Following My Beef Bliss, From Pasture to Plate: Part II

This is the second of two parts describing my visit to Kansas. In part one, I innocuously enthused about the variety of flora to be found on the rolling hills of the Great Plains. In this one, which is not for the faint-hearted, I follow the steers from the prairie to their Temple Grandin-designed terminus, a calm place which nonethless made a strong impression on me.

The Creekstone Processing facility is big, clean, featureless building in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing to indicate what it is from the outside. No endless fetid swamp of the kind decribed in Harper’s, no steers standing around outside, no awful sounds emerging from the inside, as various educational films (and your nightmares) might suggest. You go inside, and put on an elaborate getup to protect the food supply from your own animal nature. There is a big white coat, buttoned up in the front; rubber galoshes; a hair net; and even, in my case, a beard net. I began in the middle, like Milton: on the grading line where the immense hanging carcasses roll by the USDA inspector, who pronounces them Prime, high Choice, low Choice, and so on. They carcasses just keep coming, body after identical body, each one with almost the exact same size and shape and conformation. (Creekstone uses 100% black angus animals, all raised to same specs, and about the same age, so the bodies, lined up one after another, have the athletic uniformity of an Ivy League varsity crew. Once the sides, which hang from one foot and are as long as kayaks, get stamped they make their way to a very large, very busy room where dozens of people using specialized tools break them down into many small parts. I shot a video of it and you’ll see that soon enough, if that’s the sort of thing you enjoy. (I do.)

At another time in my life, I would have quit there. My feeling about animals has always been that I like them too much, in both their living and cooked state, to come at too close quarters to their actual demise. And the room that I visited next, which was earlier in the process. Here the animals were eviscerated prior to hanging. It wasn’t as gross as you might think, but it wasn’t exactly appetizing either. The most eerie thing was to see the animals still with their heads on. A kind of beef samurai wielding two separate blades separates the head, keeping the spine far, far from anywhere near the meat. But just seeing a side of beef with a head was weird. And yet, where did I think beef came from?

I moved farther back the line, and saw what was visually the weirdest part: the animals getting bled and flayed. This isn’t really as disturbing as it sounds, as they are already completely brain dead and utterly inert. But threre’s so much blood! And they look so white, poor things. I was, as you might expect, nervous about going to see them alive – which was about six minutes earlier in terms of the process. What, I asked myself, was protecting me at this point? Was it cognitive dissonnance? Protective callousness? Maybe just the simple, stupid insensitivity of a glutton who can’t look an an animal without seeing it turn into a plate of steaks and chops, like in the cartoons.

I walked into the harvesting floor with deep misgivings, still ready to be freaked out. But I wasn’t. Why? Likely because the animals looked so relaxed themselves. Despite being minutes from meeting their doom, they had no idea of what was in store for them; they seemed to think they were going to go to the movies or something. Creekstone brings in its animals via truck, and keeps them indoors. They are protected from the rain and the heat in what amounts to an indoor cow mall, one cunningly designed to keep them relaxed. Standing on a catwalk high above, I watched the animals absent-mindedly stand around, sit, relax, and stand up again. There are no 90 degree angles, so they aren’t nervous, and the comforting “squeeze box” at the end of the stun line keeps them so relaxed that when the man brains them with the bolt gun, they are simply KO’d, with nary a sound coming out of them. The guy before him doesn’t hear anything, and he’s getting that nice squeeze, so what’s the problem? The whole business is so smooth and calm that it’s altogether easy to lose sight of the fact that the animals, so strong and handsome a few minutes before, are turned into beef carcasses a few minutes later. It made me appreciate meat more, and it made me very glad that my meat sponsor wasn’t one of those processors whose nightmarish abbatoirs are caught on undercover videos.

How appreciative was I? Well, I went up to the boardroom with my hosts and ate a big steak lunch. It occurred to me that this was exactly the sort of behavior vegetarians would expect of me; no doubt, if any are reading me now, they have the proof, if any were needed, of my essential indifference to animal suffering. And yet, precisely because I saw so little suffering on the part of the animals, I was able to enjoy those richly marbled, herbaceous steaks. I only hope I’m as relaxed as those steers when the cosmos hits me with its stun gun. Until then, expect me to stay hip deep in steak, eating it with a clear conscience and a hearty appetite.

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