Alimentarium series: 5. What place is there for death in our lives as eaters?

This post is part of a collaboration with the Alimentarium in Vevey, in the context of the #VEGAN exhibition. Find more on their website (including the video, as well as French and German versions) or visit the museum!

Farming animals for food generally involves slaughtering them. In terms of anthropology, this is by no means insignificant. Human societies have very often paid special attention to ensure the killing of animals conforms with social norms. This does not necessarily mean that slaughtering is considered a tragedy. In fact, it could be quite the opposite. Sometimes, an animal’s death is cause for celebration. On Swiss farms in the 20th century, slaughtering a pig was generally an occasion for a family get-together. On a more solemn note, certain religions such as Islam and Judaism prescribe rules for ritual slaughter. The rituals of the Islamic Dhabiha and the Jewish Shehita can be interpreted in various ways, but fundamentally there is a link with the questionable, impure or even forbidden aspects of death. Such rituals serve to symbolically render the flesh of the deceased animal edible. To find an example that is not related to animal husbandry, we can cite the rituals regarding hunting, whether they are Inuit prayers to Sedna, the goddess of the sea, to convince her to free marine animals so that they may be hunted, or the Lakotah ceremonies before going hunting, where offerings are made to the spirit of the buffalo. There are countless more examples.

This may all sound quite exotic and from another era entirely, but it is interesting to draw a parallel with our contemporary Western societies. The qualms we have with animal slaughter are also reflected in the fact that the meat industry makes it invisible. Abattoirs are generally placed out of sight, beyond populated areas. Cuts of meat are carefully prepared and presented to consumers in sterile plastic packaging. Marketing tools rarely allude to actual biological animals, and certainly never to their death or bloodshed… In fact, our meat industry not only transforms dead animals physically, but symbolically too. It changes their flesh into a ‘neutralised’, socially and culturally consumable good: meat. If we observe how animals are actually slaughtered, in Swiss abattoirs for example, we realise that death is highly structured. It is regulated by animal protection laws, such as the obligation to stun animals to prevent them from suffering, and a certain sense of hygiene. As an example, a vet must first examine the animals to ensure they are in good health. Like the religious practices of halal or kosher, such rules may be seen as a cultural framework to differentiate between a form of death that is correct, fair, or even noble, and one which is cruel, impure or threatening. In any case, this framework clearly fails to convince everyone, and some question how effectively it dismisses the scandal of killing. For some people, putting an animal to death can no longer be justified on any terms. For others, it is above all the abuse of animals and their suffering that remain intolerable. In short, sentencing animals to death no longer has its place in our societies: Either we ignore it by moving it to the outskirts of industrial zones, or it becomes intolerable.

Yet, with industrialised mass meat production, it is not just the animals that are likely to suffer. Research has highlighted the health risks for those working in the meat industry. They include pathologies linked to the work environment (dust) and epidemics (hepatitis E, influenza, streptococcus) and those linked to the strenuous nature of the work (back, finger and wrist pain, deafness). As well as causing physical problems, such work can also cause moral issues such as guilt, the impression of doing a morbid job, or of being an outcast. The lack of social acceptance of animal slaughter and abattoirs has rendered them invisible. This has repercussions on the workers, who do not really feel appreciated for what appears to be ‘dirty work’.

Having to kill an animal in an industrial context also implies following an industrial logic and pace. Just like an assembly line. Direct human intervention is still required for the slaughter of several species for meat, especially the larger ones such as cattle and pigs. Industrial logic does not leave much room and especially not the time required to process death… When faced with an animal that shows its fear and is defending itself, it is difficult to put one’s feelings aside, to take a step back and see the animal as an inanimate object, as industrial logic would suggest. The act of killing cannot therefore be completely effaced. Once again, even when death is hygienic, supervised, and industrialised, it is still symbolically potent.

As is often the case, new technologies bring new solutions. Recent developments now foresee meat and dairy production in laboratories, without animals. While such solutions still rely on the removal of tissue from live animals as the core of the manufacturing process, they propose to solve the issue of slaughtering animals by simply rendering it unnecessary. Nonetheless, it is currently difficult to ascertain the extent to which such artificial flesh would be considered a valid substitute for meat. Will we really regard it as edible, from both social and cultural points of view?

Many thanks to Zoé Lüthi (assistance with research and documentation)

(Translated from the original version in French)

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