Death on Wheels

» October 23rd, 2012

I’ve been doing a preliminary survey of the literature on mobile slaughterhouse units (MSUs). The mobile slaughterhouse is promoted by advocates of small-scale animal agriculture as a solution to the very serious problem of access to commercial processing facilities. Large producers benefit from consolidated federally inspected slaughterhouses. Scale economies and all that. The small guys don’t benefit, however, and have thus pushed aggressively  for more flexible and locally available federally-inspected sources of slaughter. They want to decentralize death.  MSUs are the most popular answer thus far, with support coming from Whole Foods, the USDA, and an admiring foodie press whose coverage of these itinerant death boxes has been nothing short of glowing.

Digging beyond the celebratory media reports, however, uncovers some less sanguine aspects of MSUs. Aside from the obvious fact that they essentially serve the same function as a large slaughterhouse—killing and processing farm animals into products and byproducts that ruin our health—the mobile slaughterhouse is an inherently unsanitary space. Death is by nature dirty business. Blood, offal, water, feces, carcasses, and workers who need to do human things such as use the toilet become more acute problems in MSUs than in large slaughterhouses. MSUs deal with these issues poorly.

Animals at an MSU are slaughtered outside. This attracts flies and other “pests.” The problem is exacerbated by the proximity of processing space to the outdoors.  An MSU is thus an operation awash in the kind of chemicals that I imagine would give an organic farmer the shakes. The USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service’s compliance guide for MSUs lays this issue out well.

A mobile slaughterhouses owner has to “implement a program to prevent harborage or entry of pests.” This means thoroughly treating the small unit with a large range of insecticides, fungicides, and rodenticides, the only stipulation being that they are EPA approved. Of course, large slaughterhouses do the same, but the difference here is space. Workers in a small unit, as well the animals they process, will be in much closer contact with these chemical agents than they would be in a traditional abattoir. No one has explored this potential danger.

Then there’s water. Slaughtering animals requires a ton of water and what’s left behind as waste isn’t exactly what you’d call clean. Regulations on what to do with this water are alarmingly vague. Here’s what the FSIS says:

A MSU will usually not have traditional sewage facilities unless there is access to a private septic system provided at the slaughter location. Some MSUs may have a holding tank and will haul waste water for discharge at a MSU docking station. Alternatively, waste water disposal might be adapted for the specific situation. For example, blood and waste water might be dispersed on the producer’s property well away from any stream or drainage, provided the local health authority permits this.

Finally, to cite just one more problem with mobile slaughterhouses, there are the workers. Psychologically speaking, a smaller operation that slaughters animals is worse than a large one. As Tim Pachirat has shown, large slaughterhouses are designed to minimize the visibility of violence. There’s something disturbingly numbing about the rationalization of an assembly line that stretches further than the eye can see. By contrast, in the MSU, everything is graphically visible and the pain of witnessing violence that much more acute. Adding insult to injury, there are no clear specifications regarding how near or close the nearest toilet should be, with the FSIS saying it must be within “a reasonable distance.”  Whatever that is.

Of course, all of these problems are trumped by the Big Problem, the ethical problem, of the unnecessary but intentional death of a sentient farm animal.  As one former small animal farmer has said:

So yes, you can raise them and have them graze in green fields of grass and brush them every day, but when you ultimately put them in someone’s truck or on a livestock trailer, and they go to be slaughtered, I don’t care if you say a prayer before they’re slaughtered or if you simply send them into the slaughterhouse. Their throats are still slit. They feel pain. They gasp for air. I can’t imagine what goes through their minds.

Me neither, but I can say with some confidence that they’re not terribly concerned with the size of the operation that ends their life.



9 Responses to Death on Wheels

  1. Mary Finelli says:

    Thank you for looking into this. There are no doubt plenty of other problems with them, including animal handling problems and a lack of oversight.

    • James says:

      Would love to know what info you might have. It’s been tough finding much that CRITICAL of MSUs. Of course, one “advantage” is that animals do not have to travel hundreds of miles, which is a horrific experience for them, done without food and water, etc.

  2. edie says:

    all i’m left with is tears, tears, tears……..
    how are people able to kill these beautiful animals???

    where is the hope???

  3. Karen Davis says:

    Thank you for this informative report on mobile slaughterhouse units – death boxes, death on wheels. One thing we are learning is how many people are very comfortable with visible violence and death, contrary to the idea (the hope) that many in the animal rights community have held that “if only slaughterhouses have glass walls . . .”

    The locavore movement (my catch-all term) reminds us that hidden suffering isn’t the only reason why the majority of people consume animal products in modern society. It reminds us how deep in the human psyche the lust for blood and sacrifice (of others) is. We cannot automatically assume that “if only people saw what animals go through, they would . . .” Plenty of people are eager to see and like what they see so much that they can’t wait to get a knife in hand and slit an animal’s throat or watch someone else do it for them.

    Where is the hope? The hope is in what Paul Tillich called “The Courage to Be in Spite of Nonbeing.”

    Karen Davis, United Poultry Concerns

    • ingrid says:

      Karen, thank you for articulating this so beautifully. The willingness — sometimes anxiousness — of locavores to kill their own animals has been, for me, the most heartbreaking aspect of the whole movement. I used to be able to delude myself with the idea that ‘glass’ walls would, indeed, engender aversion and then strains of compassion. To see the precise opposite develop does seem to require Tillich’s ‘courage to be,’ in the face of what appears so many times to be a grand moral failure.

  4. Karen Davis says:


    “If only slaughterhouses HAD glass walls . . .”

  5. Elisa says:

    This is an important discussion to open. I work as an occupational therapist in a nursing home. One patient was a woman who had a small herd of cows. Those cows were killed in one of those mobile slaughter units. I did a home assessment at her house and saw the cows. I felt very sorry for them, despite the fact that those were the so-called “happy” meat animals. It troubled me very much. I went home that day and wrote a blog post called “Barbara’s Cows.” I discussed the fact that if that scenario is the ‘best’ of the best, then I still want no part of it. You can find it at my blog

  6. Karen Davis says:

    Once in a discussion with an animal rights vegan advocate, I asked why, when throughout history and still in many parts of the world today, seeing animals being driven to market and slaughtered openly – why do we (activists) think that most people in modern industrial societies would be “horrified” if they saw what it takes to bring an animal’s body to the table. Historically, human cultures have always included very visible, public violence to animals, as well as family, tribal, interspecies violence and immense cruelty, just like today, all over the world.

    My friend said he thought the exposure of people in modern industrial societies to traditional slaughtering and related abuses of animals bred and raised for food would horrify most people today, because they aren’t used to seeing these things any more, since industrialization put these practices, and the animals themselves, behind closed doors. They would be horrified because what is done to animals is no longer a familiar part of their everday landscape, farm and town.

    For many, seeing the horror for the first time is shocking, heartbreaking, and for some, life-changing. Others simply adapt to the new information the same way people tend to adapt in all areas of life. But in many people, there are frustrated instinctual genetic impulses that yearn and “argue” for more direct visceral involvement with violence and bloodshed and control over others. Many human activities that are represented as rational and socially & politically “necessary” are really those instinctual impulses demanding an outlet, a legitimizing excuse for expression.

    We have to keep trying to develop other instinctual impulses in ourselves, but looking at the extent to which human violence is relentlessly conducted all over the world, all the time, and through history, it is going to be very difficult. Even when the end of a War (amongst ourselves) is declared, and now there is “Peace,” excuses for a New War, New Wars, are always in the making behind the scenes (or in open “debates”), partly for economic reasons but equally and even more deeply because the instinctual clamor for bloodshed is “making the case” in the guise of necessity.

    Meanwhile, during the time of “Peace,” human violence against other animals, for pleasure and “necessity,” is going on the same as ever. As hard as we try, we cannot imagine the extent and enormity of human-engineered animal suffering every second of every day. If human beings really and truly wanted something different from the steady stream of bloodshed and violence, we would have it. If we ever develop to the point of really and truly wanting something different, we will make it happen.

    Karen Davis, United Poultry Concerns.

  7. Bea Elliott says:

    I’ve kept track of these units for a while and have seen a pattern that communities apply for grants from government to get one into their area. But that doesn’t solve the problem of who pays for the full time rig driver, the FDA inspector or the services of the butcher. I don’t see how any of this should be paid for by tax dollars.

    I’ve seen a few of these ominous rigs on the road. Their macabre function is evident in the sterile design. It sure isn’t the Wells Fargo Wagon commin’ …

    The links from here will show three videos of the interior and the processes. Warning – It’s ugly.

Leave a Reply