Editor’s note: This commentary is by Arion Thiboumery, who is general manager of Vermont Packinghouse in North Springfield.
Eating meat, by its very nature, involves the killing of animals. There is no way around it. Without malevolence, mistakes can happen in the process simply because it involves live animals that are both willful and powerful – just ask any livestock farmer. And when a mistake is made, it can affect the last moments of an animal’s life. We know this well at Vermont Packinghouse.
As a small-scale slaughterhouse in North Springfield, we work with more than 300 small farms throughout the region, helping them turn their livestock into meats that stores, restaurants and consumers feature on their tables. We are certified organic and audited for animal welfare by two additional organizations.
We are a company built upon transparency by our very design. We have windows built into our plant, overseeing every processing area – from slaughter to the smoked meats. And we do this because we believe that people want to know not just where their food comes from, but how it comes to them. Because we believe that they should know. And sometimes knowing is not easy – death is a moment that challenges us all.
We opened in 2014 with the intention to make our facility into the opposite of the giant corporate plants that increasingly control the meat business in this country. Instead of emphasizing speed and volume behind closed doors, we focus on a respect for the animals and we do our best to treat each of them humanely up to and including their final moment. But we do slaughter them.
We were recently cited by the USDA and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture for several unfortunate accidents that resulted in animals being mis-stunned. We do not contest these events and have paid a fine to the state.
The regulatory and supervisory systems in place at the state and federal level were present and did their job. There are two USDA inspectors on site at our facility every day, observing every animal, among many other inspection duties. And state inspectors stop by from time to time. We welcome this oversight of our work. We take pride in a good working relationship with both the USDA and the state of Vermont, as we have since the day we opened.
While some out-of-state animal rights groups have used misleading and inflammatory language to describe our practices, based upon USDA reports, we try to improve our practices every day and welcome discussions on animal welfare. It would be easy to launch into long-winded, defensive statements regarding these groups’ letters, but that is not the way we do business.
We do business by inviting people to our plant to see how we operate, believing that if they have questions, they have a right to know. And we have at least one tour group every week, 52 weeks a year — from farmers to restaurant chefs, distributors to hospital administrators, college students and professors, to an openly vegan activist who came and had a very civil conversation with us for over an hour one afternoon. Many people comment that it makes them appreciate the life that goes into their meat.
We employ more than 50 proud local people, we feed local families, are involved in local issues, and even sponsor a local softball team. When there is a problem at the plant, whether for an employee or for the business as a whole, we feel it and live through it as a group. Our successes and our failures are shared internally, but also externally, with the communities around us. And we hope that we can all move forward through this together.
To do so, over the last few months, we have upgraded our animal handling equipment and changed procedures to greatly reduce the chances of future accidents. But the only way for the public and our customers to judge us is by results.
On our website is a quote from farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. The point is, when we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament.”
The slaughterhouse business may not be for the faint of heart, and matters of life and death are neither simple nor trivial, but I believe in Berry’s words, and look forward to publicly showing our commitment to this philosophy for many years to come.