Warning: this post contains some graphic language describing a slaughterhouse. Do not read if you are easily upset (or squeamish, like the author of this post...).
I don’t think many people can say “I went to Uruguay on a business trip.” Probably just as few people can say they’ve been through a slaughterhouse. But for better or for worse, I can say “yes” to both of those statements. And it’s all because of cows...
Before I started working at Boloco in 2011 (and therefore eating burritos for free at my leisure), I’d been buying burritos there since 2008. And over those almost 5 years, I’ve gone through different burrito and protein addictions.\
It just so happened that in December 2012, I was in one of my steak-eating phases (more specifically, Buffalo Steak, but that’s irrelevant).
So clearly, when my boss, Boloco’s CEO, John Pepper, asked me to plan a video about the source of Boloco’s steak (Uruguay!), I was a bit nervous to see how my extremely common lunch choice gets from farm to burrito.
Admittedly, I’m no food expert, but I’d heard that the steak we purchase is grass-fed and all these other things that sounded great on a menu. I’ve never really known exactly what they mean, though. Well I was about to learn, up close and personal.
We spent hours just driving through acre upon acre, riding in the back of a 4x4, hair blowing in the wind, 80-degree sun shining down on our skin, and my camera bouncing around in my hands. We learned then that on average, each cow there has one hectare (2 acres) all to itself! That’s a lot of space (especially when compared to how small my apartment is...!).
We spoke to the farmers, who all seemed very happy (and why wouldn’t they be? They live in such a beautiful place!) and proud of the cattle they produce.
It really was amazing to see that everything we’ve heard about where our steak comes from is true. Those 2-3 years that each cow lives are spent happily, out on the open land, hanging out, eating grass, enjoying the sunshine.. -- not a bad way to spend time, if you ask me!
Of course, that’s only half of what we saw during our trip to Uruguay; the other half is a little more gruesome, but still incredibly interesting.
I’m talking about the slaughterhouse; the hardest part to comprehend in the whole beef process. Before I hopped on the plane to Uruguay, I’d been joking about this part of the trip for weeks around the office. I’d said things like, “Yeah, I’m going to the slaughterhouse! Hopefully I don’t pass out! haha...” Really, these jokes were just a cover for the way I was really feeling: terrified.
I don’t think the words “I’d love to go see the inside of a slaughterhouse!” are said very often... Most meat-eating people like to see pictures of happy cows on a farm, then go eat a nice, juicy steak for dinner, and call it a day. Most companies like to stay on the surface like that that too. But at Boloco, we like to get to the bottom of things, be 100% honest and transparent, and sometimes that means you have to walk into a slaughterhouse...
So we hopped in the van and headed to Tacuarembo, where all of Boloco’s grass-fed beef is packaged up.
Upon our arrival at the plant, we were given white uniforms (I thought the color choice was odd, but it actually made the plant look even more clean and sterile than it already did!), including pants, a jacket, rubber boots, and a hairnet.
We walked through the plant in reverse order, starting at the cleanest part - the room where they cut and package the various cuts of beef - so that we could finish in the dirtiest part: the slaughter room.
At first glance inside the slaughterhouse, I was really impressed. It was one of the cleanest and most organized places I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what I expected to see, but the vision in my mind was nowhere close to as sterile as this was. It was very comforting to know that our beef comes from somewhere so sanitary, to say the least.
As we continued backwards along the disassembly line of the beef (they really do call it the “disassembly line”), things did get a little less... clean. Obviously, when you’re cutting cows into pieces, it has to get a little bloody at some point.
Seeing the cattle travel down the disassembly line was the most organized process I’ve ever seen. Every worker at the plant has an extremely specific job, and only has a few seconds to do it. The cattle hang by their ankles and are mechanically moved down the line, so as the cattle pass by each worker, that worker has to work fast to get his or her job done in that short amount of time. There’s one guy who has about 5 seconds to literally cut the cow in half with a giant chainsaw, and if his cut is even a tiny bit off the mark, the beef from that cow is ruined.
As we continued along, eventually we got to the end (or, really, the beginning) of the line. My nerves were building up as the nice workers asked me if I was sure I wanted to go in and see the actual slaughter happen. I have somewhat of a FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) problem, so I knew if I didn’t go see it, I’d regret it.
There’s no way to predict how you’re going to react to seeing a slaughter. I’d managed to keep pretty calm through the rest of the slaughterhouse tour (which I was proud of - I’m pretty squeamish - one time I fainted just hearing people TALK about hospitals and blood...), so I was feeling pretty good at this point. But when I saw the first cow walk into the slaughter room, the slaughterman placed the stun gun at the top of its head, and the cow dropped to the floor (the stun gun renders the cow unconscious immediately, so it no longer feels any pain or has any emotion), it hit me hard.
Two of the women who worked at the plant took me outside into the comforting sunshine and walked with me, assuring me that my reaction is not uncommon - they said they both had similar reactions when they first came to work there. But it’s something that, if you see it every day, you get used to. And it is the harsh reality of our meat-eating habits. What we saw in Uruguay, which seemed massive in scale (they slaughter 1,100 heads of grass-fed cattle daily, just in that one plant), is actually only a tiny fraction of our consumption. It really makes me appreciate how such moments would motivate people to become animal rights activists or go vegetarian or vegan (personally, I was a pescetarian for a few years a while back). This was definitely a life experience for me.
Although it was tough to see, the way the slaughters happen in Tacuarembo are truly as humane as it possibly can be, with all of the animal welfare rules and the care they give the animals in their last moments. They’ve built the slaughterhouse perfectly over the years (with the help of animal science expert, Dr. Temple Grandin), to ensure that the cattle are as calm as possible in their final minutes. When they’re lined up outside, they walk in a curve, which is comforting for them because they get the sense that they’re walking in a circle and not going anywhere. The ramp they walk up is not too steep, and made in a way that’s easy to walk up. And when they enter the slaughter room, they don’t see anything that makes them nervous or worried. When the stunning happens, they are calm, not stressed or worried. As a human, it’s sad to know what’s about to happened, but the cattle really seem to have no idea.
Yes, my squeamishness got the best of me that day. But that doesn’t mean I regret seeing anything I did in Uruguay. I think it’s easy to go along with life, eating 3 meals a day, loving the food you’re eating but not really knowing what’s in it or where it comes from. It’s harder to actually take the time and effort to go see how it really gets to your plate (or, in this case, inside your tortilla). I’m glad I got to see this whole process from start to finish, from the grass to the gore, farm to factory. It gave me a new perspective on a lot of things. It made me realize all the time and effort goes into creating each burrito, before the meat even arrives at Boloco. It forced me to think harder about my life as a meat-eater. And seeing how much the people at Tacuarembo care about the animals was a great lesson for life in general.
It was an odd two full days in Uruguay. Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And since I’ve returned to the States, I’ve been working hard to produce a video encompassing all I experienced in Uruguay, without offending or grossing anyone out (we took out pretty much all of the slaughterhouse!). So if you haven’t had enough of my Uruguay adventure, watch away - even if you watch solely to hear the moo-ing ;)