The Onion posted an amusing article this week called “We Raise All Our Beef Humanely On Open Pasture And Then We Hang Them Upside Down And Slash Their Throats”. It’s written from the point of view of a (fake) farmer who dialectically contrasts his reassuring humane farming rhetoric with vivid depictions of gory industrialized slaughter. Though people who take Onion articles too seriously risk being mocked, some vegans are touting this Onion piece as potentially effective propaganda to illustrate why the idea of “humane slaughter” is inherently absurd.

Here are some reader comments from Truth in Satire: The Onion Peels Back the Humane Myth,” which is James McWilliams’ take The Onion article: 

“I was just preparing a document on the happy meat myth, and this is superb material.”

“While the imagery is certainly graphic and disturbing, I don’t think its exaggerated, and I’m sure a lot of readers will recognize that.”

“It says a lot about the sad state of this movement when a satirical essay is far more truthful and factual than some of the animal groups are these days.”

“I posted that article on Facebook yesterday, as did almost every vegan I know. I only got one response – from an omnivore who should know better – asking me if it was true. I assured her it was, and she seemed properly horrified.”

“I love satire and found this piece to be brilliant. I had to skip parts of it though as I get overly emotional, but I did share it on Facebook and it has a home in my bookmarks to whip out anytime someone asks me ‘What’s wrong with my ethically raised pasture fed beef?’”

And Ecorazzi says: “I commend whoever wrote this piece for [The Onion]. In many ways it does a better job of educating people on the horrors of slaughterhouses than some past animal rights campaigns.”

But there’s a problem with using this article semi-seriously as an educational tool. It ignores the first part of the industrial slaughter process — when the knocker puts a steel bolt through the cow’s brain — and assumes the cows are always “fully conscious” through most of the killing process. According to Hank T. Norman, The Onion's fake farmer:

Our independently owned family farm is committed to one guiding principle: making sure that you, the customer, receive the best-tasting, highest quality beef from cows that are healthy, active, and eventually suspended fully conscious inside a facility thick with hot, blood-choked air and the frantic bellows of dangling, profoundly fearful animals. …

When we shackle a chain to a hind leg of each of our cows and hoist its terrified, quivering frame 12 feet up to the rafters, we can see firsthand just how tender, meaty, and well-marbled its entire body is…

[O]ur healthy, GMO-free cattle thrash about wildly in the air, very often tearing their own delicate flesh and shattering their leg bones in a hopeless attempt to flee to the nearby 100 percent organic grassland pastures where they were free to roam during their unnaturally truncated lives. …

And of course our award-winning beef is flayed and butchered fresh on the spot, allowing the animal’s dangling, inverted brethren to look on with dilated, terror-filled eyes as they slowly advance one-by-one toward an identical and incomprehensibly traumatic fate.

The animals being “fully conscious” and trying to escape while watching other cows die is a major part of what makes the slaughter as “Hank T. Norman” describes it so disturbing. But in Timothy Pachirat’s Every 12 Seconds, Pachirat explains how the animal killing is supposed to happen if everything follows protocol, and this involves the cows being unconscious before they are suspended:

After the cow has been shot, the knocker advances the conveyor, and the cow drops onto another conveyor, of wide green plastic, about five feet under the metal conveyor. Because the cow is unconscious at this point, it often falls forward onto its head, sometimes breaking its teeth or biting its tongue. Once the animal is on the plastic conveyor, the shackler wraps a metal hook around its left hind leg. The hook is suspended from a chain connected via a wheel to an overhead rail. The rail moves the wheel forward, lifting the cow into the air by its left hind leg until it is suspended vertically, head down. The cow’s right hind leg and front legs often begin to kick wildly at this point, creating the impression that the cow is still alive and conscious. Meat-industry publications state that these motions are purely reflexive and do not indicate consciousness; the key to establishing consciousness, they claim, lies in the tongue and the eyes. If it has not done so already, the cow will often vomit, depositing a rank greenish substance onto the floor that mixes with the blood flowing from its head wounds. …

The indexer also watches for any signs of consciousness among the cattle that have just been shot. These include attempts by the cow to right itself, reflexive blinking in response to stimuli, and a tongue that is not hanging limply from the mouth. If the indexer notices any of these, he takes a captive-bolt handgun powered by a bronze cap that looks like a .22 shell and fires into the head of the cow.

(Every Twelve Seconds, pp. 53-55)

It is only after this that the cows move on to the stickers: the ones tasked with cutting the cows’ throats. As Pachirat describes it, the process is gruesome and revolting to watch, but that is mostly from the viewpoint of those who are witnessing the slaughter –- it’s not the experience of the unconscious cows.

Of course that’s assuming that the slaughter goes as scripted. Pachirat writes that some cows do make it past the knocker conscious. One of the jobs of the indexer is to look for signs of consciousness and shoot seemingly conscious cows a second time, but sometimes a conscious cow will struggle her way to the kill floor. If this happens, the plant manager is alerted and shoots the cow with a rifle.

Another possibility is that the cow will remain shackled but conscious, and if the indexer doesn’t notice this and so fails to shoot her again, she will still be conscious as she arrives at the stickers. If a USDA inspector is in the vicinity when this happens, the stickers will stop the production line so that the indexer can shoot her again, making sure she is unconscious. But if there is no inspector watching, they will try to slash the cow’s throat while she is conscious. This is how The Onion article depicts the slaughter process, and it can be even worse if the cow remains conscious after having her throat cut (which is possible since it is much harder to effectively cut the throat of a conscious cow), as the next workers start trimming off her body parts.

So it is possible for a slaughter to happen close to how The Onion describes it, or even be worse, but those are botched slaughters at industrial slaughterhouses. A commenter to this entry wrote: 

Honestly, what first came to mind as I read the description of the satire pieces was “why are these small-farm grass-fed cows going to an industrial slaughterhouse?” We took the cows I worked with at my last internship to a small slaughterhouse nearby in which the animals were slaughtered one at a time on a kill floor separate from the other cows. No sneaking past the inspector there. No mechanization. If that cow wasn’t unconscious by the time they suspended it, someone would probably get hurt. This type of slaughterhouse is hardly the exception; most small, progress-minded farmers can’t even meet the quotas to process at the industrialized plants.

If a small farmer were really bragging about how the animals he raised were slaughtered, it would be more like the Larry’s Custom Meats slaughterhouse featured in this video, where they generally kill four or five animals an hour, and the animals don’t see each other dying and are unconscious before the workers cut their throats.  

"We Raise All Our Beef Humanely On Open Pasture And Then We Hang Them Upside Down And Slash Their Throats" suggests, however, that slaughters gone awry at industrial slaughterhouses are the normal and desired type of slaughter for humanely raised animals. That works for The Onion because it makes the contrast between the humane farming buzzwords and the slaughter process more stark and darkly funny. And the fact that these sorts of slaughters do happen is something that those of us who eat meat from industrialized slaughterhouses might want to keep in mind, or try to change.

But treating a worst case scenario industrial slaughter as the norm also means this article is not ideal for vegans who want a propaganda tool to demonstrate the innate paradox of “humane slaughter.” Because if humane slaughter is an inherently absurd notion, you should be able to convey that through the best of all possible slaughters, and not just the worst.