Photograph by Vladimir Spirov, National Geographic Your shot
Photograph by Vladimir Spirov, National Geographic Your shot
The Plate

How the World’s Butcher Shops Link Farm to Plate

Even the the most avid meat eaters would agree: animal butchery isn’t pretty. It’s bloody, it’s messy, and it requires confronting death—not to mention the ecological and potential health effects of a meat-heavy diet.

Watching a butcher in action also means considering our relationship with other living, breathing things. Fewer than five percent of Americans call themselves vegetarian or vegan, but many meat eaters don’t necessarily want to look deep into a lamb’s eyes before tearing into a juicy chop.

But no matter how one feels about non-vegetarian diets, the majority of the world’s people either consume meat or aspire to. That means animal slaughter and butchery—whether in a giant, federally-regulated slaughterhouse or at a cramped roadside stand—are integral to food systems almost everywhere.

Most Western consumers are relatively insulated from the visceral process that occurs between the farm and the dinner plate. In Europe, Australia, and North America, the commercial slaughter of animals and the butchering that follows often occur at separate facilities—meaning that shoppers may never see an entire skinned animal and ready-for-sale cuts in the same location. Near-universal refrigeration and federal or religious standards also make the commercial preparation of meat highly uniform in a given country (naturally, practices in rural communities and on home farms may differ).

But in many other parts of the world, butchers practice their trade in very different conditions. Lack of refrigeration means many meats are slaughtered and sold very quickly, rather than aged. Recognizable animal parts (and less-recognizable entrails) are often on display. It’s not uncommon to see entire camel, cattle, or sheep heads hanging from the tops of market stalls, or pigs and cows legs, hooves and all, lined up on the counter.

You can find scores of images of butchers practicing their trade at our Your Shot community, though some aren’t for the squeamish (as we’ve noted, it’s a bloody process). Here, we’ve gathered some of the most interesting, highlighting the variety of ways we get our meat.