The Abstraction of Flesh

Big Chicken, Every Twelve Seconds, and Becoming Salmon all discuss the massive industrialization efforts surrounding three iconic animals – chickens, cattle, and salmon. The authors of these books problematize the ways in which the industrialization of food production have abstracted[1] and distanced the conceptualization of meat from the conceptualization of the animals this meat comes from. The flesh of these animals has different meanings throughout the course of production; this includes the genetic basis of an animal, a living animal, meat, and the commodification of meat. There are common threads in the ways in which flesh becomes physically and conceptually abstracted from the animals they come from; there are also differences that should be noted. This paper will explore the four meanings of flesh throughout the life cycle of meat – flesh as biology, flesh as animal, flesh as meat, and flesh as commodity – as well as the ways in which the authors of these books discuss the abstraction of flesh and the ways in which this abstraction contributes to the concealment of abuses perpetrated by industrial farming.

Flesh as Biology

Big Chicken and Becoming Salmon discussed the ways in which biology is involved in the separation of flesh from animal. Of note is genetically modified animals for the sole purpose of making their flesh tastier, speedier (in terms of growth), and meatier. This is especially evident in the Chicken of Tomorrow contests, in which farmers would compete for the title of having the best chicken based on weight, appearance, and flavor. The ‘winners’ of these contests (who were slaughtered and eaten) became the ancestors of the broiler chickens we eat today (McKenna 2017). Chickens were selectively bred for their quick growth and meatiness, and more recently, genetically modified chickens have become commodified. There are a few hatcheries around the US that produce young chicks that will produce the expected meat, and farmers must keep coming back to these hatcheries because eggs from these chickens will not produce the same homogenous flavor and size as from the hatcheries.

Salmon have also been selectively bred, and in some countries have been genetically modified. In Becoming Salmon, Lien explores Norwegian salmon farming; Norway bans genetically modified foods, so Norwegian salmon are not genetically modified. That being said, there has been a genetically salmon produced that grows to adult size in half the time as a normal salmon (Waltz 2017). While Lien doesn’t focus on genetically modified salmon to a significant extent, she does provide a biological definition of domestication as the “process whereby a population of animals or plants is changed at the genetic level, accentuating traits that benefit the humans” (Lien, 9, 2015). This definition includes selective breeding for salmon that grow into fleshy meat quickly and with limited food requirements and possibly a reduced urge to travel upstream. In this definition of domestication, the difference between a wild salmon and a farmed salmon is the biological influence of humans.

McKenna explores the implications of the use of antibiotics in industrial chicken farming. She argues that the exorbitant use of antibiotics in industrial farming leads to antibiotic resistance, which is a pressing public health issue. This antibiotic resistance comes from bacterial heredity and plasmid-to-plasmid interactions among bacteria, which can cause cross-species antibiotic resistances that lead to antibiotic resistant strains of bacterial diseases in humans. The industrialization of chicken farming has abstracted chicken flesh into a mass of numbers that obscures the supply chain of chicken across the United States, making it more difficult to pinpoint the causes of antibiotic resistance.

Flesh as Animal

All three authors discussed flesh as animals to an extent. McKenna and Lien went slightly more in-depth than Pachirat when discussing living flesh, which is interesting as chicken and salmon (the respective subjects of McKenna’s and Lien’s books) are generally thought of as a collective than as individuals whereas cattle (one of the subjects of Pachirat’s book) are conceptualized more as individuals.

Chicken farming in the United States is cramped and does not allow for chicken to ‘live out their nature,’[2] which is flying low around a farm and pecking at each other. Chickens are stressed, in pain because they grow too fast, and are often fed antibiotics in their feed. McKenna focuses less on the lives of the chickens and more on the ways in which these conditions lead to bacterial outbreaks that are resistant to antibiotics. Towards the end of the book, McKenna highlights farms that operate more symbiotically than factory farms (by rotating crops and using animals for specific purposes). One of the most touching of these stories is of Reese, the farmer who raises legacy chickens in addition to turkey and other animals (McKenna 2017). These legacy chickens are raised to maintain biodiversity among chickens and because he likes them. However, the amount of care that goes into these chickens is the exception, not the rule; most chickens in the United States are raised in factory farms and are treated as a product rather than as a living animal.

Cows don’t live very long in a slaughterhouse. This is exemplified in the moment in which a cow gives birth while in the chute; there is a huge hubbub about removing her calves and making sure she still “comes in to die” (Pachirat, 229-30, 2011). She managed to halt the disassembly of cattle for a while, but still went off to be killed and turned into meat. While in the chute, cattle are subjected to the electric cattle prods, which workers use simply for the point of “pain and torture [to] keep the line tight” (Pachirat, 148, 2011). When the knocker doesn’t kill cattle on the first try, the cow becomes a threat within the slaughterhouse – these animals are seconds away from becoming meat but are still a threat. Once in chutes leading into the slaughterhouse, cattle are simply an input and for a meat output and disassembled body parts hanging off ever-moving chains.

The abstraction of animals as such allows industrialized animal-killing to exist in society with little to no scrutiny, allowing for abuse of animal lives. This is especially evident in the realm of chicken production, in which chickens are housed in cramped spaces that don’t allow chickens to behave like chickens (Pew Research Center); they are unable to fly, peck, roost, or scratch, and are often weighed down by the excessively fast-growing flesh on their chests. Also of concern is beak clipping, which according to the Humane Society of America (2006) “causes tissue damage and nerve injury, including open wounds and bleeding, which results in inflammation, and acute and possibly chronic pain” (p.1-2). This unnecessary spread of pain to chickens is enabled by the abstraction of chicken flesh – the conceptualization of chickens as a numerical input and output rather than as a flesh-and-blood animal.

Flesh as Meat

Each species discussed in these three books eventually becomes meat, which is conceptualized separately from the animals it comes from. Chicken and salmon meat retains the name of the animal, but this flesh bears no resemblance to the living being it came from. Cattle, however, become beef. This could be due to size and that cattle are mammals.

Chicken is the most produced meat in the United States; in 2017, American meat production was estimated to include 41,591 million pounds of broiler chicken (Haley 2018). Chicken meat is viewed en masse, as volume, rather than individually. This is reflected in the beef and salmon as well. In Big Chicken, Maryn McKenna made no mention of the transition from chicken as animal to chicken as meat. She did discuss the marketing of chicken flesh, which was exemplified by the discussion of chicken nuggets. Chicken nuggets are processed, so they are a step further removed from animal. Chicken meat is homogenous; there is no variation between one piece of chicken flesh and any other of the same cut. Broiler chickens are specifically bred for meatiness and homogeneity, as are the other farmed animals discussed.

Cattle are seen as such right up to the pulling of their hide off of their carcass. The transition from cow to beef is longer due to the lengthy disassembly line involved in cattle slaughter, though cattle may be thought of as beef before they are killed. While chicken is often homogenous, beef is separated by breed as well as type of cut – and this differentiation is furthered by the sheer size of a cow. Chicken skin is eaten somewhat regularly, and salmon skin is cooked along with salmon flesh but not eaten, but cattle skin is removed from cattle flesh in the slaughterhouse and never returned.

Salmon flesh is closer to meat when the animal is alive than either of the other two animals discussed. As Lien points out, salmon are a collective: she says that “[i]f there is mutuality, it is not one-to-one, with single individuals, but with the fish as a collective, like a swarm” (p. 61). There is little disassembly involved in the transition of live salmon flesh to meat salmon flesh. In addition, salmon are viewed as meat before their slaughter; they are viewed as biomass to be fed and to grow. The abstraction of salmon flesh is more readily enabled because salmon exist under a physical barrier that prevents human-salmon interaction. Something that Lien doesn’t discuss is are the looming environmental disasters hanging around industrialized salmon production.

The abstraction of salmon flesh allows for environmental disasters to amass and grow. Because salmon are kept far from sight both intentionally by farm placement and their living conditions, the production of salmon is kept out of the minds of those who eat salmon. The production of salmon produces large amounts of pollution (Greenberg 2017) that clogs the rivers in which salmon are farmed. Another concern is that salmon are fed fish meal, which is often made by Peruvian anchoveta (Greenberg 2017). Peruvian anchoveta, like many other fish, are overfished and could be fished out in the near future. One possible proposed solution to anchoveta overfishing is the inclusion of insect protein in salmon diets rather than fish meal pellets (Brady 2018).

Flesh as Commodity

The flesh of animals is seen as numbers and figures in industrial agriculture. The sheer amount of chicken produced leads to great profit; in 2017, the price received per pound of broiler chicken meat was .546 $/lb. (USDA 2017). Chicken flesh as a commodity includes genetically modified chicken eggs, which are produced by hatcheries and will not reproduce into the standardized, homogenous flesh that is expected of chicken. The chicken industry is saturated by a few large companies that use vertical integration to ensure resilience to market forces, and there is an antagonistic relationship between regulatory agencies and industry. The actual, physical flesh is most abstracted when flesh is a commodity. Flesh exists to grow fast and to be tasty, irrespective of the animal it comes from. The killing of animals is hidden from sight[3], as Pachirat discusses heavily in Every Twelve Seconds. Pachirat doesn’t discuss the beef market to much of an extent, though he does discuss how cattle flesh becomes abstracted from living to a mass of flesh. A similar antagonism exists between the cattle industry and regulatory agencies such as OSHA and the USDA. The Norwegian farmed salmon Lien describes in Becoming Salmon is a relatively new and growing industry. This industry is in a socialist country in which genetically modified foods are banned and there is compromise between industry and regulatory agencies.

Pachirat spends most of Every Twelve Seconds discussing workers and their conditions within the slaughterhouse. This discussion shows how animal flesh is not the only thing that becomes abstracted – human lives also become abstracted when flesh is abstracted. Once cattle become continuous moving lines of beef, workers themselves become replaceable and hold little value in the eyes of supervisors. In the chapter “Es Todo Por Hoy,” Pachirat describes the elation of finally getting a job in a slaughterhouse despite the low pay and poor working conditions. This chapter demonstrates that workers can be replaced at any point without hesitation by supervisors. The sequestration of the slaughterhouse pushes the cognizance of consumers away from the conditions within the slaughterhouse, allowing supervisors within the slaughterhouse to keep workers in unsafe and tedious working conditions.


All three authors discuss some way in which the flesh of an animal is abstracted from said animal. Flesh is seen as a product separate from the animal when biology, meat, and profit are involved. The authors have different points of focus; McKenna focuses on the industry at large and on how the increased use of antibiotics for growth lead to increased antibiotic resistance. In this book, flesh is abstracted to numbers of affected chicken and antibiotic resistance. Pachirat demonstrates how cattle become abstracted in the minds of workers in the slaughterhouse, becoming a never-ending mass requiring repetitive and thoughtless action. Lien’s discussion of salmon farming shows how salmon are viewed as a collective mass of flesh to be grown and monitored; their flesh is measured in the feed conversion ratio.

When flesh is abstracted, the ties it has to the animal and the environment the animal comes from dissolve. This dissolution allows for the concealment of damage done by various meat production industries. By separating flesh from animal, these industries can hide environmental damage (such as pollution and overfishing), mistreatment of workers (such as unsafe working conditions), animal abuse (such as beak clipping) and looming public health disasters (such as antibiotic resistance). In this way, the abstraction of flesh becomes a mechanism for concealment in the politics of sight.



Sources Cited

Brady, Heather. “Why Salmon Eating Insects Instead of Fish Is Better for Environment.” National Geographic. February 05, 2018. Accessed March 02, 2018.

Greenberg, Paul. The Fish On My Plate, PBS Frontline, 27 Apr. 2017,

Haley, Mildred. “Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook.” January 19, 2018. Accessed February 28, 2018.

HSUS. “The Welfare of Animals in the Broiler Chicken Industry.” In: An HSUS Report. 2006. HSUS (ed). HSUS: Washington, DC pp 1-7.

Lien, Marianne Elisabeth. Becoming salmon: aquaculture and the domestication of a fish. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015.

McKenna, Maryn. Big chicken: the improbable story of how antibiotics created modern agriculture and changed the way the world eats. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2017.

Pachirat, Timothy. Every twelve seconds: industrialized slaughter and the politics of sight. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

“Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.” Pew Environment Group, Pew Research Center, 29 Apr. 2008,

“Statistics by Subject.” USDA – National Agricultural Statistics Service – Statistics by Subject Results. Accessed February 28, 2018.§or=ANIMALS %26 PRODUCTS&group=POULTRY&comm=CHICKENS

Waltz, Emily. “First Genetically Engineered Salmon Sold in Canada.” Scientific American. August 7, 2017. First Genetically Engineered Salmon Sold in Canada.


[1] For the purposes of this paper, abstraction is a process of removing meaning from something or distancing something from its original context.

[2] This is the phrase used in class.

[3] Exceptions may be fishmongers or some farmers markets that slaughter fish or birds in front of customers to preserve freshness.