We humans like to outsource the things that give us the creeps. Funeral parlours, sewerage systems, landfills, abattoirs, these places are all part of the scaffolding for the modern Australian lifestyle but we’ve somehow collectively agreed that life is less of a downer when we can tuck them out of sight from our daily commutes.

Death and rubbish are uncomfortable. They make us ask big questions about the way we live, demand that we look at the impact of our decisions to live a certain way, and question whether we’re ok taking the – more often than not, mindless – path we’re on. Few things trump the discomfort of being asked to challenge your preconceived ideas about How Our System Works and your own role in that system.

Several months ago, I was part of a crew of young people who took a tour of an Australian abattoir (or cattle processor) – a little outside of Toowoomba in Queensland’s Darling Downs region. We were there as part of a collaborative project called BeefJam launched by Youth Food Movement Australia and Target 100, an initiative of Australian cattle and sheep farmers to talk to the community about the red meat industry and sustainability.

I had the opportunity to see one of those places that we tend not to think about whenever we bite into a pulled pork whatever on a Friday night out. And before you ask the question, five months later, yes, I still eat meat, though it’s my own choice to not eat very much of it, and yes, I still picture the abattoir every time that I do.

To be clear, this visit wasn’t about shying away from the widely acknowledged and serious challenges of meat production (detailed, albeit very differently, by the likes of Target 100 and Meat Free Week). But rather than disengage with meat altogether, it was about confronting meat in our own backyard and the grey areas that exist around an issue that can become so black and white.

I came out of the experience hungry to talk about what I’d seen, as did my fellow team mates, and these points more or less encapsulate that:

WHAT WE SAW ||

Let’s talk nuts and bolts. You can roughly break down our visit to the abattoir into 4 stages:

STAGE ONE // Arrival

Upon arrival and after being suited up in white pants and jackets – OH&S is serious business in a processor- we were taken to see the cattle who were stored in holding pens outside the processor. Most of the cattle had arrived early that morning from their various farms, and the atmosphere was calm and quiet. The cattle are deliberately kept in conditions as close as possible to those they’re accustomed to in their home farms . As was explained to us, a sudden change in environment can cause undue stress to the animals and also affect the quality of meat they produce.

STAGE TWO // The start and end

The cattle entered the processor through a single door, one by one. Once through the door, which closes after each cow enters and reopens for the next, the cattle are delivered a bolt of compressed air to the head on the knocking block and immediately rendered unconscious. The animal’s body is then cradled down so it is lying on its back with its neck exposed and a single slaughterman, who at the abattoir we went to was also an Imam – an Islamic leader – says a prayer and cuts the animal’s throat (the animals which we saw processed were certified halal).

STAGE THREE // Segmenting

Their bodies are then hung and bled, and begin to move their way along a carcass line, upon which their bodies are segmented into different parts by the many people stationed along the line. Each person on the line has their own highly specialised role – it takes years of training and experience to act in some positions along the line – that they’ll carry out on each carcass. For example, one person is responsible for removing the hooves, another prepares the skin for removal by severing it, and operates the machine that removes it, and someone splits the carcass in half with a large saw.

STAGE FOUR // Packaging

Carcass breakdown begins in the next morning once the carcass is chilled. As the carcass is broken down into smaller pieces as it moves along the line, the meat cuts are separated, portioned out and packaged up in plastic bags and cardboard boxes, ready to be delivered out to butchers, supermarkets and other suppliers or retailers as each order required. In terms of processed meats- that is, meat sold in boxes – Australia exports roughly 70% of its total beef and veal production to over 80 countries. Animal products also go on to be used in making a whole range of non-food products such as leather, soaps, cosmetics, glues, plastics and candles.

Beef Jam_July 2015_Columodwyer_butcher

HOW I FELT ||

It would be fair to say that for all of us who had never visited an abattoir before – and maybe for some of those in the group who had – visiting an abattoir was a highly intense experience. Seeing an animal as a sentient being outside a building, and then several minutes later seeing that animal move through a highly efficient conveyer system as a carcass, was pretty hard. Purchasing meat from a supermarket often feels like such a sanitised experience, and the contrast between this environment and that, was strong. It was very clean, it was highly professional, and everyone had their role to play. It felt systematic, challenging and big – the bodies were big, the numbers of people were big, the systems were big.

For myself, if anything a self-professed meat sceptic, it was also honestly a relief to see the high levels of professionalism on display, both in the systems at work and from the people who worked there. What would have been most distressing – and what many of us consumers in our group feared – would be seeing signs of animal distress, and also signs of wastage. I saw neither. Whilst not all animals may be privy to such treatment upon slaughter for meat, it felt like this story around how processing can work in Australia, and the stories of the real people who work in processors, are rarely told in Australian food media, and it seems they should be if we’re looking to build greater transparency and trust in our food system, and our local one in particular.

THE IMPACT OF MEETING THE PRODUCERS ||

Visiting a processor in the company of young producers – those who invest their livelihoods in rearing their cattle – had a massive influence on the way us consumers felt about the experience. As any ordinary human, I care a bunch about the humane treatment of animals and based off what I read in the media I was pretty nervous about what I might see. But truth be told, the crew of producers amongst us wanted nothing more than for the animals to be healthy, safe and happy and seeing them respond as positively to the system as they did – and seeing them express their own relief, pride even, in the system they sent their cattle to – really framed my own experience.

Spending time with those who work in the industry broke down stereotypes and made me realise that we lose a huge opportunity to better the system, for consumers, farmers and the environment, when we simply typecast the meat industry as solely a heartless money-driven enterprise. The experience of meeting those people allowed me to understand the immense complexity of the system. While I don’t have to agree with all parts of what’s happening, meeting those guys allowed me to humanise the industry, and better understand my capacity to change it.

TALKING ABOUT IT AFTERWARDS ||

The two weeks following the visit was a festival of abattoir conversations. Drop into conversation that you’ve just been to an abattoir and you’ll either be barraged with questions, or receive awkward stony faced silence from people who don’t really want to know. What surprised me at first was not necessarily what people asked, but my own response to their questions and assumptions. Assumptions which I myself held until two weeks prior.

I found I had low tolerance for those who chose to eat meat whilst judging those who worked in the industry. Many of us who are isolated from production find it easy to think that those who work on an abattoir production line are cold, unemotional or more inherently capable of something that we’re not. This experience smashed that assumption out of the park , and several times I found myself defending those who work in the industry as ordinary people who have simply had a difference experience of the world than theirs.

I also found myself with a sudden desire to write about the experience, a desire matched by my terror at the idea of writing about the topic of meat from the ‘grey zone’ – the place I usually find myself somewhere in between those who advocate vegetarianism and those who advocate meat eating. Meat eating after all is a conversation which tends to polarise in the extreme.

If anything, the experience reminded me of why I believe transparency is so damn important and reinforced my belief that if we’re going to let people make their own decisions about what they eat, then we also need to let them in on the story of how their food is produced – whether it creeps them out or not – and respect their right to make informed food choices based on that accurate information.

For me, I still eat the occasional steak or minced beef lasagne, and when I do, I say a silent thank you to those I know – animal and human – that allow me to do so. For me, I feel better for knowing, albeit roughly, what the process is that got the meat to my plate. While I still sometimes question the ethics of eating animals when I have replacements to hand, I don’t question the humanity of those who work in it. Nor will I stop pushing for transparency around those things that give us the creeps.

Related: Read more in the Beefjam series so far

Target 100 YFM BeefJam

Image credits: Colum O’Dwyer

Thea Soutar