Robotics in the meat industry, a sign of times to come?

May 26, 2017 · 5 min read
Scott Technology’s lamb processing robots.Scott Technology

Aida Ponce Del Castillo, Senior Researcher at the ETUI

At lunch or dinner today, many Europeans will eat meat in some form or another. Meat is part of our lives, and the raising of animals for meat has played a major role in the development of agriculture and society. Many people, meat eaters or otherwise, believe that meat is still produced and processed as it has always been. In reality, things have changed greatly: the sector has gradually been taken over by robots and machines. As such, it encapsulates all the possible good and evil of robotics and its impacts on human behaviour at work.

Robotics, artificial intelligence and automation are not only present in high-tech sectors. They are part of everyday life and are now impacting all sorts of traditional manual sectors.

The meat industry was actually one of the first sectors to be truly affected by automation. It underwent substantial changes in the early 1960s, with the introduction of automated machinery and robots which raised the slaughtering capacity to roughly 300–400 carcasses per hour, compared to the 100 carcasses that human workers could process. In more recent years, newer robots have been introduced for executing even more precise operations.

For the industry and owners of slaughterhouses, automation and robotics have created new business opportunities. Novel technologies like cameras, actuators and sensors have been introduced to make production methods more dynamic and cost-effective (Hinrichsen, 2010). This financial investment has yielded returns and helped to achieve the industry’s main aim: keeping up a high rate of production.

Meat can now be processed by automated machines and robots, almost without human intervention. Automation is embedded into and throughout the whole process, from production to slaughtering to processing. Not every slaughterhouse has all these automated facilities, as this requires huge quantities of meat and a high level of investment, but an almost fully automated process is now very much a possibility because of the technology that is available.

How robots are used in slaughterhouses

After animals are delivered to the slaughterhouse, the stunning process needs to be executed, followed by the actual killing. EU rules require that animals only be killed after stunning, so as to minimise pain. Workers must do regular checks to ensure that animals do not present any signs of consciousness or sensibility between stunning and death.

After this stage, there are robots capable of taking on most of the ensuing tasks. Scanning the carcasses involves weighing each one, measuring the length and ‘intelligently’ cutting it with guillotine-style blades. Systems have been in place to carry out the evisceration process, one of the most demanding tasks, for at least 20 years. Robotic arms open the thorax and pull the viscera out (Purnell, 2013), while automated cutting machines then split the carcasses in two. Robots plan the trajectory of the blades to do the primal cutting of the meat, separate it from the carcass into different cuts and do other tasks like boning out.

Other robots can then take care of the packaging and sealing of the meat, making it ready for shipping and distribution to local butcher shops, supermarkets and finally onto the consumer’s plate.

However, automation doesn’t always work as its promoters intend. The robots’ accuracy in performing complex gestures and positioning the cutting edge still needs refinement, in order to cut different sizes and shapes of lamb, pork and beef carcasses. Sometimes, carcasses can be damaged by previous operating processes and the machines are not always suited to processing a variety of sizes. Certain tasks such as the shackling and sticking of the stunned animal may never become fully automated (Nielsen, 2014). In the European Union, the regulation on animal protection at the moment of killing requires that slaughterhouse operators appoint a qualified worker for those key tasks.

Why should we care?

In recent years, several cases of animal abuse in slaughterhouses have come to light. Workers were blamed but automation and the pressure it generates on human work certainly played a role. Millions of men and women, of all ages, work in slaughterhouses all over the world. They make their living by killing animals and processing the meat in often harsh and cold labour conditions (Victor, et. al. 2016). European standards require the animal to be efficiently stunned and slaughtered. Work needs be done at high speed; workers need to possess in-depth knowledge of the carcass, carry out the evisceration and carcass-splitting, use machinery and have excellent knife skills. They are required to do the same repetitive tasks over and over, which can cause injuries to muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves. Workers also need to clean floors, tools and equipment to high standards, and process by-products. Pay levels are low.

In the UK, workers are paid between £7.20 and £9.03 per hour, depending on their experience. Pressure is high and robots, due to their relentless efficacy, contribute to a very stressful and tense environment.

The question we need to ask ourselves is, have we gone too far?

Can we accept situations where human beings are under such pressure that they turn into machines themselves, at the expense of their own health and, sometimes, of the well-being of the animals they are tasked to “process”? Robots are now being used in all sorts of economic sectors, with the meat industry being just one example. We need to think about the consequences this will have, and in fact is already having, on workers. We also need to look at the wider picture and reflect on the type of society we want to live in and the type of jobs we want people to have. While these may not be the usual debates that arise when it comes to the subject of meat, they do need to be addressed; for the good of animals and, even more importantly, workers and society at large.

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The European Trade Union Institute is the research & training centre of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

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