One of Denmark’s popular attractions, visited by 250,000 since it opened in 2005, is not a historic site or a museum, but a slaughterhouse where 100,000 pigs are killed every week. Politicians, agriculture ministers and members of the European Parliament are among the visitors, but so too are local associations, pensioners and school groups.

The slaughterhouse has a long history. The first Danish cooperative slaughterhouse was opened in Horsens, on Denmark’s east coast, in 1887. Over the next half-century, many other cooperative pig slaughterhouses were set up, and from 1970 to 2002, over 60 smaller cooperatives merged to make the present cooperative, Leverandørselskabet Danish Crown AmbA, which owns Danish Crown and has 8,500 members, all Danish livestock farmers.

Danish Crown produces and markets pork and beef, and has a large number of subsidiaries around the world. In Denmark, cooperative members supply the live animals, while in other countries they are bought from local farmers or produced by the group itself. Europe’s largest pig-slaughtering business and meat processing company, it has 22,500 employees and sells in over 130 countries worldwide.

The cooperative form has contributed to this growth. “During its many years of development, it ensured a strong, consistent and competitive supply chain from the farmer to the final customer worldwide, with small transaction costs and a focus on optimization of the entire value chain instead of sub-segments,” explains Svend Erik Sørensen, Senior Advisor to the CEO and Board and until recently Vice-President for Strategic Planning and Development. The form of cooperative applied by Danish Crown has also made it financially effective, he says, with built-in solidity coming from the members’ obligation to supply and the retaining of profit in the company during the year.

He believes the uniqueness of Danish Crown of a cooperative – the world’s largest exporter of pork and one of the largest meat groups in the world – has come from its focus on being a business, and not in any sense a political organization, unlike many other cooperatives. “This understanding has been in place at both ends of the value chain right from the start in 1887,” he says. “Decisions are based on business cases, not on political thinking.”

The opening of Horsens to the public, however, fits in perfectly with the principles of transparency and education that often define cooperatives. Danish Crown slaughters 75% of Denmark’s pigs, and Horsens is “the jewel in the crown” of its network of slaughterhouses. “We chose from the start to use it as a window for the public,” says Svend Erik. “Slaughter can be considered controversial, but we do things in a way we are proud to show to the public. It’s been a huge success.”

Visitors come with prejudices but leave satisfied with what they’ve seen, he says. The cooperative has worked closely with the Danish Meat Research Institute (DMRI) to develop animal-handling systems based on studies of animal behaviour, seeking to minimize stress for the animals. “Pigs are not comfortable walking downwards, but prefer to walk upwards,” says Svend Erik. “So we built sloping floors so the pigs are always walking up, so movement becomes much easier.”

With funding from Danish pig farmers, many of whom are cooperative members, the DMRI also developed a unique stunning system based on knocking the pigs unconscious with carbon dioxide before slaughtering. This Danish development is now sold worldwide, says Svend Erik.

Though Horsens is a showcase, much of its technology, including robotics and animal-handling systems, has spread to Danish Crown’s other slaughterhouses. Soon the public will also be able to see how cattle are killed, not just pigs. A new cattle slaughterhouse featuring the latest technology and visitor facilities is already operational, and will be opened to the public this year.

Svend Erik says these major infrastructural investments were made with the full support from the cooperative’s members. “Making a strategic investment was also safeguarding their future business.” He said the initiative to have Horsens open to the public came from the members. “They really felt they have something they were proud of and wanted to show the public.”

Take a virtual tour of the Horsens slaughterhouse:

Story originally published in 2014 World Co-operative Monitor.