Robots are getting into the meatpacking business.

Bring on the Butcher Bots

Bring on the Butcher Bots

The citizen’s guide to the future.
Jan. 24 2016 8:34 PM
FROM SLATE, NEW AMERICA, AND ASU

Bring on the Butcher Bots

Jobs at meatpacking plants are the epitome of dull, dirty, and dangerous. That’s where the robots come in.

Robot butcher.
A butcher prepares cuts of beef at a market in 2014 in North Miami Beach, Florida.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Your average 1900s slaughterhouse was nothing less than a pit of hell—not just for the animals getting slaughtered, but also for the people slaughtering them. These were metropolitan cesspools of disease and suffering in which “the majority of human beings are not yet human beings at all, but simply machines for the creating of wealth for others … penned up in filthy houses and left to rot and stew in misery,” as Upton Sinclair put it in The Jungle. Thanks in part to Sinclair, the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 passed, and government oversight has changed the industry for the better.

But modern meatpacking comes with its own problems. Today’s large slaughterhouses process—by which I mean kill, dismember, and package—300 to 400 animals per hour. To reach that level of productivity, slaughterhouse workers must work like machines, performing the same repetitive, tiring motions over and over again. And when fatigued, time-pressured humans wield sharp objects, injury and chronic pain—not to mention horrific meat grinder–related accidents—are inevitable. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meatpacking is the most dangerous job in America. It’s no wonder that the industry also has one of the highest turnover rates, with 75 to 100 percent of workers moving on each year. Today’s slaughterers and meatpackers are still cogs in the industrial machine, “cheap, largely interchangeable, and disposable,” as Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, wrote in Mother Jones in 2001. So the question is: Why have humans working in slaughterhouses at all?

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That’s the thinking at JBS, the world’s largest meatpacking firm, which is currently looking into automating the art of butchery with the help of New Zealand–based robotics firm Scott Technology. Instead of treating humans as machines, JBS envisions using actual automatons to slice and dice the millions of cows that pass through its doors each day, reports NPR’s the Salt. And why not? After all, robots don’t suffer. They don’t get bored. They don’t sue or demand prayer breaks. In theory, it could potentially be far safer—both for animal and worker—to automate some of the more grueling steps in this unpleasant process. Sounds like a great plan!

But is it?

The NPR article focused on the butchery side of things—what we do with the animal after it’s dead. And in fact, automation has already transformed the industrial butchering process. Today, scary-looking Japanese deboning machines efficiently peel the meat off chicken carcasses, leaving just the bones. These machines can process a bird in 2.5 seconds, making them 10 times as fast as the average human. Moreover, they’re far safer and more hygienic than their human counterparts, according to the Robotics Business Review. Meanwhile, Scott Technology has already created lamb-deboning machines that use complex rotating arms to carve lamb carcasses into parts that are recognizable for eating.

But cows, it turns out, are trickier. Chickens are small and bred to be uniform in size. Dissecting them requires many fast, straight cuts—the perfect task for a robot. When it comes to cattle, despite the best efforts of factory farming and modern breeding techniques, “animals just aren’t uniform,” says James Rickert, who co-owns Prather Ranch, a small organic beef operation in northern California, with his wife, Mary. “There’s big animals, and there’s little animals.” Cows often weigh 1,200 pounds or more. “Because the size and the weight of the beef can be so big, the devices need to be more customized,” says Gary McMurray, principal research engineer and division chief at Georgia Tech Research Institute’s division of food processing technology. “With beef, because it’s a higher price commodity—a single cow can value several thousands of dollars—so you want to make sure you do everything a little bit more precisely.”

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Moreover, many butchery jobs require a high degree of skill and intuition, says Rickert, 67, who has been working in the meatpacking industry since he took his first job at his grandfather’s slaughterhouse in 1959. Slicing a cow into retail cuts takes hundreds of minute judgments: identifying the fat that must be separated from muscle meat; separating out diseased, bruised, or bloodshot meat from fresh; and deciding whether to cut slightly thinner steaks in order to get one more cut of meat out of an animal, for instance. “Combining speed with precision is tough,” adds Stavros Vougioukas, a professor focusing on agricultural automation at University of California–Davis. “Beef has some very high-value pieces that must be cut skillfully, perhaps by an expert. Possibly robots can take care of ‘cheaper’ parts or prepare larger pieces, and people can cut the high-value pieces.”

But there’s more to meatpacking than carving up a carcass. What about the slaughter itself, and the moments leading up to it? Within that narrow window exists the potential for great suffering on the part of the animal, fatal mistakes on the part of the human, and grave psychological trauma for both. Modern humane slaughter guidelines set up by Temple Grandin seek to minimize that trauma, preventing cattle from seeing their fate ahead of time and rendering them brain-dead by the time they are bled out. But we’ve all heard tales of the improper stunning, gruesome cruelty, and widespread suffering and abuse that takes place in the nation’s industrial slaughterhouses. When it comes to the act of killing, it would be well worth our while to find ways to make the process smoother, quicker, and more painless—for the sake of both cow and worker.

There have been some attempts to automate animal slaughter in the past, but most of them haven’t gotten far. That’s because killing an animal is messy and challenging, whether you’re a human or a machine. Automating the slaughter process “is on the drawing board, but not a focus at present,” a representative at Scott Technology, the firm behind the new robotic effort, told me.

When it comes to dealing with live animals, machines may be of little use. One example, says Rickert, is herding the doomed animals up the ramp and into the slaughterhouse, where they are to be stunned. It’s a delicate moment: You don’t want the cows to sense that their brethren are being killed ahead. “You’ve got to read their body language,” he says. “Sometimes you’ve got to move a little quicker, and sometimes you have to be slow and gentle and quiet.” What’s at stake here, he says, is the well-being of both animal and human in equal measure. “You’ve got to be hypervigilant,” he says. “And you don’t want to abuse them. You learn a healthy respect—and also you need to treat them right.” That takes intuition, not algorithms.

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I asked Rickert if there were any points in the slaughtering process that would benefit from automation. He cited the particularly dangerous job of shackling and hoisting a cow up onto an airborne conveyor belt after it’s been stunned. Despite the fact that the animal is brain-dead, involuntary muscle contractions tend to cause it to kick out, often with surprising force. (Grandin explains why in this somewhat graphic video.) “I’ve been kicked a lot,” says Rickert. “I’ve had black-and-blue marks up and down my legs from being kicked. I’ve almost been kicked darn hard by an animal with no head—that one got my attention.” Ouch.

The idea of robot butchers may not sit well with everyone. At first glance, it sounds like the exact opposite of the “ethical butchery” movement—the idea that, by picking up a knife and learning how to cut up an animal yourself, you can reconstitute the severed link between Americans and their food. But let’s be real: Most of us aren’t out there hunting our own game, butchering our own meat, and paying our respects to the animal that bore its flesh on our behalf. No, butcher bots won’t reduce the animal suffering in factory farms, which is real and vast. But if they could alleviate some of the human suffering that takes place in the shadows so that Americans can enjoy their Big Macs, I’m all for it.

Now, who wants to bet on when we’ll see the first book-length exposé on the deplorable conditions of meatpacking robots?

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Rachel E. Gross is the science web editor at Smithsonian.