A chain of gutted pigs moves along a conveyor belt supported from the ceiling, swaying from the sudden stops and starts of machinery. Watery blood from the gaping holes in the pigs’ stomachs drips down their back legs, forming a red stream running into a nearby floor drain. The carcasses have just been cleaned—their hairy bristles glisten in the fluorescent factory lights—but the animals seem filthy to me. I avert my eyes by looking down at my shoes, which I have just wrapped in white plastic. They are already maroon.
Earlier, the Agrosuper factory tour guide had not spared our Columbia Global Scholars group the gruesome aspects of the Chilean pork industry. Using an animated PowerPoint presentation, the guide had explained the slaughterhouse procedures that begin with a truck full of pigs and end in the multiple sanitation measures used in their slaughter. The animals have a relaxing, two-hour hot shower before being humanely gassed and passed through a series of steps that make them less and less animal. By the time they are gutted and hung on the conveyor belt by their front legs, they are pork.
Since the products dangling before us are pork—not pigs—no one had qualms about investigating the Agrosuper process as a case study in the Chilean food industry. The Columbia Global Scholars Program's site visits have often involved CEOs giving presentations and answering questions about GDP and bilateral trade. We had not expected to get so close to our research subject.
Still, during the factory presentation that morning, my tour guide had assured us that the pigs did not suffer. They did not bleed until after death and they were not cut up until after they had bled. The guide happily gave statistics about the chemistry of the toxic gas and the water temperatures of each washing. Eight thousand two hundred pigs are slaughtered per day at Agrosuper. No evidence has proven that the pigs do not suffer. How would one determine the pain levels of a sentient creature that cannot communicate with us, anyway?
In the presentation room, I donned a plastic hairnet, a long buttoned jacket, and galoshes. I scoured my hands with hot water and stepped on an electric-powered scrub at the threshold to the production rooms. Soothed by the scent of soap and comforted by the clean attire, I was unprepared for what would confront me in the next room.
Rows of stacked conveyor belts compartmentalize the pork products. Heads roll along at eye level. Above them are slabs of red meat with varying amounts of white fat. In another part of the main room, ears pass by at a rapid speed—that part of the pig, it turns out, is not as valuable as others. Hooves move at a similar pace. A select group of women handle the most prized cuts, which are each color checked to meet Asian market standards before the meat passes onward.
Agrosuper exports 60 percent of its meat, with 70 percent of that total going to Asia. Even though the Chileans do not end up consuming most of the pork processed in the factory, the workers I pass seem connected to their product. Everyone greets me amiably as they handle stretch hoses, cleave pig parts, or separate the impure meats from the conveyor belt. Men whiz by in small cars, lifting packages and transporting them to other areas. The women make jokes and analyze the newest fashion trends with each other while scrutinizing pork chops.
The face mask hides my tears and labored breathing. When I clutch at my rib cage, it is because I feel nauseated, not because of the drop in temperature—it is now colder in the room than it is outside with the winter wind—necessary to preserve the meat.
After the tour, the tour guide passes out baseball caps with the slogan Agrosuper Alimenta, “Agrosuper feeds.” I keep it to remind myself that I witnessed my worst nightmare and walked out of it, hands raw from washing in a futile attempt to forget the shreds of discarded skin and crinkly fat, and the constant rolling of pork parts.