The act of killing and butchering cows for food dates back hundreds of years, and modern processes have largely mechanized the process. Though a typical cow can yield a considerable amount of meat, butchering techniques vary considerably and some activists remain opposed to the butchering process altogether.
The history of butchering cows for food goes back to the common ancestor of modern beef cows, a large mammal known as the auroch. According to historians for Cyber Space Agriculture, Stone Age humans first domesticated auroch for farm and food use in Europe and Asia, and the practice spread as transportation developments allowed people to explore the globe. Beef cattle first appeared in the colonies of the United States in 1623, and butchers killed and prepared the animals for consumption using knives and manual processes. As the Industrial Revolution allowed more mechanized processing in the 1800s, large beef producers began factory-like techniques to butcher cows in larger numbers. By 2005, according to the sustainable food website Sustainable.org, four large companies controlled 80 percent of all cattle butchering in the United States.
According to Harold Hillman, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience and has conducted extensive research on animal slaughter, the modern butchering process begins with sedating the cow with an electric shock and then cutting the carotid artery and jugular veins in the neck. Some more mechanized butchers may combine the two processes by injecting a metal slug into the cow’s head. Some home butchers, according to self-reliant living expert Dynah Geissal, simply shoot the animal in the head, then remove the head with a knife. Once the cow has died, a butcher hangs the animal from a hook-like device called a gambrel, inserts a knife, and cuts from the inside out to remove the skin. With the skin off, the butcher can then remove the cow’s organs and begin removing meat.
Depending on the method of butchering used, according to Dynah Geissal, a typical cow can yield 18 different cuts of meat and a total yield of about 750 pounds. According to Harold Hillman, Americans butcher about seven million cows each year, though no official data exists for the annual number of cows butchered around the world.
Cattle butchers must work carefully, as their frequent use of knives and commercial cutting devices creates a considerable safety hazard. In addition, butchers must take precautions to avoid exposure to urine, feces and blood from the butchered cow, as these fluids can carry a number of diseases. According to Sustainable.org, commercial butchers suffer injuries at a rate twice that of average American workers. To ensure food safety, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration carries out routine inspections of commercial meat processing facilities.
A number of animal rights activists oppose the butcher of cattle, and many believe the process of stunning the cow before slaughter allows the animal to feel pain during the experience. In some cases, the butchering process does not remove all bacteria from the cow’s meat and, according to Sustainable.org, the United States Department of Agriculture lacks the authority to mandate a recall of tainted meat.