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January 1998
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 meat industry.

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 drops them.

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 now.

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 they eat.

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.

 


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