The Unseen Labor Force: Animal Agriculture Under Global Capitalism exploring the role of architecture and planning in the objectification of marginalized groups within the British dairy industry

By Ruby Sleigh


Introduction | privatization, privation and privacy

“At the core of the capitalist system… lies the complete separation of the consumer from the means of production” – (Marx, 1867)

150 years later, Marx’s words feel more relevant than ever. With close to 800 new “mega farms” constructed over the past 6 years in the UK (Harvey and Wasley 2017), global capitalism is driving the animal agriculture industry to expand further than ever before. Yet since the vast majority of farming units are built far removed from populated urban cores, consumers are both physically and socially separated from producers, deepening social inequality and increasing power for the industry.

Animal agriculture today operates as an international, industrialized market, dominated by global capitalism and accordingly facing unsustainable growth. Global meat consumption has quadrupled over the past 50 years (OECD 2017) and is predicted to rise a further 80% over the next decade as developing countries increasingly westernize their diet choices (Gaille 2017). The struggle to keep up with this exponential growth intersects with other dominant social systems world-wide, the pressure falling on already marginalized groups in the search to meet this demand.

The British dairy industry illustrates a prime example of the impacts of capitalism intersecting with animal agriculture. It is one of the least understood and most hidden aspects of the entire animal agriculture industry, and is notable in particular for its commodification of the female cow as a laborer.

The animal agriculture industry exemplifies Marx’s theory of the objectification inherent in capitalism, commodifying non-human animals as “an external object, as a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind” (Marx 1867). Those involved are no longer seen as individuals but as products. Animals are redefined as livestock and male calves as “surplus product” since they are unable to produce milk. They become objects owned by the industry and, ultimately, an item to be sold to consumers.

Commodification and ownership by others is a direct result of the division of labor and is a fundamental part of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, leading to his theory of alienation. Extending Marxist analysis to include non-human laborers, we can understand the impacts of this alienation within the dairy industry. The dairy cow is alienated from the product: her own milk, as well as her fellow beings, particularly her calves. Human workers likewise become alienated, performing repetitive tasks under increasingly industrialized production processes. Crucially, consumers are alienated from the producers, leading to a lack of understanding and alienation from other classes, races and species; giving power to some over others. This division and alienation is prolific within industrialized animal agriculture, perpetuating and accelerating the socio-spatial impacts it has across all scales.

A vicious cycle is maintained. Seeking to minimize costs, factory farms, slaughterhouses, producers and suppliers are located where land is cheap, detached from urban centers and in depopulated, often deprived areas. This brings a spatial division between producer and consumer. Industry power and control is elevated, allowing unrealistic marketing of products, while producers’ power increasingly diminishes. Marginalized persons are forced to accept poor working and living conditions with little or no wage, subconsciously justified by society’s existing prejudices and further consolidated through their objectification as workers by the industry. This deepening of the oppression of marginalized persons further widens the separation between producer and consumer, facilitating further industry control. Capital is reinvested in the consumer side, in advertising rather than housing for the cows, as farms become ever more industrialized and oppressive in an ever deepening cycle.








Figure 1: The Cycle of Oppression. Image by author


SEPARATION AND ALIENATION | making products out of persons

Building upon Marx’s theories of inequality as a result of the social division of labor, neo-Marxist urban study applies these spatially, identifying how capital-driven forces create division and uneven development of space. Places are no longer shaped by geographical or environmental factors, but created due to social, economic and political forces (Smith, 1984). Industrial farms are not built where the best food sources, the most natural habitat for the cows or the best conditions for farm laborers exist, but where land is cheapest; producers import cheap feed, confine the cows in minimal space and target deprived communities for cheap labor. Spatial planning under capitalist forces thus creates a stark division between places of production and places of consumption.


Global Scale | support British farmers

Dairy cows have been bred to produce milk yields far beyond levels their bodies can naturally sustain, leading them to be fed increasing quantities of cereals, particularly soy. Soy production has therefore become a huge market, with increasingly well documented environmental and social devastation for growing regions in the Global South. Though often conveyed as a reason to avoid consuming soy products, in fact 97% of soy production is now for animal feed (Friends of the Earth, 2015).

Neoliberalism has globalized food production, bringing with it capitalist patterns of uneven development. Intersecting directly with neocolonialism, international policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), created by Western countries, perpetuate the divide between developed Western countries and the Global South. Although it is possible to grow animal feed in the UK, such as rapeseed, peas and beans, the CAP’s distorting effect makes it cheaper to import feed. For instance, The Common Agricultural Policy does not subject animal feed to the same tariffs as other agricultural produce (Friends of the Earth 2015). It is a highly expensive policy, with a current spending of £3.4 million per year from the UK – an average of £500 per family. This outsources many of the social problems associated with animal feed production to the Global South, in particular to Latin American countries, with devastating socio-spatial impacts.

Agribusiness is privatized, dominated by megacompanies such as the US-owned Cargill and Bunge, in much the same way as industrialized animal agriculture. Over the past few years, the merging of mega agribusiness companies has created a monopoly of control over the market, with 87% of corn buyers made up by just three companies (Philpott 2018). This gives them the opportunity to minimize the price they give to crop farmers, yet maximize the price they sell at to animal farmers, extracting huge profits.

Mechanized soy production is not viable for small-scale farmers who are outcompeted by larger companies, often with foreign ownership. In Paraguay, three out of every four soy plantations are owned by foreign landowners, attracted by cheap land and easy profits (Friends of the Earth 2015). The exploitation of land resources, local and indigenous persons and millions of non-human animals destroys thousands of livelihoods which are not recognized or protected, and are violently displaced. The diversity and quality of the land is degraded and mono-cultured as capital is centralized in Western-run agribusiness, developing other parts of the world instead. Wealth, opportunity, and capital accumulates in the Western “interior”, typified by consumerism, mass consumption, and the development of capital goods, while peripheral development is based on exports, externalized. The reliance of British dairy production on cheap imported feed perpetuates Western domination as the norm and the nucleus, while everywhere and everyone outside this becomes “other.”

The profits gained through cheap imported feed are instead invested in advertising and industry image, taking advantage of this spatial separation not only financially but also socially. The purchase and consumption of dairy products is promoted extensively under the idea of “supporting British farmers”, creating the idea of dairy as local, sustainable, and fair. Emphasizing the location of the dairy farm itself within the UK, there is no mention of the extensive devastation across Latin America that is necessary to feed British-kept cows.

Figure 2: Agribusiness: the journey of capital from South to North. Image by author

Urban scale | a citadel of power

This widening gap between interior and exterior is evident at the urban level too, with the urban core creating an interior world, while relegating the peripheries and the rural to the exterior. The production of space through capitalist division of labor results in “a trend subordinated to a center or to a centralized power” (Lefebvre 1974). The capitalist city is a place of markets combining, a place of “devouring activity, consumption” (Lefebvre 2003). It brings together the production from elsewhere and “centralizes creation”, surrounding consumers within an interior of consumption, markets, objects and commodities. The streets of our cities are lined by glazed walls to display and show off these products, branded with a market identity and accompanied by capital investment in the form of advertising. Consumerism produces an open and transparent urban space, filled with supermarkets, stores, and restaurants. It is the world of high footfall, of attention, of consumer power, and of capital.

Within this interior bubble and segregated from the exterior world of production, the cows’ labor and milk, designed for baby calves, is marketed and normalized as though designed for human children. Huge investments are made in the consumer side of the industry, in the form of nutritional research, school schemes and advertising campaigns in order to develop and maintain the image of dairy as an essential component of childhood. The removal of production from the public eye is capitalized on and funding for educational campaigns focusses on presenting dairy as a consumable product rather than on the production process itself. Dairy products can therefore take on identities as fun children’s foods, such as the laughing cow cheese, petit filous yoghurts and free milk schemes for schools. Despite growing evidence of health concerns associated with dairy consumption (Schooli 2014), brand image and public perception still revolve around the normalization and necessity of dairy consumption as a key part of the modern diet.

While packaging and advertisements in the urban citadel portray dairy as a healthy, normalized – even crucial – part of life and promote imagery depicting happy, free-range cows, factory farms and abattoirs are squeezed out of sight, mind and space, relegated to the edges of society. Banished from the cleaned and tidied city, farming and farm laborers become part of the other, servicing the dominant class.


Figure 3: Intensive dairy farms inhabit the peripheries. Image by author. Data taken from OECD Agriculture Statistics


Local scale | façade retention

As the hegemonic production of the urban interior develops, so the rural exterior must grow to supply it. While the constant search to minimize costs makes cheap land a strong incentive for peripheral location, the issues of poor neighborliness and desire to remove industrial agriculture from the human population are also driving factors and are clearly identified in new-build intensive units. Reasons often cited for site choice include “distance from housing, availability of screening and availability of land for waste disposal” (Nocton Dairy Planning Application 2010).

In addition to being concealed from city dwellers, intensive farms are almost always located at the periphery of villages or disassociated from development at all, also removed from rural populations. The site plan itself proves a further tool of concealment as new, intensive units are set back from the roads, hidden behind traditional farmhouses.

Devon, a largely rural county in the South West region of the UK, houses a large share of the British dairy industry. Beckland Farm is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) style intensive unit housing 1000+ cows, part of the Parkham Farms Dairy conglomerate.

Located on the North coast of Devon in the Hartland peninsula, the landscape is agricultural inland with a natural coastline and is an area with a very sparse population, popular mainly for tourism. Therefore, the infrastructure is mainly built of minor roads, spreading into one-lane tracks and dead ends. One of these tracks leads for approximately 500 meters to Beckland Farm, the only development at the dead end of the road and unlikely ever to be passed by members of the general public.

Originally a traditionally run farm, it has incrementally intensified over the past twenty years through the addition of factory farm units and conversion to zero grazing, mainly through retrospective planning applications (Torridge District Council 2012). The expansions are set back from the road, hidden from view by the original nineteenth century stone farmhouses and barns. The expression of the industry remains traditional, the intensification and producer’s conditions concealed.

In stark contradiction, continuing one kilometer down the road leads to Lower Brownton Farm Tea Room, a National Trust farm shop and tea rooms: the world of the consumer. A small stone converted farmhouse, it is surrounded by open fields, woodland, and free-range cows, no hint of the slaughter process, with artificial insemination or intense zero-grazing practices occurring just a short distance away.

The cheese produced at Beckland Farm is sold in supermarkets and farm shops across the UK under the brand name Parkham Farms Farmhouse Cheesemakers as a premium West Country Cheddar cheese (Parkham Farms 2018). The naming and branding does everything to reinforce the image of high quality, high welfare, and local farming, just like the architecture and planning of Lower Brownton Farm shop. Even at just one kilometer apart the worlds are starkly different.

When space and architecture are produced under a certain ideological framework, such as the intertwined ideologies of capitalism and speciesism, they become tied to this framework, representing and reproducing the same divisions of the dominant social practices (Lefebvre 1974).

Figure 4: Intensification is concealed behind traditional facades and vegetative screening. Image by author.


Slaughter | the ultimate taboo

Perhaps the most hidden part of the industry is the slaughterhouse. Capitalist separation allows the consumer to pay others to deal with this aspect, “to enable us to eat meat without the killers or the killing” (Pachirat 2011).

Slaughterhouses have seen a similar trend towards large, corporate ownership, with around 1900 slaughterhouses in 1970 now standing at just 63 in England (Harvey 2018). Financial and efficiency pressures as well as government grants have seen smaller businesses squeezed out, unable to break even or sustain a profit.

An understandably unappealing workplace, abattoirs find the jobs hard to fill, and the industry relies on the exploitation of young, working class and migrant laborers, with 52% of workers and 98% of abattoir veterinarians being non-UK nationals (QMS 2017), compared to just 16% of the overall British labor force (Rienzo 2018). Migrant labor is an inevitable result of uneven development, ultimately working as a “bailout” for capitalist crises (Castells 1975), helping to explain the continued expansion of an industry that struggles to make a profit. The structural role of immigration comes into play.

Despite the idea that immigrants are needed to fill the most arduous jobs, which nationals are unwilling to take, in reality “immigrant workers do not exist because there are ‘arduous and badly paid’ jobs to be done, but, rather, arduous and badly paid jobs exist because immigrant workers are present or can be sent for to do them” (Castells 1975). The extent of oppression of dairy cows within the industry is therefore directly reinforced by the co-existing oppression of persons from more disadvantaged backgrounds. If they were not structurally in a position that encouraged or forced them to accept substandard conditions of work, the spiraling profit and intensification of the industry would stall and fold.

Conditions are harsh, incidences of poor mental health are high and many correlations are found between slaughterhouse presence and violence, with higher crime rates in neighborhoods or towns with large slaughterhouses, property crimes, slaughter crimes and child abuse all increasing (Fitzgerald, Kalof, and Dietz 2009). The extreme alienation of workers, a result of both repetitive and psychological self-preservation, leads to desensitization. Violence becomes a norm, which, coupled with high rates of mental health problems, unsurprisingly causes harm. Zoning slaughterhouses at the peripheries of development not only hides them from view, but also reinforces low land value and capitalizes on cheap labor from communities suffering from economic and social deprivation, deepening existing oppressions.


HIERARCHIES AND PRODUCTION LINES | maintaining the monopoly of power

Zooming in on the architectural scale, the power imbalance resulting from the segregation of producer and consumer is readily apparent and dominant.

The relationship between control, power, and space is a reciprocal process: whereby space is configured by power, space itself is also a force of power (Hirst 2005). Foucault’s work on the relationship between knowledge and power – observing spatial patterns of power and recognizing their relationship to government of the self, others and society as a whole is highly relevant, highlighting the impact of spatial design on well-being, inequality, and oppression.

Foucault notes how, in the context of madness, confinement becomes a tool of power, whereby the “othered” are removed from the center of the city to be housed behind the walls of hospitals and institutions (Fontana-Giusti 2013). Given the previously discussed removal of factory farms from the center of society, Foucault’s work provides an illuminating insight into the impacts this has within the context of animal agriculture.


The factory farm | housing – an enclosing frame to cover, hide

In the dairy farm, objectification of the cow in order to maintain the power of the human is key. Each cow is literally tagged and numbered, reduced from a mother and individual to a commodity as part of the overall system. The architecture reinforces this via huge linear sheds designed with identical, individual stalls one after the other.

57% of British dairy cows are housed in free stalls, while 43% are in tie stalls (Rushen, Passillé, Keyserlingk, and Weary 2008). Both systems segregate cows into individual stalls via metal rails with inadequate space to perform even basic functions such as turning around or grooming their back. They have no social contact with the group and are also unable to escape potential violence from neighbors (Rushen et al. 2008).

This is a classic example of partitioning, recognized by Foucault as a form of “disciplinary monotony”, resulting in the segregation of groups and the control by a few over many. Foucault recognized this typology of power as a key mechanism of discipline, a technique referring to the placement of bodies in space through the deployment of enclosures.

The layout is designed with management, efficiency and the human experience in mind. The access routes, used mainly by the human laborers, run down the middle of the shed, centering the human as the powerful and allowing observation over each of the dairy cows. Designs do not take into account social dynamics, in which subordinate cows are unable or unwilling to pass dominant cows (Miller and Wood-Rush 1991).

Though the form differs, the omnipotence of the panopticon is relevant here, whereby spaces are designed in such a way that those in power, at the top of the hierarchy, have an overall view and therefore control over those without power. The need for constant production of commodities results in an oppressive architecture based around efficiency, control and surveillance.














Figure 5: cows kept in both tie and free stalls have no space to move, often hitting their knees and heads as they stand or lie. Top image Rushen, Jeffrey, Anne Marie de Passillé, Marina von Keyserlingk, and Daniel Weary. 2008. The Welfare of Cattle. Dordrecht: Springer. Bottom image by author


Industrialization | the milk machine

The space-power relationship is further apparent through the division of the industrial dairy farm according to function. The spatial design is configured according to the desire to maximize efficiency and output over the emotional and physical needs of the cow; it is configured by and according to those in power.

As the name suggests, accommodation for the cows is built as a factory, turning individual cows into objects, that perform functions and produce milk. The natural cycle of pregnancy, birth and lactation is entirely commodified, controlled and abused, which is reflected in the spatial design. The farm becomes a compartmentalized production line.

The costs involved in raising and keeping a bull lead the vast majority of dairy farms to artificially inseminate dairy cows instead, a highly invasive and nonconsensual process, causing understandable and extensive trauma for the cow. To restrain the cows, a “breeding box” is used (Food Ethics Council 2010), a narrow chute or box of metal bars, which they are then chained to around their neck to prevent them moving. Two doors at either side of this box pin them in position, while the farmer inserts the semen from behind (Powell 2014).

The configuration of this space according to the power imbalance has created a space of power, a place of extreme restraint and enforced submission. This is one example of many segregated areas of the factory farm that are designed and defined according to function and production, causing alienation for the workers and complete alienation from the natural life and process of pregnancy.

The ultimate move of power and alienation, the separation of calves from their mothers, is represented by the veal crate. Crates are identical, individual and repetitive with no opportunity for social contact, nurture, play, movement or even to turn around. This is done because calves would otherwise drink the milk their mothers produce, reducing sellable yields. At the same time, it allows their diet to be strictly controlled and growth rate to be maximized. It creates a relationship of control and obedience, bringing bodies into efficiency and industry.

The entire architectural image of the farm is industrialized as a factory, the expression of a process involving sentient beings differing little from the architectural treatment of any other commodified product. Cattle sheds are typically steel portal framed buildings with concrete floors and either open at the base or externally clad in timber, corrugated steel, or cement panels, all cheap, reproducible materials that are highly unsuitable for the cows, frequently causing impact stress on their legs and hooves, hygiene problems and disease (Rushen et al. 2008).

Accommodation is rarely specialized for purpose, frequently sold alongside almost identical buildings such as warehouses and Ministry of Transport (MOT) test stations. Plugged into this warehouse are multiple silos, slurry containers, and Automatic Milking System milking machines as the milking, artificial insemination, and birthing are increasingly industrialized (Pak Dairy 2018). Through this image and experience of the architecture, the idea of a farm as a factory becomes normalized which, in turn, normalizes the idea of the cow as commodity, an object on a production line.







Figure 6: housing for dairy cows differs little from other industrial warehouses. Images from Graham Heath Construction Ltd


Producing slaughter | on their head be it

In today’s slaughterhouses, slaughter is designed as a highly compartmentalized production line, each worker performing a specific niche job. This facilitates incredibly high speeds and numbers of killings, and at the same time it creates an alienation of the worker from the task, enabling an inherently violent and traumatizing act of repetitive killing to become mundane and ordinary. It is this alienation which can also often alienate the workers from each other and their own selves, causing high levels of mental health problems and violence as highlighted earlier.

“Every Twelve Seconds” is a first-hand account written by Timothy Pachirat after five and a half months working in an American slaughterhouse. Through his work during this time, firstly as a liver hanger, then working at the cattle chutes and finally gaining an overview as a quality-control supervisor, he reflected greatly on the division of labor. Thinking through the many-layered spatial, linguistic and societal mechanisms he experienced through this work, he describes the secrecy and separation of the slaughterhouse operation as mechanisms of power in modern society through what he refers to as “the politics of sight” (Pachirat 2011).

Much like factory farm buildings, slaughterhouses are concealed from the rest of society behind closed, windowless walls, often expressed as just another generic industrial unit in a row. It is set up to allow a public face and image which bears no expression of the inner workings of the killing process (Pachirat 2011).

Even within the building itself, the division between the reception and the working floor is absolute. A palette of glazing and aluminum house the front-of-house team, typically comprised of white women, conveying openness, cleanliness and honesty. Three walls are fully glazed, while the back wall is starkly different. It is solid and windowless, a physical, social and symbolic division, separating civilized from barbaric, white from black, female from male, managerial power from subordinate powerless. It is easy to assume that beyond this line is an inevitable honesty and openness. However, the very same concealment and sanitization of the process happens within the slaughterhouse for the majority of workers as it does in the wider public.

At the other end of the building, the entrance sequence is starkly different. Unloaded from a cramped truck, often after a long and stressful journey, the cow is herded into a winding chute, narrowly spaced metal bars pinning her to the left and the right. Electric prods, often abused via a sense of power, drive her into the cow in front, while the cow behind her is likewise driven into her (Pachirat 2011).

Despite relying on the labor of many human workers at various stages, the production line of the slaughter is highly divided and specialized, so that there are only a handful of workers who ever have to enact the killing itself. Pachirat describes this as the 120+1 (Pachirat 2016). Though there are 120 workers on the killing floor, the responsibility for death can all be directed toward “the knocker”, the only worker responsible for shooting a metal bullet into the cow’s head, rendering her unconscious.

Pachirat talks of how the rest of the workers assign a symbolic role to the knocker, who “has a kind of collective mythology built up around him” (Pachirat 2016). It is this singling out of a +1 job, someone who is other, on whom to rest the culpability and the extent of the blame, which allows everyone else to excuse their own role in the process, passing it on for the knocker to bear.






Figure 7: The homogenisation process: from individual to product

For the knocker, this mythology has an understandably huge impact. The stress of the job is well-known; incidences of mental health problems in the killing team are incredibly high, and the knocker is given psychiatric appointments every 3 months as standard procedure (Pachirat 2011).

The whole architecture of the facility is designed on the production-line basis of division of labor, whereby the individual cows are gradually de-personified, stripped of their individuality and homogenized into identical products. Workers are assigned one particular and repetitive task and therefore rarely come into contact with the animals themselves or other parts of the process.

The floor plan is distinctly separated on a number of levels. There is a clean side and a dirty side, serving theoretically as a hygiene barrier, but practically as a further social, physical, and mental barrier between the “clean” fabrication department and the “dirty” killing floor. Workers and tasks are divided into clean versus dirty, inside and outside, live and dead. The kill floor starkly differentiates the fabrication department, separated to the extent that there is no direct route from the front-of-house to the kill floor. The term fabrication itself serves to hide the reality of the task, focusing not on the destruction of the animal but on the creation of the product. On the other hand, the killing floor is a brutally accurate term, that apportions further blame on these workers (Pachirat 2011). Differing timetables, uniforms and staff rooms concretize this division even further. The division is so absolute that only a handful of employees gain an understanding of the process as a whole.

The plan is intricately designed around the maintenance of power structures through hierarchical design, physical barriers, and visibility and invisibility. The physical barriers of the spatial organization and treatment directly intersect with the social, linguistic, and methodological segregation of tasks (Pachirat 2011), reinforcing social barriers, disconnection, and alienation.


Figure 8 The plan is highly divided and hierarchical. Each worker performs a highly specialised task. Image adapted from Pachirat, Timothy. 2011. Every Twelve Seconds. London: Yale University Press.


Conclusion | toward reintegration

It is not just the industry that profits from this concealment, but also society as a whole (Pachirat 2011). The physical separation directly reinforces societal structures that animalize, denigrate, and rid humans of the unpalatable parts of society. In hiding these, those involved are further othered and banished to the exterior, out of sight and out of mind.

The potency of this cycle of separation, oppression, and control is dominant across all levels and scales. Understanding spatial planning as part of the intersection between physical, social, economic, and conceptual separation, it is clear how existing social structures of power and privilege are built into the fabric of the industry, our daily lives and the global living environment.

Physical barriers reinforce simultaneous barriers of language, understanding and existing prejudices – all working together to enable us to separate zones of privilege from zones of confinement. Recognizing that multiple aspects of oppression and separation intersect, it is impossible to understand or begin to tackle these inequalities and injustices in isolation.

Animal agriculture is inherently based upon the commodification of bodies into products, and therefore will always be a capitalist act. In studying the intensification of animal agriculture under neoliberalism and global capitalism we have seen the socio-spatial impacts it has on marginalized persons globally and also on us all in our relevant privileges. We are all consumers and, as Pachirat highlights, this is a societal divide that we are all complicit in to varying extents (Pachirat 2011). We all work consciously and subconsciously to keep the undesired banished from our minds in the exterior.

As an opposing force to “programmed consumption”, Lefebvre identifies “everyday life.” It is within everyday life that the potential can be found for “subverting social processes and spatial practices that otherwise can seem total and eternal” (Lefebvre 1974). Spatial intervention therefore surely presents an opportunity to stall and reverse this cycle. Intervening, deconstructing spaces of power and reincorporating producers and production into our everyday lives can begin to break down physical and mental concealment, bringing production and producers back into our physical lives and dissolving part of our fabrication of banishment.

An open architecture and an integrated spatial planning could start to reverse the panopticon of surveillance from a model where one looks out over all, to a model that extends visibility to all. Bringing food production back into our everyday lives and spaces can start to break down the physical separation, allowing and encouraging us to challenge other separations based on prejudices, ignorance, and social constructs. In this way, we are all united as both consumers and producers, in one world of both interior and exterior, and we can learn to value each other as such.



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