Slaughter or harvest? Implications of new diction (commentary)

Animal Agriculture has been instructed to use “pretty” marketing words to keep you buying into their dead lifeless products. Don’t be fooled by marketing terms and whitewashing strategies.


Original post:

*Dr. Chris Raines is an assistant professor of meat science and Extension meat specialist at The Pennsylvania State University.

SLAUGHTER: c. 1300, “killing of cattle or sheep for food, killing of a person,” … “a butchering, butcher meat” (Source: Online Etymology Dictionary,

In the last two decades, many of those directly involved in agriculture, as well as those who write or report on agricultural happenings or issues, have decided to change the English language — not by inventing new words but, rather, by modifying definitions.

There are many examples of this, like the broad use of various label claims that make factually wrong statements such as “hormone free” or loosey-goosey interpretations of what is “all natural.” “Sustainable” can probably be added to that list, too.

Frequently, those involved in or supportive of contemporary agriculture dismiss this as unnecessary simply because they know that, despite the label claims, the product is not in any way superior to items that are not labeled as “natural.” (What else would it be? Unnatural?) This redefinition of words has been done in the interest of marketing.

While many can agree that the deliberate twisting of word meanings for the sake of marketing is sometimes understandable but usually meaningless, there is one pesky word for which there are two different schools of thought: slaughter.

There are people who simply call it slaughter because, well, that is what it is, and there are others who have decided, somehow, that the word slaughter is just too much for consumers to handle and that the “correct” term to be used in its place is harvest.

One word means to kill an animal for use as food, and the other word means to gather crops from the field. Which one sounds like it applies to farm animals that will become meat?

Instead, we now “harvest” livestock at “processing plants.” It has been argued that slaughtering animals in slaughterhouses is too graphic. This brings up many interesting points regarding word use and assumptions of what “consumers” find acceptable.

Currently, we harvest pigs, cattle, chickens, corn, soybeans and hay, yet we milk cows and shear sheep. In a dilutive effort to make agricultural terms more palatable, perhaps we should have milk harvesting parlors on dairy farms and use wool harvesters instead of sheep shears?

There is a general frustration within some agricultural circles that consumers do not have an understanding of or appreciation for where their food comes from, and I certainly understand this perspective. To foster a better understanding, perhaps terms suited to (or even created for) each specific process should be used to describe what is happening at various stages of the food production system.

Glossing over the fact that animals die certainly does not help achieve any sense of transparency within agriculture. Renaming the slaughter process “harvesting” might seem like an intentional effort to shelter people from what it really is. If people cannot accept this fact, then perhaps meat is not for them.

Harvesting and processing animals sound rather industrial (at least in my mind), as in, “I just sent a load of livestock to the processing plant.” All the while, there is much frustration within contemporary agriculture due to use of the phrase “factory farm.” When the term “processing plant” is used to describe the fate of a “crop,” that sounds pretty factory-ish to me.

This semantic blindfolding has crept up quite a bit lately among my colleagues and friends. A friend of mine recently presented some data to a group of agribusiness salespeople and used the term slaughter in her presentation. She was then told that she “must” change the term slaughter to harvest because it is such an unsavory term. Mind you, this was a presentation directed to vendors of livestock feeds.

Another friend of mine decided to post photos of on-farm beef slaughter to her blog as part of her “ranch life” photography series. Simply put, livestock ranches and ranch life would not exist without slaughter.

She was contacted by a beef organization and essentially was chastised for posting images that could turn people away from eating beef.

A few months ago, I posted a picture of a steer being exsanguinated, or “bled,” during the slaughter process and asked for feedback. I received about 100 responses, some in favor of and some against posting such a picture.

What I found interesting is that people who have not been somehow indoctrinated into what is “agriculturally PC” said I needed to post these types of pictures, that such imagery is what they want to see. Conversely, those directly tied to agriculture told me the picture was “too much” for consumers (a.k.a., the people who wanted to see it and saw it) to handle.


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