Slaughterhouse Zero

Following on from my post about our compost toilet (the full photo experience is now available at Resilience.org, by the way), I thought I’d stick with the visceral theme and devote a few words to the closure of my local abattoir in the centre of my town, only about a mile from my holding. Apparently it failed to meet modern hygiene standards.

I imagine this will be one of the less mourned business closures among the good people of Frome. Tales abounded of the rivers of blood running down Vicarage Street at dead of night, or the unearthly screams of doomed animals reverberating off the walls of St Johns church. Urban myths, methinks. Plenty of people are happy to eat meat, but fewer like to be reminded about what eating meat involves. I welcomed the fact that the abattoir was in the town centre, so that people going about their daily business could at least see the trucks and trailers of live animals heading to their final destination and have some kind of connection to the business of life and death that is farming. Even so, most local residents I’ve talked to didn’t know there was an abattoir in town.

I for one will mourn its loss. I can’t say I ever particularly enjoyed taking my animals there – not least because of the increasingly overbearing legislation and form-filling that has accumulated around the raising and slaughtering of livestock in recent years, mostly as a result of food scares associated with large-scale farming that nevertheless bite hardest on small-scale farmers. But it was good to have a small local abattoir that was happy to process just a few animals, and which was close enough by to keep the stress of moving them to a minimum. In the 1980s there were more than a thousand abattoirs in Britain, a number that has now dwindled to less than 300. Leaving aside issues about the role of livestock in sustainable farming (I’ll be considering this in more detail soon) I’m not at all convinced that these closures are a good thing for either animal or human welfare. Our culture seems endlessly concerned with micro-managing small risks of the kind that lie behind small abattoir closures, while blithely ignoring much larger risks – climate change, to name but one.

If we’re to have the kind of small farm future that I think we need to create a just and sustainable society then we’ll also need a local agricultural infrastructure to support it. The closure of Frome’s abattoir is one more little step in the wrong direction. Time was when the point of a small market town like Frome was mostly to provide those kind of services to the people living and working in its rural surroundings. It wasn’t so long ago that there was still a cattle market in the town centre. Year by year, the contact of the general public with farming is eroded.

A walk around Frome reveals a plethora of lovely old buildings with all manner of hatchways, trapdoors, gantries, workshops, stables and so forth that show how work, including agricultural work, was once part of daily residential life in the town. Today they’re almost purely residential. Many of these buildings now have listed status and are part of the town’s conservation area. Strange how we’re so concerned to preserve the form of old buildings but so happy to dispose of their function. Those who speak up for a more localised mixed agriculture are widely dismissed as backward-looking romantics, whereas those who maintain the pretence of it by preserving old buildings are hailed as forward-thinking conservationists standing up to the vandalism of development.

To me, the more telling vandalism is in the gutting of local economies, symbolised by the huge industrial abattoirs, markets, feedlots and all the other paraphernalia of modern large-scale farming, which removes agriculture from public view. In the past, towns and cities usually grew up around working functions, as commercial or industrial centres. But now these functions have become so large and concentrated that often they can no longer fit even within the distended boundaries of our modern cities. The port at Shanghai, the largest in the world, at 3,600km2 is more than twice the size of Greater London. And most of Britain’s old port cities, including London, are no longer working ports – a function that has been outsourced to non-urban places like Felixstowe with greater legroom. All this raises the question of what modern towns and cities are actually for…but that’s something I aim to look at in another post.

18 thoughts on “Slaughterhouse Zero

  1. You get that distinct aftertaste of cardboard talking to people who choose to live in those kinds of houses – the ones where the bolt gun seems to have been used on the house itself.

    300 abbatoirs is extremely low. I thought this country had some proper concentration going on, but we still have the equivalent of 15 times more than you (rough calculation). Are mobile abbatoirs legal in the UK?

  2. A tip of the hat to the Kurt Vonnegut reference. Nicely done sir.

    I also like the poignant contrast of preservation against development without preservation of original function. One saving grace, if you can get past the hypocrisy, having the older buildings preserved at least allows some the touch and feel of a previous culture… lest the only reminder be a two dimensional page in a book, or a painting or photograph of the way it used to be.

    There seems to be quite and artisanal food movement afoot on our side of the pond. These still suffer the loss of local slaughter infrastructure in many instances, but my sense is some progress is being made. Craft beer is really taking off locally and with it more attention to other artisan and local ingredients for the dinner plate. Perhaps all is not yet lost.

  3. Also a topic of some interest in the antipodes. I was at a seminar on local innovative farm businesses in Sth Gippsland a few weeks ago. People raising free-range heritage pork, pasture fed beef and sheep and so on. The small abattoirs in local towns have been closing which means long journeys for the animals for slaughtering. And a long trip back for the processed meat to be sold at local farmers markets!

    It’s legal to have animals slaughtered onfarm as long as the meat is used for personal consumption.

    As it happens, I slaughtered 5 cockerels for a friend a few suburbs away on Monday. She breeds Cochins. She can’t keep backyard roosters in Melbourne due to the noise once they mature and start crowing. (There’s still one rooster kept for breeding purposes which has so far escaped censure.) And as anyone who has kept chickens will know, keeping multiple cockerels/roosters just leads to lots of fighting, bullying and stress for the animals.

    One of my wife’s relations is doing a research project on options for more localised slaughtering. They have backing from a well known institution. It will be interesting to see what comes from it.

  4. Have you read Carrie Breitbach’s 2007 piece? I consider it one of the best explorations of some of the relevant ideas — or at least I did when I read it some years ago. Can’t say for sure if it holds up, but it centers around some issues similar to what you’re addressing: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01426390701552696.

    Also, though only tangentially related, a recent paper produced simulation evidence of the potential negative effects of de-linking local food systems: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/fee.1203/full.

    Cheers~

  5. I am an (armchair) member of the Frome Society for Local Study & its fascinating looking at what Industry the town once had, Maltings, Power Station, Gas Works, Engine Shed & Railway yard, to name but a few – all now gone. OK perhaps good riddance for the Gas Works but you sometimes wonder what keeps us going now. I was born in Bristol & can remember when the Docks were still working – by then mostly Sandboats admittedly.

    Now however all these sorts of activities are mostly hidden away.

  6. Thanks for those comments & references – will follow up. No mobile abattoirs allowed around here as far as I know. Farmers are allowed to kill their own stock for personal consumption (but only the person who actually killed the animal is allowed to eat it, not anyone else – including their own family…one of the strangest bits of legislation I know). But then there are lots of regs about disposing of various tissues, which makes it tricky unless you happen to have a fully approved incinerator on site. Killing poultry is a bit less problematic. Yeah, I guess it’s good to preserve old buildings even if not for their original use – shame they didn’t preserve more actual farm buildings, so I didn’t have to live in a trailer (and only then after wrangling for years with the local council…) Ah well.

    • Here if you hit a deer on the road and kill it you can claim the road kill – but you still need to inform the appropriate folks (DNR for us) that you killed a deer. You are not allowed to sell the venison. You may donate it to a shelter, food pantry, or other charity willing to deal with it.

      I feel pretty safe suggesting we haven’t yet come to the point where a farmer would ‘accidentally’ run over his livestock so that he could harvest them himself. Who thinks of such things? The same guy who ponders why only the individual who actually kills an animal on the farm in the UK may eat it. But then I also wonder why ‘the cheese stands alone’…

    • The restriction only allowing self-consumption after onfarm slaughtering sounds odd. I wonder what was the ostensible reason behind that?

      The mobile slaughterers are very busy in the area around our block. There’s a 2 month waiting list at times. From memory, the relevant legislation says something to the effect that the remains after dressing the carcass are to be taken to an authorised point of disposal unless this is not practical in which case they may be buried with mandated minimum depths, distance to a watercourse and so on. It makes sense IMO to bury the gloopy bits as a nutrient recycling mechanism.

      • Sounding good.

        The reason behind that bit of legislation is the similar to the one that advises you as a non-doctor to never administer medication to a sick person – who can of course be handed it by you and take it himself, even if he too isn’t a doctor.

        That times two, and you have legislation advising each person to not let a dead animal leave their hands…

  7. One issue that Chris’s posting raised – for me at least is not only how we have become insulated from so much work that used to go on in the public domain BUT the effect it has on our children. In the past they saw, or could even get involved in a whole host of activities from which they are now excluded. There is an argument that this is especially important for boys as they need to ‘learn’ to be an adult male in the way girls do not have to

    Q laughter from Mrs Spudman and Mrs Boxall – Adult Male, whats that?

    • Anyone watching American politics these days would have to wonder whatever happened to the Adult Male (or any gender for that matter). I’m not sure blood in the teeth agrarianism is the cure, but am equally not convinced a good dose of small community sensibility wouldn’t go a very long way to helping matters.

      Growing up, our house rules included the prescription that if you wanted to go fishing and keep your catch you had to clean your catch yourself. This got Mom ‘off the hook’, but more importantly it taught my sibs and I about killing what you eat (and that catfish are easier to clean than bass). Perhaps fish are easier to kill than a bunny rabbit or a lamb… they aren’t mammals. Even baiting a fish hook with a worm is too much for some. Oh well.

  8. But this is progress and modernisation Chris! We can get others to do all the dirty work for us and behind closed doors! We (privileged) humans weren’t meant for a life toiling away in the dirt, and getting blood on our hands from the slaughtering animals… 😉

    Count me out of a world where humans ‘are decoupled from the land’ as the ecomodernists say. Their vision of the future truly is a dystopian one in my view.

    What doesn’t make sense about the closing of smaller slaughterhouses, and the associated loss of infrastructure that support smaller farms is that it only supports the growth of larger, industrial-scale farms – from which the problems arise. When considering risk we need to consider the scale as well. Small, local slaughterhouses can only affect a limited amount of people, should there be a hygeine/public health issue. With a large slaughterhouse obviously that risk is greatly magnified by the amount of people that can be affected. Surely that isn’t too difficult a concept to grasp?

    This article is 5 years old – but highlights the issue: http://fuw.org.uk/fsa-plans-could-close-majority-of-welsh-abattoirssays-fuw/

  9. As far as I understand it, there were two issues.

    Firstly a lot of the slaughterhouses were pretty disgusting before the EU Regs came in, BUT then the UK Government ‘gold plated’ the rules, largely so that only the ‘Big Boys’ could remain in business

  10. Ah, slaughterhouses, the lack of is the bane of the local food movement. The US has an odd system of custom and inspected slaughterhouses. I can sell you a side of beef, pork or lamb from a custom slaughter house. But I can’t sell you a cut of meat: ex. Leg of lamb. That would have to come from an inspected slaughterhouse (USDA), of which there are very few.

    There is actually a serious push in state legislatures this year to pass a law allowing custom meat to be sold as cuts. That would be a serious game changer, in a positive way, for the small farmer.

  11. Firstly there was never rivers of blood down vicarage street and 2 you could not hear unearthly screams I’ve been in there on killing days and never heard the animals scream the most you would hear is a moo or 2 from the cows I have been around it since I was 7 years old my dad worked there and I feel that this is very biased by someone who doesn’t want to face the facts of life!

    • Katherine, thanks for commenting – nice to hear an insider’s voice. Just to clarify – I agree there were never rivers of blood or unearthly screams. I hope I made that clear in the post. I’ve heard people in town say such things, but I tried to suggest in the post that these claims were untrue. On reflection, though, I don’t think I should have said ‘tales abounded’ because it was never more than a handful of people I heard say it. Please forgive my poetic licence… I was always happy with the service I got from Frome abattoir!

    • Katherine:
      Do you recall what the Frome abattoir did with the inedible pieces? I ask because the sanitation question is often raised and in at least two cases I know of in the Midwest US where small operations closed a good deal of the cited reason fell to sanitary issues and for one the disposal of inedible materials was central.

      Before I leave the notion sanitation issues ’caused’ these closures I should add that competition from major packing plants and other market forces contributed. It was my understanding that as margins thinned and commercial viability waned the expenses around sanitation became more pressing.

      • No I don’t know as I very rarely visited on days that they were busy I usually visited on days when they had butchers coming to pick up their orders.

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