It's 1am and, as Phnom Penh sleeps, the haunting squeals of distressed animals are all that can be heard in the darkness of a field in Russey Keo district.
Pigs in open-air sheds have sensed what’s coming: Hundreds of them are about to be slaughtered for market.
In the absence of modern slaughterhouses with state-of-the-art machinery, the majority of pigs in Cambodia are killed in simple, traditional ways at facilities like this that consist of little more than roofs, frames and concrete floors.
It’s unenviable work for the dozens of men holding the knives, but, as long as the demand of Phnom Penh’s pork eaters is there, someone’s got to do it.
Danh Virak, 35, is one of these men. A family man who turned his back on a job in a garment factory for a “better opportunity”, Virak insists what happens here is just work to him.
“One pig is 5,000 riel – I get 3,000 of it myself and my [slaughtering] partner gets the rest,” he says. “He’s afraid to actually stab the pig, so I make more money than he does.
“For one night, if I start at 1am, I can kill and gut up to 20 pigs by about 5:30 or 6am.”
The slaughtering process is a simple one – that’s not to say it’s one that’s particularly kind to the animals.
Before it’s their time to go, pigs are left cowering together in pens only metres from hanging carcasses; they squirm at the sound of other pigs being slain a short distance away.
Slaughterers here work fast, and aside from exchanging the odd bit of banter, there’s little time to waste.
When a pig’s turn comes, it is coaxed towards another enclosure; some of them are kicked or hit with a stick if they deviate from the path.
Inside the pen, the animals meet a brutal end. They’re struck over the head and stabbed quickly through the neck.
Workers drain blood from the animals before hastily hacking into their carcasses and hurling them into hot water.
The process is then repeated for the next animal, and the next – five hours a day, seven days a week, carried out by dozens of slaughterers.
More mouths to feed
Population growth and increased personal wealth has rapidly expanded the amount of meat consumed in Cambodia in the past two decades.
But as business has boomed, primarily though small slaughterhouses like this one, the sector has remained without adequate regulation.
A sub-decree rather than a comprehensive law governs how slaughterhouses operate, and hygiene and killing practices remain substandard, says Suon Sothoeun, deputy director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s animal health department.
“Right now, pigs and cows at slaughterhouse are killed by hand – in traditional ways. In some cases, slaughterhouses are even using electric shocks to kill animals.” he says. “These types of killings are not good; the animals suffer. It has an effect on the workers too – the knives, the blood and the killing traumatises them.”
If the workers in Russey Keo are traumatised, they hide it well.
Pigs are killed close to where others wander and near hanging carcasses.
Blood streams across the floor in all directions and cleavers fly about as entrails are extracted in a flurry of activity.
Within hours of the pigs being slaughtered, hunks of flesh and heads are being tossed like rugby balls into the backs of uncovered trucks or strapped on to motorbikes ready for their journey to market.
In one case, a man loads up his moto so much that he can barely sit on it.
When he does feel confident his foot can properly reach the gears, he drives off into the darkness on what is, quite literally, a pig-skin seat.
Observing all this is district veterinarian Khoun Sam Oeun, a government employee.
“I’m here every night to check the pigs and look for symptoms of disease, because right now, the government has concerns about this,” he says.
Authorities are also worried about contamination of meat during and after the slaughtering process, he adds.
The swine flu pandemic of 2009 is still fresh in the consciousness of public officials, who are also wary of unhygienic conditions that can cause food poisoning and the transmission of diseases from pigs to humans.
By Sam Oeun’s own admission, however, it’s not easy trying to get these messages through to workers who are used to going about their killing with little interference.
“Some of the brokers … just use their motorbikes to transport the meat. I tell them to cover the meat in plastic, but they say, ‘The market is close, it will be fine’. I’m trying to change their habits.”
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a key principle of slaughter hygiene is avoiding contact between the carcass and the floor. At this facility, animals are killed on concrete slabs, washed – and then thrown back on the floor to be gutted.
Of the scores of men working on site, meanwhile, almost no one is wearing anything but boxer briefs.
If Ministry of Agriculture regulations were to be followed, the workers would be in protective uniforms, Sam Oeun says. At the very least, their skin would be covered.
“But they complain about it, saying they’ve been doing it this way for years and it’s easier without clothes. I usually just have to let them go.”
So the men are left to be the arbiters of acceptable hygiene, and when things get too messy, they wash down their blood-soaked bodies and carry on with their work.
Concerned by potential outbreaks of influenza and other possible contamination during the meat-preparation process, the government has been trying to clean up the industry.
In conjunction with the FAO, the Ministry of Agriculture spent three years from 2009 developing a law aimed at improving standards across the sector, Dr Sothoeun says.
“Since the civil war, we have not had any compliance with international obligations,” he says. “With regards to animal health and production, we have only a sub-decree.”
He’s referring to sub-decree 108, introduced in 2007, which relates to slaughterhouse management and the inspection of meat and meat products.
There’s also sub-decree 16, introduced in 2003, which relates to sanitary inspection of animals and animal products.
Lotfi Allal, a veterinarian who has worked for the FAO in Cambodia since 2008, describes the new law – which has yet to be adopted – as the Kingdom’s “first post-colonial veterinary legislation”, an indication of just how under-regulated the industry has been.
“This [law] has to pass different steps … before its approval, hopefully next year,” he says. “The content of this legislation will cover animal inspection – live and post-mortem – at slaughterhouses.”
Brokering a livelihood
Brokers at the Russey Keo slaughterhouse work on individual plots they lease from the property’s owner.
The brokers buy the pigs from farmers across the country, paying for them once the animals have been killed and sold at market.
Some brokers at this slaughterhouse are businessmen who employ younger men to do the killing for them. For others, it’s a family business, one that involves husband, wife and, in some cases, even child. All of those who work at the slaughterhouse are fast and efficient.
Like the district vet, Heang Yeap, 45, is one of the few people on site who is fully clothed.
He buys about 20 pigs from farmers in the provinces each day and pays others to do the dirty work for him.
“But I distribute the pork myself to local markets in the district,” he says. “Mostly this is on my motorbike – other times I attach a cart to the moto. Customers never complain about the quality.”
When it comes to meat being sold for human consumption, hygiene and quality must be guaranteed “from the farm to the table”, the ministry’s Dr Sothoeun says. “This is the way the new legislation [will be]”.
In the meantime, the slaughterhouse sub-decree spells out basic health precautions to prevent the spread of infections, he adds.
“We try to minimise disease. It usually comes from the farm with the animals, so we try to reduce the risks [of it spreading] as much as we can.”
If diseased animals are detected at the slaughterhouse, animals are immediately removed.
“Infections may also happen in those slaughterhouses that aren’t hygienic. Transportation is the same, as are the places where the meat is sold.”
Dr Allal, from the FAO, says the UN is working with development partners to ensure animal health standards are a priority in Cambodia’s meat industry.
“[It] should take an important place, as we are still dealing in the country with many animal diseases,” he says.
Sonny Krishnan, communications officer for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Cambodia, says he is most concerned with illegal slaughterhouses.
“We have concerns if they’re unlicensed,” he says, adding that other contaminations can occur at various points along the production chain. “There are all sorts of pathogens that can contaminate meat.”
Straight to market
The bustling Kandal market near Phnom Penh’s riverside has a veritable smorgasbord of meats, ranging from frogs that have been skinned alive – and in some cases, are still alive – to fish trying to swim in waterless bowls.
Surrounded by pig’s tongues and trotters from the same slaughterhouse in Russey Keo district that the Post visited, Rim Seak, 75, says she has absolute faith in the products she sells.
“I’ve sold pork since 1979,” she says. “The meat I sell [from Russey Keo] has been stamped by the veterinarian, so I know it’s good quality. And my customers who buy it think it’s good too.”
Long past the age of retirement, Seak says she needs to keep working to support herself – so she has no time for products that will drive people away.
“If the broker brings poor quality meat to me, it’s simple: I reject it. I’m afraid my customers won’t buy it if it’s bad and I’ll have no money.”
Operating nearby, Soum Srey Mom, sells a range of pork, beef and buffalo products. She sells up to 300 kilograms of meat per day, all of which arrives early in the morning.
As Srey Mom has no refrigeration in her stall, the meat can sit in the heat of the sun for hours on end.
“But my last real complaint was two years ago,” she says.
Cooling things down
Deaths from food poisoning are rare in Cambodia, according to Dr Sothoeun, from the Ministry of Agriculture.
“We do not have such cases – [at least, there are] very, very few cases,” he says, without providing any data to back up his claims.
Officials from the Ministry of Health could not be reached to answer questions about infectious diseases transferred through meat or general food poisoning.
But whatever the numbers, Dr Sothoeun adds, transport and storage systems could still be much better.
“In Cambodia, the system is that people aren’t used to refrigerating meat. It’s usually killed in the morning and then sent straight to market.”
To “improve” that situation, he says, the government is trying to persuade companies to build state-of-the art multimillion-dollar slaughterhouses.
“They can buy the animals, slaughter them and do the packaging. We have to improve.”
Such a slaughterhouse, exclusively for cows, is being built to “international standards” in Kampot province, Dr Sothoeun says, but he can’t recall who is behind it.
“The company plans to kill 1,000 cows per day to support the local market and for exports. The ministry calls for foreign investors to form joint ventures with tycoons here to create pig slaughterhouses.”
Dr Sothoeun says he has tried to persuade tycoon and Senator Mong Reththy to build one in Phnom Penh, but he’s “not seeing any progress”.
In 2009, Reththy’s eponymous company unveiled bold plans to breed one million pigs annually by 2015. Such a move was aimed at reducing reliance on imports, which were costing the Kingdom $100 million per year.
The following year, Reththy announced he would spend $3 million building Cambodia’s first modern slaughterhouse within 12 months and called on farmers to raise more animals to meet his requirements.
Such a slaughterhouse remains a dream for Reththy, a man known for producing palm oil on huge government-granted land concessions in Preah Sihanouk province. Reththy now boasts of raising swine “in style” in that province, saying his pregnant pigs enjoy air conditioning, while the rest are fed well and sheltered by mosquito nets.
In the end, though, he still sells them to small slaughterhouses like the one in Russey Keo district.
“I feel disappointed when I see what the broker does to them,” he says. “Traditional killing methods are not good. And then they transport it on motorbikes to market! Sometimes I’ve seen them drag the meat on the ground.
“So I still plan to open a modern slaughterhouse.”
In Kandal’s Ang Snuol district, where garment factories line the roads, the Thai-owned CP Company operates a slaughterhouse for chickens.
“It’s modern and it has automatic machinery,” Dr Sothoeun says. “It’s a hygienic operation.”
CP’s human resources and administration manager, Po Raksmey, says the company has operated for 17 years in Cambodia and has offices in every province. “Machines separate parts of the chicken – it’s clean and produces good-quality products. Our employees just operate the machinery,” she says.
If more of these slaughterhouses enter the market, they may well improve hygiene and improve the quality of meat people eat.
But in an industry in which small farmers have fallen victim to an increasing number of imports, some fear companies capturing even more of the market could greatly affect both animal raisers and those working at small slaughterhouses.
That’s the worry of Danh Virak – the pig slayer and ex-garment worker from Russei Keo district – who wonders how much work will be left for people like him.
“If they open a big factory with big machines, they might not need me at all – I’d have to go back to a garment factory, I guess.
“Right now, working here is good income. And it’s my job. After killing, work ends and I go fishing.”