,” yet there are low, deep, booming bellows echoing off the walls. Grandin—whom the Rickerts have met, and who sits on the Scientific Committee behind the nonprofit Certified Humane label—considers this a sign of distress. Mary says that Grandin once told her Prather cows might moo because they smell blood and get hip to the scheme.
The next cow, the cow I watch die, is quiet. It is black. It comes casually down a walkway. It steps into a squeeze chute, the metal hugging cage that closes in on the cows’ sides to calm them. Scott Towne, the guy in charge of the killing, hits it with a CASH Knocker, a blank shell shooting from a metal apparatus at the end of the long, wooden-handled device and into the front of the head above the eyes, denting the skull but not penetrating its brain, rendering the animal insensible. Instantly the cow’s eyes close. Its neck is lax and its mouth open, easy as a child asleep at the dinner table, or a businessman asleep on a plane.
Stopping at a bar on the way home to bourbon-gargle the lingering deathiness and nausea from the back of my throat, I ponder the cow’s existence. Whether or not farmers should torture animals, or keep them in disgusting and overcrowded and shit-filled conditions, or murder them slowly, are not even questions. Prather’s Northern California grass-munching herd is obviously as well treated as any in natural life, but “good” death is not so easily codified.
“Can you make a slaughterhouse perfect?” Grandin asked in Iowa. “No, nothing in this world that’s a practical thing can be made perfect. That’s just impossible.”
For those who kill animals for a living, making peace with those imperfections is a daily affair. Sure, Prather’s Towne looks tough enough to kill you in a bar fight, but he smiles easily, giggles sometimes, even. He tells me it makes him sad when the cows aren’t stunned on the first shot. He says that that can happen anywhere, even when a small farm hires him to kill one cow in a field. At Prather, it happens about twice each slaughter day. And the cow that was mooing on our way in isn’t the last one we hear that morning; another starts mooing in the squeeze chute. Because its skull is too old, too thick for a stunner, Towne has to use a 9 mm instead. It moos and moos until Towne yells, “Fire in the hole!” and shoots it between the eyes.
Two cows mooing and two cows having to be shot twice out of 21 is below Grandin’s standards of acceptability, and a higher percentage than at her usual McDonald’s plant audit. But even if I did believe a cow possesses a level of consciousness equal to a human, having seen Prather’s cows living and dead, the Rickerts do live up to their oft-stated goal to “Give them the best life possible.”
Not everyone thinks that’s the point. Ashley Byrne, a campaign specialist at PETA, believes killing animals for food is never ethical.
One of PETA’s tenets is that animals have the right not to suffer. So I ask Byrne, what if, at Prather, they don’t? “We do absolutely advocate for these less-cruel methods to be used as long as animals are being raised for food; we are pragmatic,” she says. Still, in PETA’s thinking, there is no such thing as an acceptable way to kill animals for food, USDA standards or no. “Slaughter can be less cruel,” she says. “But not humane.”
But what about death is humane? Prather doesn’t just give cows the best life possible, but the best death possible. There is hardly an animal in nature—humans included—that dies as quickly and painlessly as Prather’s herd. Thanks to Grandin’s work, even at less rarefied operations than Prather slaughter standards in the U.S. are surprisingly strong.
Three weeks after my visit to Prather, I see a burger made with their beef on a menu. I consider all that I know about the animal’s death. Humane slaughter at the level strenuously striven for at Prather ultimately doesn’t reflect what’s important to cows. It turns a mirror on the people who consume them. I order without hesitation.