You Are What You (Eating Animals)

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April 7, 2013 by Darlene McC

Amazons, I’ve been staring down the barrel of this post since I woke up this morning.   I laid in bed trying to frame it, drafted 3 different versions, filed my taxes, made a pot roast, and now want to smack my forehead on the desk as I type these words.

This is my last pass.  I’ll try to keep it brief.

Eating On The Edge

I’m experiencing “the feelings” and I need your help.  I read a book that presents one of those ideas you simultaneously appreciate having been told, and desperately wish you didn’t know because now you feel called to action.  The bell that cannot be un-rung.  I’m talking about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.

eating-animals-image2

Don’t close your browser just yet.  Stick with me.  I need you.

It’s understandable for any meat eater, when presented with the opportunity to learn about their food, to turn away.  In college when friends would try and tell me what was in my Taco Bell I would plug my ears in a “lalala NOT LISTENING” sort of way.  Because I understood that if I knew what was in my baja chalupa I would have to change; and change was too hard then.

Since that time I’ve read Omnivore’s Dilhemma and Skinny Bitch.  I’ve been to PETA’s website and understood that pain is part of putting meat on the table.  That’s not new.  I chose to keep eating meat, but tried to do so more responsibly.  But Foer’s arguments go so much further.

If you’ve never heard the term “factory farm” this should help (Be brave and google it. Don’t try to un-ring the bell.) I’m not going to rehash the books here or talk about the abuses animal’s suffer to “feed America”, but I suggest picking up one of the books I’ve already mentioned.

Personally, I’ve never had a problem consuming the flesh of a non-human animal.  Growing up in a farm community in Upstate New York 20 years ago I inherently understood animals were eaten.  That the cows in Mr. Rifenburg’s fields next door would disappear every fall for slaughter.  That’s what those cows were for.  Mr Herrington’s cows were for milk and cheese. We got those things from the market, but farm animals were for farming.  We hunted deer, gutted them in the woods, and hung them to bleed from the tree in our front yard.  Boys on the bus would brag about how many they got last year; but it was evidence of my household’s current prowess.  Those who have posed “but would you eat a dog?” kind of questions may be shocked to know that under the right circumstance I would.

But while reading Eating Animal’s I seriously considered a vegetarian solution.

Up until now I would self-identify as a “sympathetic omnivore”.  Having been exposed to a variety of gastronomic solutions, I’ve thought “to each his or her own”.  One best friend is vegan, another paleo, and my brother-in-law vegetarian since he was 7.  I have respected their rights to the nutritional choices they make as theirs; and can even understand why they would make one choice or another when it comes to meat.  Now I want to burn my grocery store to the ground and board up the KFC down the block.

Here’s a video making cute of confinement if you need to break this all up a little:

The Miseducation of Ms. Meat Lover

While Pollan does a great job of framing the personal question for each of us: “should I eat meat?”; Foer expands the scope of impact from a personal decision about meat to a global question about economy, ecology, cruelty, and the definition of humanity: “Do we want to be a species that poisons our planet, tortures animals, and makes ourselves sick all for the profit of these companies?”.  I don’t.

There is an overwhelming amount of information to unpack when considering the issue of eating meat.  Up until now when someone told me they “just didn’t want to know” I would back off the information throttle; but with broader understanding from Foer I feel a broader scope.  That making a concerted effort to not eat factory farmed meats most of the time isn’t enough.

When I think back to the young woman I was in college my biggest fears were that there was rat poop, saw dust, or roaches in my meat.  I didn’t consider that the actual process of the way that meat was raised was the problem.  That the young woman I was then was a wuss.

Because I was unwilling to consider at the hard truth of what I was doing.

Because I was unwilling to hear something unpleasant.

Because the information was readily available and I would not look at it.

Since reading Eating Animals I’ve had a few conversations about the contents of the book with friends and acquaintances   About why it is upsetting, how animals are treated in our food supply chain, the contamination of our food, and why we should care.  And the majority of people have a similar knee jerk reaction: I don’t want to know.  Don’t tell me, because I can’t give up eating this food or another.

Historically, I pride myself on being understanding of someone’s choice.  Allowing each of us to come to our conclusions as we are ready.  But this feels too important.  That the world itself may hang in the balance and the direction of human potential hinges on the issue.  In the last 2 days as more and more acquaintances have told me they didn’t want to know, I’ve become frustrated.  Almost to the point of being angry.

With information about factory farming so readily available it feels cowardly for one to turn away from it.  Understandable.  But cowardly.

Why It Matters To Me

In learning the details about where our meat is made, from conception, birth, rearing, production, to slaughter, I have been forced to consider my own positions.  If I’ve never had a problem eating meat than why does this bother me so much?  I’ve ultimately settled on two points: 1) our food should be optimally nutritious and not make us sicker, and that is not the goal of industrial (factory) farming and 2) our food should not contribute to the expedited degradation of our planet.

If and when you take the time to read Eating Animals you will (I hope) learn about the ways chicken, turkey, cows, and pigs have been bread over generations to put on more and more weight with less and less feed, resulting in higher yield for lower cost.  This is not an accusation, it is a fact.  Consider for a moment what it would mean biologically to grow faster than you should.  It’s painful and inhumane for the animal; but it’s also providing a lowered quality of the substances our bodies run on.

Perhaps pointing that out makes me appear insensitive, but it’s important to me.

I’m going to go further out on a limb here and admit something – I don’t really care how my meat dies.  Inherent in the act of eating meat is the acceptance that something must die for me to eat it; and one way or another that death is going to hurt, be scary, and be flawed.  I know others out there will take issue, but that’s just me.  I care strongly, however, that what was just animal and is now ‘meat’ is kept clean, sterile, and well handled.  Foer reveals in his book ways that the poultry processing not only isn’t those things, but virtually guarantees that almost every piece of chicken on the store shelves has been cross-contaminated:

…chickens go to a massive refrigerated tank of water, where thousands of birds are communally cooled…the “water in these tanks has been aptly named ‘fecal soup’ for all the filth and bacterial floating around.  By immersing clean, healthy birds in the same tank with dirty ones, you’re practically assuring cross-contamination.

…a significant number of European and Candanian poultry processorts employ air-chilling systems, 99 percent of US poultry prodders have staed with water-immersion systems and foutght lawsuits… It’s not hard to figure out why.  Air-chilling reduces the weight of a bird’s carcass, but water-chilling causes a dead bird to soak up water (the same water known as “fecal soup”).

Yuck.

I’ve known some of this information for a while, which is why I shop at alternative grocery stores.  Foer is kind enough to point out that labels like “organic”, “free-range”, and even the fear-reducing “grass-fed” are unregulated bullshit and not to be trusted.

That’s Just Shitty

It’s hard not to preach on this subject.  It’s a fine line between informative & rhetoric.  Cross that line and people turn away.  I feel dangerously close to falling off that fence on the wrong side.

Foer also talks about the ecological impact of factory farming.  It’s well accepted now that industrial agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than any other sector of industry.  From Sustainable Table’s website:

Factory farms concentrate an unnatural number of animals in one place, which creates an unmanageable amount of waste. For example, a single hog excretes up to 17.5 pounds of manure and urine each day. Put 1,000 hogs together, and that’s six million pounds of waste each year. On a factory farm containing 35,000 hogs, over four million pounds of waste are produced each week, and over 200 million pounds each year.  Whereas on a sustainable farm animal waste can be a tool, in factory-farm amounts it becomes a major pollutant.

It’s easy to glaze over the numbers here, but Foer helps to give reference:

All told, farmed animals in the United States produce 130 times as much waste as the human population – roughly 87,000 pounds of shit per second… And yet there is almost no waste-treatment infrastructure for farmed animals.

He goes on to elaborate about Smithfield’s hogs, they’re America’s leading pork producer and one of the top agricultural polluters.

…According to conservative EPA figures, each hog produces two to four times as much shit as a person…about 281 pounds of shit for each American citizen.  That means that Smithfield – a single legal entity – produces at least as much fecal waste as the entire human population of the states of California and Texas combined.

That’s a lot of shit.  But Foer goes deeper.  We’re led to believe that all this manure is sprayed on fields as fertilizer; but at our consumption rates there aren’t enough fields near these plants to require all that shit.  So they spray it into the air!

I love the outdoors.  When I’m not working or writing I try to live there (literally… in my tent…).  I would never throw a wrapper out a window, why would I allow the company that supplies my food to dig massive pools where they dump shit?  Or harm the communities nearby by poisoning their water and air?

Why would I pay them to do it?

Trying To Wrap It Up

I expect you’ll hear more from me on this topic as I tease out what I’ve read and look for actionable ideas.  As self-reflective individuals we can pride ourselves on not being scared, on asking ourselves the hard questions, on not looking away. The easy road here would be to close the browser, shut down, and have another burger without considering the implications.  While that’s what I want to do, I just can’t anymore.

I’m not willing to pass a more-broken world down to my (hypothetical future) daughters.  One particularly wealthy acquaintance of mine (one of those who asked to not hear details because she couldn’t have turkey “ruined” for her) pointed out that we all should just do the best we can and you can’t drive yourself crazy with this stuff.  Because, in her mind, poorer people don’t have the option of humane meat.  But we’ve created a system where that is true.

I no longer believe that’s good enough.  We should be driven crazy by something so disgusting.  And if we don’t decide this has gone far enough, then who will?

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