Meating a wicked problem

Meat is an integral part of human diet in most countries, but the vast majority of people who eat meat in Westernised cultures avoid direct participation in the processes of killing and preparing dead animals. This has led to extensive ethical discussion in academic journals and ongoing scrutiny of the subject in the media. Debate tends to polarize into blame and defensiveness as vegans/vegetarians face of against meat eaters in bitter arguments, and criticism of slaughter practices in the Australian press is often deflected onto other cultures and places.

The meat industry in fact presents a ‘wicked problem’ and, in any imaginable future short of using Star Trek’s food replicators, it will continue to be a wicked problem. Wicked problems are complex and stubborn, and have significant social dimensions. These problems cannot be solved by applying science, technology, or accepted direct reasoning processes. Discussions around them is ongoing, but essentially the framing of the problem can change any proposed solution because there are multiple vested interests. (Rittel and Webber, 1973) The focus in this discussion of the wicked problem is on the difficulties of working in the abattoir, but that work needs to be considered through history and context. In catering for the modern dependency on meat, an industry has been built that creates public risk, leaves those working in it carrying an unfair part of the burden in what are essentially hidden, difficult and shunned activities, and contributes significantly to human and non-human suffering.

In 1906 Upton Sinclair published a novel that has since become a classic. Entitled The Jungle, it is the story of Jurgis Rudkus, his family and their lives after they emigrate from Lithuania to America and become employees in the Chicago stockyards and meatpacking plants. Sinclair wrote the book on assignment from a socialist magazine, spending seven weeks working in the yards to document the conditions of migrant workers, the standards of the meat packing industry and the corruption in the city at the time.  He wrote describing a period of dreadful poverty and troubled industrial relations. (Sinclair, 1906, 2004) However, Sinclair contributed to important social change as laws were passed soon after his book became a best seller – laws about food quality, meat inspection and child labour. The Humane Slaughter Act took much longer, but was finally passed in 1958.  

Despite this legislative success, the stubborn practical problems Sinclair identified in the industry remain. In 1997, Gail Eisnitz, from the Humane Farming Association in America, published an expose entitled Slaughterhouse: the Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect and Inhumane Treatment inside the US Meat Industry. The book was republished in 2006, and reveals continuing poor standards of meat inspection and dreadful animal cruelty, such as cows being skinned alive. Like Sinclair’s book it also details corruption in the industry and an extensive system of ‘payola’. (Eisnitz, 1997, 2006) In 2011, Timothy Pachirat wrote Every Twelve Seconds, another deep ethnographic investigation into the industry with its predominantly ethnic workers,  and animal ‘disassembly’ lines. The conclusion of his research is clear: industrialised abattoirs in America have still not managed to control issues of corruption, poor food quality, worker exploitation or animal cruelty. (Pachirat, 2011)

In Australia, the picture has been slightly different, but the last three years has seen regular negative publicity about domestic slaughterhouse workers and animal abuse. The live sheep and cattle trades are a running political sore because of disagreements over national and international animal handling and Australia’s  meat trade suffers blows with every unpleasant story. When live exports to Indonesia were stopped in 2011, a Quarterly Essay by Anna Krien, entitled ‘Us and Them’ was later dedicated largely to explaining the cross cultural handling of Australian cattle in the physical environments of slaughterhouses in Indonesia. Her literary and affect-based  documentation of the process did not completely defuse the problem but it did help to reduce demonization of the overseas workers and allay the worst public anxieties about the process. (Krien, 2012)

Contextualise these very specific national concerns about animal handling  with potentially global pandemic health risks like SARS, mad cow disease and avian flu that have emerged from slaughterhouses and food processing and we really see that the meat and animal food industry is massively troubled. And confront even dedicated meat eaters with Pachirat’s  2009 statistics of over 8,520,225,000 chickens, 113, 600,000 pigs, 33, 300,000 cattle, 944,200 calves and 245,768,000 turkeys per year killed for food and it gives pause for thought. In words, that is over eight thousand five hundred million chickens, over one hundred and thirteen and a half million pigs, and so on, and more have been killed each year since. These are animals that live and die as a food source for another species. They have no purpose or autonomous existence beyond a human dinner plate. This is the way it has been since farming and food production became a heavily industrialised process. This is not the way it has always been, and that bears thinking about when considering the psychology of workers. As humans we have been programmed biologically to be part of a complex ecosystem and have spent our development in very different relationships with animals than those we have now.

Looking at the continuing history of environmental, social and ethical problems within the industry, and the complexity and scale of them, it is important that we continue to develop new conversations. Although personal food choices are a valid aspect of this subject, it is necessary to move beyond them. To allow discussion to continually collapse into defensive/aggressive individual morality games around meat is not helpful. To assume that policy protects the vulnerable in the bloody centre of such an industrial juggernaut is naiive. To think that cows have a nationality that entitles them to special treatment in the face of these global statistics becomes absurd. Approaches are needed that will allow reframing – a shift, if you will, into a different paradigm, a different way of seeing what we do, why we do it and how we do it.

New strategies need to be built to approach industrial meat production and engage consumers. Attitudes to the industry need to be explored, and asking questions can be the start of a process that will reveal unexplored cultural assumptions, power discrepancies or contradictory attitudes. And these questions, and the answers they provoke, will provide tools for re-evaluating different aspects of the wicked problem presented by slaughterhouses and meat processing.

An example of anomalous thinking and behavior connected to the industry can be found around the question of cattle and freedom. Pachirat tells the story of six cows escaping a holding yard in Nebraska. One ran to a neighboring slaughterhouse yard and was gunned down by police. Employees from that slaughterhouse witnessed the killing and were angry and upset. A disruption to the normal running of the business situated the cow as a threat that had to be violently dealt with by law enforcement officers, and workers who kill and process thousands of cattle a year were shocked by the brutality they had seen. This incident of animal escape and the public discussion that attended it is not unique. Last year an escaped slaughterhouse cow in Bavaria was given the name Yvonne and now exists at the centre of a controversy between hunters, who have been given the right to shoot her on sight, and animal lovers who see her freedom as a powerful victory symbol in a dehumanizing system.

Workers also carry complicated burdens of conflicted feelings for the rest of the culture. Those who kill animals or deal with the animal products in non-Western cultures often form a lower or ‘untouchable’ group. While this separation does not occur in a formal sense in modern Westernised societies, reactions to media exposure of incidents of animal abuse in Australian slaughterhouses tend to generate revulsion in the general public and discussions are not particularly sympathetic to slaughterhouse workers. Putting aside the suspect rhetoric of ‘isolated incidents’ that gets trotted out at times like this, some awareness of the slaughterhouse worker’s situation seems to be in order.

This is not a job that many people want to do and it is not a job that many people can do for any length of time. All of the deep ethnography accounts from those who have done their work in slaughterhouses point out that strong coping mechanisms are often used: drinking alcohol, using drugs, fights amongst workers, brutality to other workers and the animals, and grim humour. Upton Sinclair, in The Jungle, says of the tendency to violence:

…men who have to crack the heads of animals all day seem to get into the habit, and to practice on their friends, and even on their families, between times …

Investigating what Sinclair wrote, recent research has compared employees in other assembly line work with slaughterhouse worker populations and has found a higher incidence of violent crime in the latter. This is not simple cause/effect research but an analysis that records higher rates of arrest for violent crimes, rape and other sex offences in a significant cross industry comparison. (Fitgerald, Kalof and Dietz, 2011) In turn, these findings can be linked directly to other research which suggests that animal abuse is connected to intra-human violence. (Beirn, 2004) As slaughterhouse worker populations are often immigrants and from lower socio-economic classes this connection between occupation and increased levels of violent crime can very easily be masked by more familiar ways of reading statistics describing socio-economic disadvantage.

Also, the specifics of the jobs within the slaughterhouse have gradations of difficulty that are not generally recognized. Sinclair’s story from early last century describes the work environments as open, and the killing and dismembering of large animals as easily visible, and even on display to visitors. Pachirat points out that now, not only does punitive legislation ensure controlled access to these sites, the buildings and processes of the industry conceal the more difficult processes of killing even from its own employees. As he puts it, the killing of the animals is ‘psychologically and morally segregated’ from the other work of the slaughterhouse to preserve the safety and sanity of the workers. When Pachirat says he wants to be trained in ‘knocking’, killing the cattle, his more experienced friend tells him bluntly he doesn’t: “Because, man, that’s killing … that shit will fuck you up for real.’

So the burden of the worst of this work becomes even more concentrated on an ever smaller group of slaughterhouse workers. A group of workers that surely require special attention as having to endure extreme challenges on a daily basis that could affect the quality of their lives and – in turn – impact on vulnerable people within their own families and social circles, and upon the vulnerable living creatures they must handle to their end. But accessing and describing this world is not simple and depends largely upon anecdotal accounts with little formal recognition in industrial relations or psychology. The material that is there suggests that perpetration-induced trauma may be useful in thinking through the abattoir worker experience.

Post-traumatic stress is now widely recognized in the history in the psychology of human conflict reaching back to the first World War, and presents potential symptoms of intrusive distressing recollections, numbing, avoidance or bursts of anger after experiences of fear, helplessness or horror. There is no current confirmed connection between abattoir workers and post-traumatic stress disorder; however, recent work suggests a possible link to perpetration-induced traumatic stress, a related disorder that focuses on the trauma of those who kill. Rachel McNair offers an overview of occupations that might legitimately be studied for the psychological effects of killing. These include policemen who kill in the line of duty, euthanasia doctors in Holland, Abortion practitioners, and some animal workers who must euthanize healthy animals. (McNair, 2002) Separate articles have been written accounting for perpetrator-induced stress in animal shelter workers and in veterinarians who have to destroy healthy animals. ( Rholf, 2005, Whiting, 2011) Slaughterhouse workers must also repeatedly kill healthy animals and could potentially be a group dealing with extra stressors in their work as a result. Again, this is already suggested in the studies of raised levels of violent crime in slaughterhouse communities, so perpetrator-induced traumatic stress maybe a potential pathway for understanding their particular predicament.

Although this proposed pathway is hypothetical, it presents an opportunity to extend the conversation about the industry and to focus constructively (as opposed to sensationally) on the workers in the industry and their experiences. Slaughterhouses and meat processing generate complicated practical, philosophical, ethical and social problems that travel across cultures and affect millions of humans and non-humans.  To allow it to continue to be conducted purely as an economic activity and consign its management to those concerned only with productivity is culturally short sighted. Not only could such short sighted thinking result in ever greater health threats to the planet’s human population in the forseeable future, it is cruel and unjust to ignore the monstrous burden it creates for a few people, and to pretend that the animals processed do not suffer due to this situation is willful blindness.  Please let’s talk.


Eisnitz, Gail. Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment inside the U.S. Meat Industry.  New York: Prrometheus Books, 2006.

Krien, Anna. “Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals.” Quarterly Essay 45 (2012): 1-85.

McNair, Rachel. Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing. Psychological Dimensions of War and Peace. Edited by Harvey Langholtz New York: Authors Choice Press, 2005. 2002.

Pachirat, Timothy. Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialised Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. Yale Agrarian Studies Series. Edited by James C.  Scott New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Rittel, Horst  W.J.  and Melvin M. Webber “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences 4 (1973): 155-69.

Rohlf, Vanessa and Pauleen Bennett. “Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress in Persons Who Euthanise Nonhuman Animals in Surgeries, Animal Shelters and Laboratories.” Society and Animals 13, no. 3 (2005): 201-20.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Edited by Cynthia Brantley Johnson New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004. 1906.

Whiting, Terry L. and Colleen R. Marion. “Perpetation-Induced Traumatic Stress – a Risk for Veterinarians Involved in the Destruction of Healthy Animals.” The Canadian Veterinary Journal 52, no. 7 (July 2011): 794-96.