BEIRUT: Kilometers away from the Karantina slaughterhouse the pungent smell overwhelms the senses. The stench – a cocktail of animal feces, urine, rotting carcasses and dry blood – emanates across east Beirut, even reaching suburbs like Dora, Dikwaneh and Burj Hammoud. Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib told The Daily Star Tuesday that the slaughterhouse would be temporarily shut down for renovation works as of Wednesday morning.
Slotted away off the Karantina highway, on the Beirut River, the 20-year-old slaughterhouse is surrounded by an industrial park where rats scurry around underneath trucks and feral cats fight over food. Things only get worse upon entering the slaughterhouse grounds.
The cattle waiting for slaughter are tightly packed into barns in the shadow the slaughterhouse building. They struggle for space in their own feces, openly exposed to the rats and feral cats strolling in from the industrial park.
None of this appears to be a controlled and sanitized environment.
While the issues surrounding the Karantina slaughterhouse are not new, the topic has become even more potent over the last week following Health Minister Wael Abu Faour’s campaign against restaurants selling contaminated meat.
Abu Faour caused mayhem in the Lebanese food industry when he announced that several of the country’s most prominent restaurants and supermarkets were selling contaminated products.
Several establishments blamed meat traders they said were certified by the government, which has now shifted the spotlight onto the Karantina slaughterhouse.
The Daily Star visited Beirut’s largest slaughterhouse Monday evening during slaughtering hours to observe the conditions.
Karantina provides meat to several of Beirut’s butchers and restaurants, and it is all on display at the entrance to the building. Full carcasses hang from hooks on the ceiling as traders chop them up wearing no gloves and the meat rubs against rusty pillars. The slaughterers’ children can also be seen running around the complex helping their parents.
The other half of the building is where the slaughter takes place. Dead sheep are lined up across the concrete floor; several cows are hung from the ceiling by their legs waiting to be slaughtered; while others run around in confusion with their necks tied to a rope attached to the ceiling. The staff poke and prod the cows, waiting for a moment to tie their legs and hoist them up. Blood streams everywhere.
The resident vet Dr. Zeineddine Hasan assured The Daily Star there is nothing wrong with the process.
“If there’s anything wrong with the animal then I say, “No,” and it gets taken away,” he said. “If it’s OK then I mark it and it’s good to go.”
Shortly after meeting The Daily Star, Hasan changed into a white doctor’s coat. Moments later, a rusty wheelbarrow rolled past with some visibly rotten meat that had been slaughtered earlier in the day. After some commotion, Hasan briskly ordered the meat to be taken away.
He explained that “it’s clear” when an animal is fit to be slaughtered or sold.
“It has that yellowish color, you see?” he elaborated, gesturing toward the carcass of a dead sheep hanging from the ceiling.
Before being slaughtered, all the cows are visibly fearful as they struggle against the rope tied around their necks.
After their legs are tied the cows are hoisted up and then their heads are slammed against the concrete floor, which is often covered in the blood of a cow that has been slaughtered right next to them.
Hasan reassured The Daily Star that there is nothing inhumane about the way the cows are being slaughtered. “This is the way it has always been done; they don’t feel anything,” the veterinary doctor, who is employed by the Beirut municipality, said.
Compassion In World Farming, an NGO that campaigns to end factory farming, has been calling for the Karantina slaughterhouse to be shut down since last year.
The campaign was launched when the CIWF learned that cattle are shipped from the European Union, where they enjoy extensive protection, to Lebanon and slaughtered in ways that do not meet European Union regulations.
Pru Elliot, a campaign and investigations officer at CIWF, said the Karantina slaughterhouse had “some of the worst slaughter conditions ever documented.”
“The lack of training that the staff had in basic animal handling principles ... resulted in animals being really brutally beaten,” Elliot told The Daily Star.
She emphasized that the main issue with the slaughterhouse is the lack of order. Due to the range of smells and shiny objects in the slaughterhouse, cows are also likely to become scared and restless prior to slaughter, which can lead to other problems.
“They’re more likely to injure themselves ... they’re more likely to kick urine, feces and blood all over carcasses that are being processed [which can lead to contamination,” she said.
Cows also tend to struggle for some time after their throats are cut. The Daily Star observed one cow with its neck open rattle into a gutter that was already filled with blood from other animals.
Several of the staff made it clear to The Daily Star that they were also not happy with the conditions.
One staff member said that the slaughterhouse’s location was originally intended to be temporary as it was only moved due to construction. The building, which has a rippled metal roof and ad-hoc lighting, looks as though it was not built to last.
Joey Ayoub, an activist, blogger and public health graduate, completed a report on the Karantina slaughterhouse some years ago and concluded that it should either be completely renovated or shut down.
He told The Daily Star that it’s highly likely that food is contaminated there.
“[During our visit to the slaughterhouse] it took about 50-55 minutes for the cow to die,” Ayoub said.
“While alive, the cow can get contaminated,” he added.
Ayoub, author of the Hummus for Thought blog, stressed that, beyond the severe animal rights violations, allowing the cows to roll around in feces and blood on the cement floor before being killed can lead to contamination.
He also pointed out that this method cannot be considered halal, as the animals clearly suffer prior to their slaughter.
Several vans were parked outside the slaughterhouse Monday night waiting to load their trucks as clothing lines of fresh meat were brought out into the open air. One trader wrapped the meat in a cotton cloth that he claimed would dry the meat of any blood before he loaded it into the back of a van.
He guaranteed to The Daily Star that it was the best way to transfer the meat and said that his product was the cleanest in Beirut.