The Satya Interview:
Gail Eisnitz of the Humane Farming Association
Gail Eisnitz has been chief investigator with the
Humane Farming Association (HFA) for five years. She talked to Satya
about her new book, Slaughterhouse.
Q: What was the most shocking thing you discovered
in your investigations?
A: Probably the most shocking thing for
me was the fact that while workers were brutalizing animals and filthy
contaminated meat was pouring out of plants, USDA [Department of Agriculture]
inspectors were observing these violations but were prevented from doing
anything about them. It was very disturbing to see the way USDA has
bent over backwards to accommodate the meat industry. Its amazing to
me that after all thats happened in the last 10 years in terms of food
safety issues, skyrocketing contamination and deaths from foodborne
illness, USDA continues to come up with new and innovative ways to accommodate
the meat industry at the publics expense.
It took a long time for that to sink in, because I
tend to give everybody the benefit of the doubt. But the more I learned,
the clearer it became: people who are involved in regulating the meat
industry dont seem to care about what happens to the consumer and they
certainly dont care about animals.
Q: Would you go so far as to say that USDA
is specifically set up to provide the easiest possible regulation of
the meat industry rather than being the watchdog for consumers?
A: Yes, absolutely. The incestuous relationship
between USDA and the meat industry must be addressed, perhaps through
the establishment of a single food regulatory agency which is not responsible
for promoting agricultural markets, one that does not answer to the
Q: I was also struck by the inertia of the
television networks over your revelations. Again and again you present
producers with stories and after initial interest someone higher up
A: I think that some of the producers
I worked with were almost as frustrated as I was. Some of them felt
as strongly as I did about getting this important information to the
public. But the executive producers at the news magazines seem to be
dead set against producing exposs about the treatment of animals in
slaughterhouses. Murder, war, starvation: the public can watch graphic
examples of that. But for some reason, its taboo to put anything on
TV about the slaughter industry. It was extremely frustrating working
with the media.
Q: Can you give an overall impression of the
people who work in slaughterhouses?
A: I saw an amalgam of people. I saw individuals
who didnt care what they did to the animals. Many became callous in
order to do what they had to do so that they wouldnt lose their jobs.
Many became alcoholics as a result. Some workers clearly enjoyed abusing
animals. I saw many impoverished, non-English speaking workers. I saw
grandfathers and grandmothers who were forced to keep working under
horrendous conditions in order to keep their medical insurance to cover
the infirmities theyd developed while working at the plants. I saw the
way they were treatedand it was so heartbreaking to see that companies
that had total disdain for animals also had total disdain for the workforce.
Some workers had given their entire adult lives to the plant and they
got absolutely nothing in return. Nothing, except, of course, carpal
tunnel syndrome and other crippling disabilities.
Q: Take us onto a typical kill floor. What
is it like?
A: When I would go to these places, I
would need to focus on the task at hand. I was there to get the documentation
I needed. The animals are being pushed through the process incredibly
fast. I didnt know people could work that fastand without stopping for
a moment. It is so mechanized; everything keeps moving along and if
something goes wrong, theres little chance of stopping the process because
everything is flowing through so quickly.
Q: You were diagnosed with cancer during your
investigations, and you saw a parallel with the slaughterhouse world.
A: There was definitely a parallel. My
body was falling apart more and more as I continued to document what
was going on. I felt so incredibly frustrated because of the scale of
the atrocities, the fact that it was such an uphill battle and that
the media kept turning a blind eye. I had all this documentation and,
initially at least, I wasnt able to expose it. I guess I internalized
it all and it ended up coming out in my body. Im fine now.
Q: Your book catalogs routine lack of enforcement
of the Humane Slaughter Act (HSA). Why should we bother to pass laws
that are so completely ignored?
A: Thats a point well taken. Fortunately, the Humane
Farming Association has an excellent relationship with the Government
Accountability Project and we have a number of inspectors with whom
we work closely. We will have a better idea if something is being enforced
or not. So, thats good. At least we have a way to see whats going on
But the bottom line is that youve got the
wrong people at the helm. As long as USDA officialswho opposed the Humane
Slaughter Act to begin withare responsible for enforcing humane laws,
then youre right: humane laws simply wont be enforced. It certainly
doesnt work to have these types of laws enforced by the USDA. On top
of that, there arent any civil or criminal penalties for violating the
Humane Slaughter Act, anyway.
The difficulties with enforcement also stem from the
incredible production line speeds that USDA has sanctioned in the plants.
In fact, the line speeds are so incredibly fast that its not even possible
to humanely slaughter the animal. Hopefully, this book will help expose
the problems associated with these outrageous line speeds.
Q: You make your point very clearly when you
say that there are more chickens killed in one day in the U.S. than
there were in one whole year in 1930.
A: Thats the point of the bookto show
how dramatically the industry has changed in the last 15 years and how
that has affected the slaughter process.
Q: But its more than just the line speeds,
surely. Its a complete contempt for any living being, human or non-human,
within the slaughter industry.
A: Thats correct. Fast line speeds seem
to go hand in hand with the total objectification of animals and workers.
Its as if these meteoric line speeds are just a manifestation of the
industrys total disregard for the animal; the fact that the whole process
is a factory operation; that all the people are simply cogs in a wheel.
Its a production mentality: the animals are factors of production, raw
material. While this mentality certainly existed in the past, it is
now a matter of survival for people working in these places.
In the end, the problem is not really about
enforcement. The bottom line in terms of ending the types of atrocities
described in Slaughterhouse is slowing production speeds, and this can
best be accomplished by reducing demand for meat.
Q: How do you answer those who say that the
industry is only responding to demand?
A: The only thing I can say is, Read my
book. Yes, it is true that meat-eating consumers may be subsidizing
the outlandish production rates and resulting atrocities through their
demand for meat. But people do not demand that pigs and chickens be
boiled to death, that cows be skinned and dismembered alive. The demand
that exists is the direct result of deceptive advertising, of USDAs
rubber-stamp approval that meat and poultry have been produced according
to the law. The public demanded passage of the Humane Slaughter and
Meat Inspection Acts with the expectation that animals would be humanely
slaughtered and meat would be contamination free. The public assumes
that when it makes its purchases at the storeparticularly when the product
has the governments seal of approval on itthe product is not contaminated
and the animal was humanely slaughtered. If people knew what they were
really getting, they might not want to support such a system. Thats
why I wrote Slaughterhouse: to provide the average American consumer
(who eats more than 200 pounds of meat and poultry a year) with the
information they need to make more intelligent choices about the food
Q: You focus, understandably, on the end of
animals lives in Slaughterhouse. What about how these animals are raised?
A: Well, thats what HFA works on day in
and day outour campaign against factory farming. And some of that information,
particularly from my most recent investigations, is included in the
book. I describe conditions in hog factories: how breeding sows are
often beaten and are ultimately dragged from their crates by their ears
when their legs finally give out; how runts are smashed to death. I
describe how laying hens often crush their cagemates to death in their
tiny battery cages. I hope Slaughterhouse will empower individuals working
to expose and improve conditions for animals. I tried to write the kind
of book that I wish Id had when I first began my work in animal protection.
Slaughterhouse is available from Prometheus
Books. To contact the Humane Farming Association, write to: 1550 California
Street, Suite 6, San Francisco, CA 94109. Tel.: 415-485-1495.