I was raised an omnivore. Meat portions were limited in our home, but that was mostly because meat is expensive compared to rice and potatoes and bread. Then in college I spent two years as an almost-vegetarian. I stopped preparing meat dishes for myself and never ordered it in restaurants but would sometimes eat it if served to me by someone who didn’t know I wasn’t eating meat.
My reason for being a vegetarian was purely philosophical in nature. My faith teaches that humans were vegetarians in the beginning and will be again in the end, and so eating vegetarian felt closer to the natural order of things. But because my decision to abstain from eating meat was not based on a conviction that eating it was inherently wrong, I eventually wandered back to my old ways.
Upon the recommendation of a colleague, I recently read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. It is part sociology of eating, part science, part philosophy, part investigative journalism. Safran Foer is sensitive to the fact that food is closely intertwined with family tradition and sums up his controversial topic in this way:
“If this entire book could be decanted into a single question — not something easy, loaded, or asked in bad faith, but a question that fully captured the problem of eating and not eating animals — it might be this: Should we serve turkey at Thanksgiving?” (p. 249)
Safran Foer began to investigate where meat comes from, how it’s produced, and how animals are treated when he was faced with the decision of what to feed his infant son. He discovered that 99.9 percent of chickens raised for meat, 97 percent of laying hens, 99 percent of turkeys, 95 percent of pigs, and 78 percent of cattle are raised on factory farms (p. 109) and that — more importantly — these farms are not held accountable in any meaningful way to standards of animal welfare. Abusing your dog is socially prohibited (and has legal consequences). But Common Farming Exemptions often make legal any method of raising farmed animals that is commonly practiced in the industry (p. 50–51). Here are a few examples Safran Foer gives of common practices:
· Cattle: Cows are fed corn and other grains that are difficult for them to digest. Even “grass-fed” cows are fed a grain diet for the final months prior to slaughter (unless they are “grass-finished”). At slaughterhouses, a steel bolt is shot into a cow’s skull to render it unconscious. If ineffective, cows wake up during processing, and some are bled, skinned, and dismembered while conscious. (see pp. 224, 229–230)
· Chickens (Layers): The typical cage for an egg-laying hen is sixty-seven square inches — smaller than a sheet of printer paper. “Cage-free” hens often have the same amount of space. Once mature at sixteen to twenty weeks, layers are placed in low light and put on a starvation diet for two or three weeks. Then the lights are turned on twenty hours a day and the hens are fed a high-protein diet to imitate springtime. By repeating this cycle farmers can force hens to lay eggs year-round. Layers are killed after year one because they will be less productive in year two. All male offspring of layers (who of course cannot be layers themselves) are destroyed: sucked through a series of pipes onto an electrified plate; tossed into large plastic containers; or sent fully conscious through a macerator. (see pp. 47–49, 59–60) In an interview with Ellen, Safran Foer stated that if people were to give up only one factory farmed animal product it should be eggs.
· Chickens (Broilers): “…chickens that become meat are lucky: they tend to get close to a single square foot of space.” Chicken genetics have been manipulated to produce more breast meat and to do so faster. Broilers are typically killed at around six weeks old. Three out of four of these excessively large-breasted birds have a walking impairment and are in chronic pain. Each windowless chicken shed holds about 33,000 birds. “Needless to say, jamming deformed, drugged, overstressed birds together in a filthy, waste-coated room is not very healthy.” 95 percent of chickens become infected with E. coli. At the slaughterhouse the birds are hung upside down on a conveyor belt and dragged through an electrified water bath that paralyzes them but leaves them conscious. The next stop is the automatic throat slitter, and backup slaughterers kill the birds missed by the machine. If missed by the backup slaughterer (which happens often) the birds go alive and conscious into the scalding tank. Machines remove the guts and commonly rip open intestines in the process, causing fecal contamination (once a reason for USDA inspectors to condemn a bird but now classified as a “cosmetic blemish”). The birds are cooled in water immersion systems where they soak up water filled with filth and bacteria. Chicken can legally be sold with 11 percent liquid absorption. (see pp. 48, 106–107, 129–136)
· Fish: “The average shrimp-trawling operation throws 80 to 90 percent of the sea animals it captures overboard, dead or dying, as bycatch.” 145 other species are regularly killed in the process of catching tuna. (see pp. 49–50)
· Pigs: Pigs have been bred for leaner meat but as a result have more leg and heart problems and more fear, anxiety, and stress. These genetically-weakened pigs have to be raised in climate-controlled buildings and are unable to engage in natural pig behaviors. 80 percent of pregnant pigs are confined in steel-and-concrete cages and are unable to turn around. Undercover investigators have documented countless instances of abuse of farmed pigs, some of it systematic (such as daily beatings, ramming electric pods into their ears and mouths, and sawing off their legs while conscious). (see pp. 156–159, 170–171, 181ff)
· Turkeys: Each turkey shed holds about 25,000 birds. Turkeys are fed an unnatural diet which can include meat, sawdust, and leather tannery by-products. Because of their vulnerability to disease, they are given more routine antibiotics than any other farmed animal. (see pp. 85, 266)
My young daughter has a book called “A Day on the Farm.” Cows munch on tufts of grass, chickens run around the yard, pigs wallow happily in the mud. It should be a history book. Factory farm operations borrow (steal) these images for advertising and packaging, but today only 1% of animal agriculture in the U.S. actually looks like this.
Knowing that factory farm operations often disregard animal welfare is sufficient reason not to buy factory farmed animal products. But there is a human dimension as well. Safran Foer notes several important ways in which eating factory farmed animals is harmful to our neighbors around the globe. These animals are routinely fed antibiotics, which in turn makes antibiotics less effective for humans. Waste from factory farms has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in twenty-two states, and animal waste lagoons emit toxic chemicals that cause health problems such as sore throats, headaches, coughing, runny noses, diarrhea, and abnormally high levels of tension, depression, anger, and fatigue. Not surprisingly, factory farms are rarely located near wealthy communities and have a disproportionate effect on the health of the poor. Factory farming will likely be responsible for the next deadly influenza pandemic because of the potential for new virus strands to be created. And “animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined.” (see pp. 43, 128–129, 140–143, 179–180)
After reading Eating Animals I could not in good conscience do the “forgetting” required to go on eating factory farmed animal products. I’ve gone back to eating vegetarian when eating out. I started learning more about the family farms that sell meat at our local farmer’s market, and I’m trying to figure out which brands of meat at the grocery store or butcher shop are “Animal Welfare Approved” or “Certified Humane” (see the Resources section below). I passed up the “cage-free” eggs and went for the eggs from pastured chickens instead. All of these decisions to “eat with care” come at a price, and so I imagine we will eat meat less often now.
And this is what it will take if we’re serious about eliminating factory farms. As long as the demand for meat continues to rise worldwide, mass-produced animal products will continue to be sold in grocery stores.
Tonight we ate homemade black bean burgers. My daughter will look back on her upbringing and remember that meat portions were limited at our table. And when she is old enough to understand, we will start talking about why.
“However much we obfuscate or ignore it, we know that the factory farm is inhumane in the deepest sense of the word. And we know that there is something that matters in a deep way about the lives we create for the living beings most within our power. Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerless, to the most distant, to the voiceless — it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one way or another.” (pp. 266–267)
If interested in learning more, a good place to start is humaneitarian.org. This website will help you understand what labels to look for (and which ones are meaningless, such as “cage-free”).
AWA is one of only two labels in the U.S. that require audited, high-welfare slaughter practices, and it is the only label that requires pasture access for all animals.
Certified Humane is one of only two labels that has a slaughter protocol. Products with the Certified Humane seal meet the Humane Farm Animal Care Program standards, which include nutritious diet without antibiotics, animals raised with shelter, resting areas, sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors. (Note: CH does not require pasture access for all animals.)
This website will help you choose seafood that’s fished or farmed in ways that have less impact on the environment.