Meet the Butcher—and Former Vegetarian—Who Now Specializes in Humane Slaughter

It’s Mary Lake’s job to give a carefully raised animal as ethical a death as possible.

(Photo: IP Galanternik D.U./Getty Images)

Mar 18, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

If you want a burger made from what the USDA considers humanely slaughtered beef, you don’t have to look far. Any Big Mac from McDonald’s will do. Surprised?

Like the vague catchall term “natural,” humane slaughter evokes more idyllic, blue-sky principles than it usually deserves. Although its enforcement has historically been hit or miss, the Humane Slaughter Act has been on the books since 1958 to prevent the “needless suffering” of animals and requires that cattle, pork, and other livestock be “rendered insensible to pain” before death. (Chickens and turkeys are not covered under the law.) Unsurprisingly, plenty of players in the food chain aren’t satisfied with the USDA’s concept of humane—even if the Temple Grandin–designed Animal Welfare Audit has become the industry standard.

But just as some farmers have pushed beyond the USDA standards for organic agriculture, others are taking the idea of humane slaughter well past the letter of the law. You can see some of those efforts in practice in the short film Slow Slaughter, first runner-up at the Real Food Media Awards, which shows the killing floor and cutting room of The Royal Butcher, an organic processing–certified small business based in Braintree, Vermont, that processes beef, pork, sheep, and goats for family farms.

In the film (which contains graphic images), employee Mary Lake speaks of experiencing a kill for the first time, saying, “A lot of guys at work were like, ‘How did it feel? It’ll get easier.’ But I don’t know if I want it to get easier. Do I really want killing to be something I can do really easily?”

Lake held a sleeping newborn as she spoke to me about becoming a slaughterhouse employee and butcher—a career she sought out when she was still a vegetarian and had no relevant experience. “All I had on my résumé was enthusiasm,” she admitted. It was a career move motivated by anger directed at herself. Lake was working at a sheep farm at the time, and after she dropped off 10 animals at a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse, she left with an uneasy feeling. “But I didn’t really know anything. I wouldn’t have known what a red flag was. It all just looked like blood and guts and chaos,” she said. The plant was closed the next day for inhumane practices.

She’s built her career as an antithesis to that experience. At The Royal Butcher, slaughter is a task that’s approached mindfully, sensitively, and skillfully. All employees are trained in humane animal handling to understand and read animal behavior from the moment the truck pulls up. They scatter sawdust on manure-muddied truck beds so the animals’ hooves can grip. They supply a ramp if the animals need it. Knowing an animal’s point of balance allows workers to use their own bodies to guide and move animals, often without touching them, and always without using electric prods.

By contrast, in the Animal Welfare Audit used by the USDA, up to 25 percent of animals can be hit with an electric prod; prodding more than 50 percent is considered an “egregious act of animal cruelty.” Even at good facilities, best practices can slip. Grandin told Modern Farmer that without constant management, even compliant slaughterhouses backslide—dropping piglets, tearing tags out of cows’ ears, and leaving cattle outdoors in lots for too long in sweltering heat.

“Can you make a slaughterhouse perfect?” Grandin asked when speaking at the Iowa Farm Bureau convention in 2013. “No, nothing in this world that’s a practical thing can be made perfect. That’s just impossible.”

Still, things seem rather idyllic in Vermont, where The Royal Butcher has the luxury of operating on a small scale. Being so well regarded, it can choose its customers. But the abattoir is doing big business. One of the farms it works with supplies beef to Whole Foods, which uses a 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating System and hires a third-party auditor to inspect the process and product.

“They’re a lot stricter than the USDA. Every aspect of processing is scrutinized,” Lake said. “It’s a lot of paperwork, but the product is top of the line. It says a lot to buy that meat.”

Which is reassuring news for consumers looking for ways to purchase animal products that have been responsibly raised and slaughtered, and you don’t have to shop at Whole Foods to get them. Just look for products with the Animal Welfare Approved logo. The third-party certification program, which sets standards for breeding, raising, transport, and slaughter, is one of the most rigorous around and earns a high rating from Consumer Reports.

No matter the accommodation or precautions taken, some critics call the very concept of humane slaughter oxymoronic. “Slaughter can be less cruel,” a PETA spokesperson said. “But not humane.” Others see it as a necessary evil, just as Lake first did, though her views have since evolved.

Now, in addition to her work at The Royal Butcher, Lake has her own flock of Icelandic and purebred horned Dorset sheep, is a shearer, and performs on-the-farm slaughter of pigs, sheep, and goats for homesteaders and others who want to eat the meat they raise. Slaughtering animals and learning to be a butcher, she says, has made her a better shepherd; the skills she’s learned are part of the life cycle of an animal, the full acknowledgment of which is humane.

“I’ve really enjoyed bringing back that culture of really knowing: You’re not just raising your animals and raising your food; you’re being a part of processing them,” she said. “A lot of people miss out on that. They just kind of drop their animals off, and they don’t think about what happens, and they don’t want to see it. But in some ways it’s good to see it.”