where meat comes from

When I was a child the only times we get to eat meat was when there was some sort of festival or a big family gathering. A live chicken would be sacrificed for the occasion. My grandma would slit its throat, collect its blood in a bowl which were then used to make congealed blood. Then she doused it with hot water and plucked the feathers off. It was a process that required practice and skill and she did everything quickly and efficiently.

By the time I could cook the economy had improved immensely and we ate meat when we feel like it. Meat was also readily available in the markets and supermarkets. Occasionally someone from the countryside would bring a live chicken to the house as a present but for the most part someone else did the dirty work for us.

I never did the dirty work. I even skipped bio class in school when we had to dissect live frogs and birds. The only things I’ve ever killed were ants, occasionally spiders, and roaches (squeamishly). Otherwise, I have never killed or stayed in the presence of a killing. I’d always sneaked off.

All this goes to say being in the presence of mass killing was the first for me. It’s not that easy to visit a slaughterhouse if you’re not in the meat business, but after the district vets gave the go ahead, the virology and zoonosis team at the OUCRU took me with them on their visit to the slaughterhouse in Cao Lanh, Dong Thap, down in the Mekong.

Their operation hours were from midnight to 4 or 5am, so we arrived at around 1:30 am. The front gate had overgrown vines all over them, and aside from the light at the gate the path inside was unlit. Using flashlights we made our way inside. The screaming was horrific.

I’d expected to throw up and get sick but my body just sort of removed itself. It was a surreal place where live and kicking pigs were swiftly reduced to hanging slabs of meat. It being a slaughterhouse, and that we’d come with the expectation of seeing killings made killing a norm of the place. Men worked hard and methodically. They wore flappy plastic slippers, many were bare feet, bare backed, armed with a single knife. The contact couldn’t be any closer. The killing was fairly rudimentary, everything was done by hand on cement slabs and floor. The zoonosis team wanted to study these people, to see what was transmitted to them via the animals, and if they’d build up any immunity over time. This should be the jobs of vets but apparently they’d never done it. “It’s too sensitive,” they say.

At 1:30am, there were still lots of pigs waiting in the pens. Some of them were too tired, probably from the rough way they were transported, and slumped in a corner. Other pigs scrambled around, became hysteric at the sight of a human approaching their pen, and climbing onto other pigs frantically tried to hide, in vain. The screaming must mean something to them. They knew.

The men singled out one pig after another in the pens, tied their legs together, lifted them up with a pole and took them to the cement slab where their throats were cut and their blood collected with dirty plastic buckets. The men then lifted the dead or semi-dead pig onto the ground, poured hot water on them and shaved their hair off. Their bellies were then hacked open, and the intestines scooped out. Everything came tumbling out. So easily. Like seeds scooped out from the insides of a ripe papaya. Everything piling onto the floor, sticky, wet, gooey slime and blood.

The white steam from the water made everything seem even more unreal in the murky fluorescent lights, and the dark of night.

It’s funny how our minds block things we cannot digest, or at least that was my case. I became the observer, clicking my camera. At some point the stench and steam and screaming made me dizzy, but after some readjustment I’m back in the observer mode. It is only afterwards, in memory, through pictures, that the slaughterhouse became more real. Delayed reality.

It is hard not to experience some form of cognitive dissonance after seeing the killings. Screaming pigs. Men in bare feet. Hot sticky goo all over the place.

I still eat meat. Everything is chopped up and prepackaged, so removed and convenient we close our eyes and eat more and more meat. Not much different from eating out, really. As long as you don’t see what’s in the kitchen or who spitted into your soup, it’s all good.

I will end the post with the first part of George Franju’s Le sang des bêtes,1949. Without sensationalizing the subject matter and charging it with all sorts of agendas, he simply showed us what goes on in a slaughterhouse, its stark contrast to the peaceful atmosphere of outskirt Paris postwar. But what he chose to show us, what he juxtaposed side by side, and the timing of the film is what keeps us thinking.

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