What it’s like in a Slaughterhouse

I didn’t expect to have so much to say about touring a meat packing plant and slaughterhouse. After taking a walk down memory lane, describing what wasn’t there and offering an analogy, I just can’t shut up. Here, I try to explain what it was like to be in this New Zealand beef packing plant.


Getting Geared Up: New Zealand is well known for the cleanliness of their slaughterhouses and the extended shelf-life that their meat has as a result of their ability to control bacteria and such. You can expect a post about hygiene over on the grass-fed beef blog. For now, I’ll just describe what I had to go through to gain entry. First, I had to fill out an affidavit that I did not have any gastrointestinal ailments (and there were 6 or 7 other checkboxes that I don’t remember). Then I had to put on a hair net, beard net, smock, pants and rubber boots. Think: surgeon’s outfit. And, just like a surgeon, I had to wash my hands extensively. Then I had to scrub my boots with soap and scrub brush, walk through a car-wash-for-boots and finally stepped in a solution of some kind. Whew. Not a germ on me.

The Sounds: The safety briefing is short. The only thing I remember being said was that when the buzzer goes off, the production line moves. Imagine sides of beef hanging from rails. When the buzzer sounds, the entire line shifts about 6 feet as the sides of beef move to the next station. We follow the production manager in and before I have a chance to adjust to the rhythm of the beeps, I hear the buzzer and realize that I am standing in the path of the line. Adrenaline pumps. I jump forward to avoid being slammed by a side of beef. Our guide, the plant manager, turns around with an approving look. I am very agile person and I felt as if I had dodged a bullet. Not hard to imagine that people have been slammed before. I later learn that a Japanese guy once got smashed by a side of beef.

In addition to the buzzer, most of what I hear is saws, clips, hydraulics, high-pressure hoses and knives being sharpened. This place is more notable for what you don’t hear.

The Sights: Imagine a factory that is designed to disassemble instead of assemble. And, then imagine a FedEx sort facility with boxes and bags and chutes and conveyors moving in every direction.

What you see is an army of butchers. What you don’t see is the team of engineers and technicians that must be required to run this technologically sophisticated place. People don’t move product. They mostly stay in their station and work on their very specific job. Conveyors and chutes move product this way and that. There are conveyors overhead, at knee level, chutes that take product from one conveyor to the next, even a conveyor that moves the final boxed products through a hole in the ceiling and to another place.

Chutes, chutes, chutes. Tongues go in this one. Hides disappear through that one. Brains in this one. Guts down this one. Trim meat in that one. Nothing goes to waste. Everything has a use, right down to the aorta, which I think I heard is a Chinese delicacy or something.

The butchers themselves wear metal chainmail gloves. Some just wield knives, while others multitask between a knife they quickly pull out of their scabbard to cut a muscle, then deftly drop it back in their scabbard and to grab a giant handheld saw that is hanging from the ceiling by a wire and it looks like a giant chainsaw except that it is a bandsaw like your local butcher shop. Whew. More men than women, all dressed in whites and there is hardly any blood on their whites. They are wearing white rubber boots and white hats. Their noise cancelling headphones have antennas. I forgot to ask whether that is for music or if they are broadcasting information or the beeps of the moving production line.

The butchers each have their own specific job and appeared to all be working expeditiously. On a break, I observed a few butchers at a knife sharpening station and they were sharpening their knives with the attentiveness of an artist making a sculpture. It seemed strangely meditative.

The machines are epic. Imagine giant hydraulic scissors that lop off leg bones, giant hand-held bone saws that cut right down the spine to split the carcass. Imagine a 5 foot diameter roller that the hide is attached to. Then the roller spins and pulls the hide right off the animal as workers on either side stand on a platform that lowers with the hide as the pair of workers use a rotary saw to help shave the hide away from the carcass.

White walls and conveyor belts. Concrete Floors. Stainless steel machines and tables.

The sanitation is impressive. There’s hardly any blood. The floor is clean. The conveyors are clean. The butchers are clean.

The technology is impressive. Not like the old days where the packing line could only handle one cut at a time, this facility handled every single cut at once. On top of that, they appeared to be handling multiple breeds, multiple brands and were labeling product for multiple destination countries and the specific requirements that go with each export country. The technical complexity is mind bending.

Even though I have been there and done that … visiting a meatpacking plant for the first time in 20 years was an epic experience. More than anything, I was blown away by how much things have changed and by how impressively advanced New Zealand facilities are.

Post Written by Justin Marx

4 Replies to “What it’s like in a Slaughterhouse”

  1. Justin, you’re quite the writer! I guess all those times we sat up late at night while you wrote your last minute essays for the “Gifted & Talented Program” have paid off. LOL!

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