Inside Slaughterhouses: The Stark Truth of Meat Production

In the heart of the meat production industry lies a grim reality that few consumers fully grasp. Slaughterhouses, the epicenters of this industry, are not just places where animals are killed for food; they are scenes of immense suffering and exploitation, impacting both animals and humans in profound ways. While it is widely acknowledged that these facilities are designed to end lives, the depth and breadth of the pain inflicted are often hidden from public view. This article delves into the stark truths of meat production, shedding light on the brutal conditions within slaughterhouses, the extensive suffering of animals, and the often-overlooked plight of the workers who operate in these environments.

From the moment animals are transported to slaughterhouses, they endure extreme hardships. Many do not survive the journey, succumbing to heatstroke, starvation, or physical trauma. Those that do arrive face a grim fate, often subjected to inhumane treatment and botched killings that exacerbate their suffering. The article also explores the psychological and physical toll on slaughterhouse workers, who frequently experience high levels of stress, depression, and other mental health issues due to the nature of their work. Additionally, labor abuses are rampant, with many workers being undocumented immigrants, making them vulnerable to exploitation and mistreatment.

Through detailed accounts and investigations, this article aims to provide a comprehensive look at what really happens inside slaughterhouses, challenging readers to confront the uncomfortable realities behind the meat on their plates.

Inside Slaughterhouses: The Stark Truth of Meat Production July 2024

It’s not exactly revelatory to say that slaughterhouses cause pain; they’re killing factories, after all. But the scope of this pain, and the number of animals and people it impacts, isn’t immediately apparent. Thanks to the specific ways slaughterhouses are run, the animals in them suffer far more than, say, wild animals who are shot and killed for food by a hunter. The negative impacts on slaughterhouse workers, too, are both extensive and largely unknown to those outside of the industry. Here is the harsh reality of how meat is made.

What Is a Slaughterhouse?

A slaughterhouse is where farmed animals are taken to be killed, usually for food. The method of slaughter varies widely depending on the species, location of the slaughterhouse, and local laws and regulations.

Slaughterhouses are often very far away from the farms on which the soon-to-be-slaughtered animals were raised, so livestock frequently spend many hours in transit before they’re slaughtered.

How Many Slaughterhouses Are There in the U.S. Today?

According to the USDA, there are 2,850 slaughterhouses in the U.S. as of January 2024. This tally doesn’t include facilities that slaughter poultry; as of 2022, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 347 federally-inspected poultry slaughterhouses as well.

Within federally-inspected facilities, slaughter is highly concentrated. For instance, just 50 slaughterhouses are responsible for producing 98 percent of beef in the U.S., according to Cassandra Fish, a beef analyst.

Which State Kills the Most Animals for Meat?

Different states specialize in killing different species. According to 2022 data from the USDA, Nebraska kills more cows than any other state, Iowa kills the most hogs, Georgia kills the most chickens, and Colorado kills the most sheep and lambs.

Are Slaughterhouses Cruel?

The purpose of a slaughterhouse is to kill animals as quickly and efficiently as possible for the purposes of food production. Livestock are forcibly taken to slaughterhouses against their will and killed, often in excruciatingly painful ways, and one could argue that this itself constitutes cruelty.

It’s important to note that slaughterhouses cause suffering to humans as well as animals. Labor violations, mistreatment of workers and increased crime rates are just some of the ways in which slaughterhouses routinely hurt slaughterhouse workers as well — a fact that can sometimes be forgotten in animal-focused narratives.

What Really Happens In Slaughterhouses

In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Human Slaughter Act, which says that “the slaughtering of livestock and the handling of livestock in connection with slaughter shall be carried out only by humane methods.”

However, a look at common slaughterhouse practices around the country makes it pretty clear that in reality, inhumane handling and slaughter of animals is standard practice in the meat industry, and goes mostly unchecked by the federal government.

Disclaimer: The practices described below are graphic and disturbing.

Animal Suffering During Transportation

Slaughterhouses are ghastly places, but many farm animals don’t even make it to the slaughterhouse — around 20 million of them annually, to be exact. That’s how many animals die each year while being transported from the farm to the slaughterhouse, according to a 2022 investigation by the Guardian. That same investigation revealed that every year, 800,000 pigs arrive at slaughterhouses unable to walk.

These animals tend to die of heatstroke, respiratory disease, starvation or thirst (livestock are given no food or water during transport) and physical trauma. They’re often crammed so tightly that they can’t move, and during the winter, animals in ventilated trucks will sometimes freeze to death en route.

The only U.S. law that regulates the transportation of livestock is the so-called Twenty-Eight Hour Law, which says that farm animals must be unloaded, fed and given a five-hour “break” for every 28 hours that they spend on the road. But it’s rarely enforced: according to an investigation by the Animal Welfare Institute, the Justice Department didn’t bring a single prosecution for violating the law in the entire second half of the 20th century, despite fielding hundreds of reports of violations.

Animals Beaten, Shocked and Crushed

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It’s reasonable to expect that slaughterhouse employees would sometimes have to push animals in order to herd them into the meat grinder, so to speak. But investigations in multiple countries have found that workers often go far beyond mere pushing while marching livestock to their deaths.

A 2018 investigation by Animal Aid, for instance, revealed employees at a UK slaughterhouse beating cows with pipes, and vocally encouraging one another to do so, while the cows were on their way to be slaughtered. Three years later, another investigation by Animal Equality showed workers at a Brazilian slaughterhouse beating and kicking cows, dragging them by ropes tied around their necks and twisting their tails into unnatural positions in order to get them to move.

Slaughterhouse workers often use electric prods on cattle to herd them onto the killing floor. In 2023, Animal Justice released video footage showing employees at a Canadian slaughterhouse cramming cows into a narrow hallway and continuing to prod them even after they had no space to move. One cow collapsed, and was pinned to the floor for nine minutes.

Botched Killings and Other Gruesome Mishaps

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Though some slaughterhouses take steps to stun animals or otherwise render them unconscious before killing them, employees frequently botch this process, causing the animals significantly more pain.

Take chickens. At poultry farms, chickens are slammed into shackles on a conveyor belt — a process that often breaks their legs — and pulled through an electrified stun bath, which is meant to knock them out. Their throats are then slit, and they’re dropped into a vat of boiling water to loosen their feathers.

But chickens often lift their heads out of the bath while they’re being dragged through it, preventing them from being stunned; as a result, they can still be conscious when their throats are slit. Even worse, some of the birds pull their heads back from the blade that’s meant to cut their throat, and so they end up boiled alive — fully conscious and, according to one Tyson employee, screaming and kicking wildly.

This also happens at pig farms. Although pigs don’t have feathers, they do have hair, and farmers plunge them into boiling water to remove their hair after they’re killed. But they don’t always check to make sure the pigs are actually dead; they often aren’t, and as a result, they’re boiled alive as well.

At cattle slaughterhouses, meanwhile, cows are shot in the head with a bolt gun in order to stun them before their throats are slit and they’re hung upside down. But often, the bolt gun jams, and gets stuck in the cow’s brain while they’re still conscious. One investigation at a Swedish cattle farm found that over 15 percent of cows were inadequately stunned; some were stunned again, while others were simply slaughtered without any kind of anesthetic.

The Impact of Slaughterhouses on Workers

Animals aren’t the only ones who suffer in slaughterhouses. So do many of the workers in them, who are often undocumented and, as such, less likely to report mistreatment and labor violations to authorities.

Psychological Trauma

Killing animals every day for a living is not pleasant, and the work can have devastating psychological and emotional impacts on employees. Slaughterhouse workers are four times more likely to be clinically depressed than the general public, a 2016 study found; other research has found that people who work in slaughterhouses also display higher rates of anxiety, psychosis and serious psychological distress than the population at large.

Although it’s been suggested that slaughterhouse workers have high rates of PTSD, some argue that a more appropriate designation would be PITS, or perpetration-induced traumatic stress. This is a stress disorder that stems from the casual perpetration of violence or killing. The classic examples of PITS sufferers are police officers and combat veterans, and while more research is needed to draw a firm conclusion, experts on PITS have speculated that it’s likely to affect slaughterhouse employees as well.

It’s no surprise that slaughterhouses have one of the highest turnover rates of any profession in the country.

Labor Abuses

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An estimated 38 percent of slaughterhouse workers were born outside of the U.S., and many are undocumented immigrants. This makes it much easier for employers to violate labor laws, usually at the workers’ expense. Earlier this year, a group of poultry processors were fined $5 million by the Department of Labor for committing a litany of worker abuses, including denial of overtime pay, falsification of payroll records, illegal child labor and retaliation against workers who’d cooperated with federal investigators.

Child labor is especially common in slaughterhouses, and it’s becoming more common: between 2015 and 2022, the number of minors illegally employed in slaughterhouses nearly quadrupled, according to data from the Department of Labor. Just last month, a DOJ investigation found children as young as 13 working at a slaughterhouse that provided meat to Tyson and Perdue.

Domestic Violence & Sexual Abuse

A growing volume of research has found that domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse rates increase when slaughterhouses are introduced into a community, even when controlling for other factors. Multiple studies have confirmed that this correlation exists, and no such correlation was found in manufacturing sectors that don’t involve killing animals.

The Bottom Line

We live in an industrialized world with a voracious appetite for meat. Additional regulation and oversight of slaughterhouses could plausibly reduce the amount of unnecessary pain they cause. But the ultimate root of this suffering are the megacorporations and factory farms that want to meet the demand for meat as quickly and cheaply as possible — often at the expense of human and animal welfare.

Notice: This content was initially published on and may not necessarily reflect the views of the Humane Foundation.

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