Sep 22, 2010

#30before30: Visit an Abattoir

The state government’s “Walk A Day” campaign is certainly making for interesting times for journalists sent out to cover politicians. Last Friday I watched Education Minister Geoff Wilson pull beers at the Arana Leagues Club, and on Monday morning I saw Natural Resources Minister Stephen Robertson knocking around the Underwood Bunnings in a tool belt.

But it was Monday afternoon’s visit to the Churchill Abattoir at Yamanto that really took the cake. Although perhaps “cake” isn’t the right word.

Initially I wasn’t going to go inside to watch Transport Minister Rachel Nolan perform her “Walk a Day” duties. There weren’t enough protective white coats for all the media, abattoir officials said. Fair enough, I thought. Ms Nolan will come back out for her media conference, so that’s a good enough excuse as any to NOT go into a factory that was putting out a terrible thin grey smoke from its solitary chimney.
But then, after the conference, I thought about it. I’ve never been in an abattoir before. When am I likely to find myself in this situation again? It’s hardly an option for a nice Saturday afternoon activity. “Hey guys, let’s load up the Yaris and head on out to the meatworks!”

And what example was I showing Julia, my brand new work experience uni student? Sure, she was wearing a dress, stockings and ballet shoes, but this is journalism. It’s a grotty job sometimes. She might as well have a memorable first day.

So we made our way back to the office and declared our intention to enter this House of Meat. Or House of Death. Sorry, when I get nervous I tend to crack tasteless jokes (see there’s another one).

We got kitted up in hair nets, masks and coats and a nice man named Darren led us into the rabbit’s warren that is the plant. He eventually opened up a door, and inside was a smallish room, about the size of a bar. Actually, with the bloody floor and organs on spikes, it could very well have be the Mustang Bar at 3am.

But there was our Transport Minister, all in white, up to her elbows in offal. She stood at a silver tray, beneath a big steel chute. Out of this chute would shoot livers, hearts, tails and tongues, ready to be grabbed and spiked on threatening steel hooks above the tray. Once each hook had its fill, the Minister would drag them over to the other hanging hooks. The effect was like a dozen meat piñatas at a cannibal’s 21st.

At one point the Minister handed me a heart to spike. It was still warm. That was probably the creepiest part. This was a heart that had been beating just a few minutes earlier. I struggled to pull the muscle down over the hook. Of course, all this was happening with the loud sound of air conditioning units, and the chunk-chunk of slices of cow coming from the killing floor above us.

Oh lord. The killing floor.

They didn’t take us there. I’m quite grateful for that. I did have a chat about it with Darren, as he lead us through to a much bigger storeroom which contained dozens of carcasses, over two metres long, hanging by their once hind legs on a conveyor beam. It was like a super-sized clothing rack in Lady Gaga’s wardrobe.

“Are these… fresh?” I whinnied.

“Yep, probably about half an hour ago they would’ve been killed,” he replied cheerfully.

“But… but…” I stammered, looking at Julia. “We just saw a truck carrying a bunch of cows arrive about half an hour ago!”

Darren gave us a shrug of Zen acceptance.

“Do they know?” I almost whispered.

“Nah,” he says. “You get the odd one that gets nervous. I guess they smell the blood. We try not to spook them as much as we can. But they’re just an animal. They follow each other.”

Darren’s acceptance of his fate, as well as the cows’, is somewhat endearing. He’s not making any apologies for what he does. It’s a production line, a factory. He’s a nice man, doing hard but honest work. It’s all very well for me to think of those poor cows, and hope they didn’t feel too much pain, but I eat meat, and so I need people like Darren to do their jobs, so I don’t have to start hunting possums in my street.

The experience didn’t make me want to become a vegetarian, although I’m certain a visit to the killing floor would have made me think more seriously about it. But at least now I feel a bit better informed about the process. And I don’t think Julia’s too scarred by it, although I am expecting a dry-cleaning bill.

Oh, and the song that came on when Julia and I got into the car to drive back to Brisbane? “Groove is in the Heart” by Dee-lite. Just shows the universe cracks equally tasteless jokes as me.


  1. I think it would have changed a lot of people to go up to the killing floor. It is daunting to think you're holding a real heart that was beating not very long ago. I remember holding a cows' heart in a science class one year. It's so surreal beyond words. Good on Julia for following you in! Great post.

  2. "But at least now I feel a bit better informed about the process"

    and information is half the battle!

    in the voice of a cheesy PSA voice over from Saturday GI Joe cartoon.