Ted Conover is an author, journalist and a distinguished writer-in-residence in the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of New York University.
He teaches graduate courses in Literary Reportage — the art of blending documentary, reportage-style observations, with personal experience, and anecdotal evidence in non-fiction literature.
Conover is known for actively participating in the subculture he is writing about, and in 1980, rode freight railroads across the western United States with hobos before he wrote “Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes.”
Conover spent a year traveling with Mexicans in order to write “Coyotes,” and worked at Sing Sing prison in New York state as a rookie correction officer before writing “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing.”
A few years ago, Conover applied for a job as a USDA meat inspector. He was posted to a large Cargill Meat Solutions beef plant in Schuyler, Nebraska, and joined other inspectors who worked the line on the kill floor examining different components of freshly-slaughtered cattle for disease.
Conover chronicled his experiences as a USDA meat inspector in an article “The Way of All Flesh.”
The entire large-scale slaughtering event begins as cattle arrive in perforated silver trailers called cattle pots that allow weather in and vent out the hot breath and flatus from cows.
The trucks come from various feedlots and at the meat plant Conover worked at about 5,100 cattle were slaughtered each day. Each double-decker cattle pot holds about 40 head, so there was a constant stream of trucks pulling in even before the line began at 6 a.m.
Singular Circle of Hell
Conover describes the kill floor as a frenzy of human and mechanical activity — “something horrific designed by ingenious and no doubt well-meaning engineers.”
Though it’s called a floor, Conover says it’s actually a room about the size of a football field, filled with workers on their feet, facing some portion of a cow as it passes slowly in front of them, suspended from a chain.
“Three workers are perched on hydraulic platforms fitted with electric saws, which they use to split hanging carcasses in half, right down the middle of the spinal column.”
The chain transports the carcasses around the room, but it begins at a walled section of the room hidden from view, behind a partition. Conover is led up onto a metal catwalk and through a heavy door. From there, grasping a railing, he looks down on the killing.
Passing one by one through a small opening in the wall, each animal enters a narrow chute. On a platform just above the chute is a guy called the knocker.
“Suspended on cables in front of him is a captive-bolt gun. The knocker’s job is to place the gun against the animal’s forehead and pull the trigger.”
The cow immediately slumps forward, blood oozing from the circle where the thick steel bolt went in and came out, but one shot doesn’t always accomplish a kill, so the knocker does it again.
In the meantime, on the lowest floor, a second worker has reached into the chute from below and attached a cuff around the animal’s left rear leg.
“Once the cow has been knocked, the chain hoists that leg and then the rest of the animal up into the air, and the body begins its journey around the room.”
Conover explains that the knocker patiently waits for his gun to achieve good contact with the animal’s forehead. But it usually takes more than one try, as the animals duck down or try to peer over the side of the chute, whose width the knocker can control with a foot pedal.
Conover describes how he witnessed one cow lift her head up high in order to sniff the knocking gun. The knocker waited until her wet nose went down, then lowered the gun and thunk.
“She slumps, then gets hoisted along with the others. The knocked animals hang next to one another for a while, waiting for the chain to start moving—like gondolas at the base of a ski lift. From time to time an animal kicks violently, sporadically.”
Dismemberment of the cow takes place on a moving line in degrees until the hide is gradually peeled away from the flesh, leaving a big flap of loose skin grasped by the “downpuller” machine, “which yanks the whole thing off like a sweater and drops it through a hole in the floor.”
At different posts, workers make cuts in the hide, clip off the hooves, and clip off the horns. It is here, for the fist time, says Conover, the cow no longer looks like a cow.
“Now it’s a 1,200-pound piece of proto-meat making its circuit of the room. Soon after, the heads, now dangling only by the wind pipe, are detached from the body and go off on their own side chain.”
The huge tongues are cutout and hung on hooks next to the heads — so it’s head, tongue, head, tongue. They turn a corner, says Conover, pass through a steam cabinet that cleans them, make another quick turn, and meet their first inspectors.
Click here for part 2.