All my life, I have been an unabashed carnivore. Growing up in the Deep South, and specifically spending most of my young adult life in New Orleans, food has been as much a means for survival as it has been a tool for understanding my culture, bonding with others, and generally “having fun.” When I travel, I base my itinerary around restaurant reservations and local delicacies rather than shopping, visiting museums, or seeing “the sights.” As such, the idea of not eating meat – a term that I use to encompass beef, pork, poultry, fish, etcetera – has always been untenable. How would I interact with family and friends? From what would I derive pleasure? How would I truly understand and embrace a particular community or culture without allowing myself to eat anything and everything? Though I was always made to eat my vegetables as a child and love certain vegetables and vegetable-based dishes – broccoli au gratin, spaghetti squash, Brussels sprouts, creamy lima beans, and so forth – my favorite dishes all contain meat. Some of those favorites are highly personal and deeply linked to happy family memories – my grandma’s gumbo, my dad’s beef daube, my mom’s chicken and lima bean stew. Others are important to the culture in which I was raised – red beans and rice with sausage, shrimp creole, crawfish étouffée, spicy Natchitoches meat pies. And still others have been a part of my romantic relationship – the meatballs with yogurt sauce that my boyfriend is so proud of, his amazing experimental scallops dish, our late-night snack of steak and eggs. Because of all of this, taking meat out of my diet has always seemed like it would be a major obstacle to my most important human relationships and to my very identity. When friends, relatives, and co-workers have gone down the vegetarian path, I’ve always scoffed at them. You don’t actually like frozen veggie burgers and rice with beans. You can’t actually be satisfied by a mixed veggie plate or a salad. Even after watching Food, Inc., reading Fast Food Nation and The End of Food, and hearing my friends’ passionate arguments about forsaking flesh, nothing moved me. That is, until very recently.
I’ve never had a problem with vegetarian or vegan foods. Although I’ve never been compelled to go out of my way for them or adopt them 100%, I’ve had plenty of vegan and vegetarian dishes that I quite enjoy. Furthermore, I regularly eat meals that don’t contain meat without making a concerted effort to avoid it. In fact, I was recently introduced to a restaurant in Manhattan called Terri that’s all vegan, and in a quest for a healthy meal one Saturday after a trip to the gym, I popped in for a smoothie. I ended up ordering one of its vegan sandwiches, and it was actually delicious. In the past two months, I’ve returned four or so times. I’ve waxed poetic about it on Yelp. I’ve recommended it to my friends. During one of my visits, I noticed a few paperback books for sale on a shelf to the left of the register. One was The China Study, which I had zero interest in. A few health zealots (including one close friend) have told me about it in the past year, and what I’ve heard has not struck a chord with me. What one scientist says doesn’t really bother me, and effects on my cholesterol and “health,” generally, as a result of eating meat are not a concern, as I appear to be healthy (at the moment). However, the book displayed next to it caught my eye. Titled Eating Animals, it’s written by Jonathan Safran Foer, who I know to be a pretty good, contemporary novelist – maybe Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close wasn’t so critically acclaimed, but his other works have gotten fairly high praise. I read the back of the book and was intrigued – it represents his first foray into nonfiction, but is written from a novelist’s perspective. Nonetheless, I walked out with just a smoothie that day. A few weeks ago, however, while casually browsing a bookstore in Chelsea, I remembered Eating Animals. I asked the gentleman working the register if they had a copy, and since they did, I decided to purchase it. I wasn’t expecting much. Maybe a few salient points to turn the wheels in my brain, but nothing earth shattering – like I said, other books with a similar, anti-meat, anti-factory farming angle didn’t move me tremendously.
I went home and started reading that day. What immediately captured my attention was how much more readable and relatable this book is as compared to The End of Food, which had presented such a deluge of statistics and facts that I found it hard to digest and, thus, really care. Foer draws upon his own experience debating between a lifestyle as carnivore or omnivore to frame his research into the factory farming industry. He also touches on fishing/shrimping practices, but his focus is certainly on land animals (a category in which I include poultry, as they - by and large - cannot fly nowadays). The way he combined hard facts with anecdotal evidence, testimonies from insiders on both sides of the argument, and his own moral and practical struggles made it impossible to put down. He brought up facts that I had read and seen in documentaries, but the presentation was so much more striking.
Not only did it move me on an emotional level, but it also got me thinking actively about my eating choices and the impact that they have on the environment, economy, human health, and general way of life in the U.S. Sure, his opening bit comparing eating certain animals to eating other animals - cows versus dogs - and comparing animals more broadly to humans - what’s the real difference? - seemed like the same old silly schtick that people, including myself, tend to chalk up to sensationalism. However, once he really got going - started layering facts over top of interviews, explorations, personal memories, and so forth - I was completely engrossed. I can’t do the 267 pages of text justice in a blog post, but I’ll try to recap some of the more poignant facts and comments from the book here (everything below is a direct quote from the book unless bracketed). I’ve more or less ignored all of the moving discussions regarding animal cruelty because, though I find those points critical to my own stance on eating animals, they can be more subjective, whereas I’ve tried to focus on important objective points. Still though, everyone should read the book themselves to draw their own conclusions, find the parts that speak to them, and understand the message holistically.
- Common Farming Exemptions make legal any method of raising farmed animals so long as it is commonly practiced within the industry. In other words, farmers - corporations is the right word - have the power to define cruelty. If the industry adopts a practice - hacking off unwanted appendages with no painkillers, for example… - it automatically becomes legal.
- To be considered free-range, chickens raised for meat must have “access to outdoors,” which, if you take those words literally, means nothing. (Imagine a shed containing thirty thousand chickens, with a small door at one end that opens to a five-by-five dirt patch…) The USDA doesn’t even have a definition of free-range for laying hens and instead relies on producer testimonials to support the accuracy of these claims.
- My note: Based on the wealth of shocking undercover footage we’ve seen from factory farms where conditions differ vastly and in the most horrific ways from factory reports and even “independent auditor” reports, I would think that this guarantees us nothing.
- According to the USDA, “fresh” poultry has never had an internal temperature below 26 degrees or above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Fresh chicken can be frozen…and there is no time component to food freshness. Pathogen-infested, feces-splattered chicken can technically be fresh, cage-free, and free-range, and sold in the supermarket legally (the shit does not need to be rinsed off first).
- My note: Further below is an explanation as to how “pathogen-infested, feces-splattered chicken” could possibly be sold legally.
- At a slaughterhouse in West Virginia that supplies KFC, workers were documented tearing the heads off live birds, spitting tobacco into their eyes, spray-painting their faces, and violently stomping on them. These acts were witnessed dozens of times. This slaughterhouse was not a “bad apple,” but a “Supplier of the Year.” Imagine what happens at the bad apples when no one is looking.
- Why is taste, the crudest of our senses, exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses? If you stop and think about it, it’s crazy. Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. And how would you judge an artist who mutilated animals in a gallery because it was visually arresting?…Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals.
- My note: I think it’s fair to make this point about killing animals in order to satisfy “taste,” as humans do not need to eat animals for survival. There are plenty of other ways to get fat and protein - as the ADA pointed out in a 2009 study, vegetarians and vegans “meet and exceed requirements” for protein - even athletes. And, to raise enough animals to feed the world’s population, we will have to dramatically deplete our grain resources in order to feed the animals.
- On average, Americans eat the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime [based on USDA statistics].
- Scientific studies and government records suggest that virtually all (upwards of 95 percent of) chickens become infected with E. coli (an indicator of fecal contamination) and between 39 and 75 percent of chickens in retail stores are still infected. Around 8 percent of birds become infected with salmonella…seventy to 90 percent are infected with another potentially deadly pathogen, campylobacter. Chlorine baths are commonly used to remove slime, odor, and bacteria. Of course, consumers might notice that their chickens don’t taste quite right…but the birds will be injected…with “broths” and salty solutions to give them what we have come to think of as the chicken look, smell, and taste. (A recent study by Consumer Reports found that chicken and turkey products, many labeled as natural, “ballooned with 10 to 30 percent of their weight as broth, flavoring, or water.”)
- Once upon a time, USDA inspectors had to condemn any bird with…fecal contamination. But about thirty years ago, the poultry industry convinced the USDA to reclassify feces so that it could continue to use…automatic eviscerators. Once a dangerous contaminant, feces are now classified as a “cosmetic blemish.”
- [After slaughter and processing,] chickens go to a massive refrigerated tank of water, where thousands of [dead] birds are communally cooled…By immersing clean, healthy birds in the same tank with dirty ones, you’re practically assuring cross-contamination. While a significant number of European and Canadian poultry processors employ air-chilling systems, 99 percent of US poultry producers have stayed with water-immersion systems and fought lawsuits from both consumers and the beef industry to continue the outmoded use of water-chilling. It’s not hard to figure out why. Air-chilling reduces the weight of a bird’s carcass.
- …in 1995, when the [FDA] approved fluoroquinolones - such as Cipro - for use in chickens against the protest of the [CDC], the percentage of bacteria resistant to this powerful new class of antibiotics rose from almost zero to 18 perfect by 2002. A broader study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed an eightfold increase in antimicrobial resistance from 1992 to 1997, and, using molecular subtyping, linked this increase to the use of antimicrobials in farmed chickens.
- The primary ancestor of the recent H1N1 swine flu outbreak originated at a hog factory farm in…North Carolina, and then quickly spread throughout the Americas.
- The typical pig factory farm will produce 7.2 million pounds of manure annually, a typical broiler [poultry] facility will produce 6.6 million pounds, and a typical cattle feedlot 344 million pounds. The GAO reports that individual farms “can generate more raw waste than the populations of some U.S. cities.” 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. The polluting strength of this shit is 160 times greater than raw municipal sewage. And yet there is almost no waste-treatment infrastructure for farmed animals…no sewage pipes, no one hauling it away from treatment, and almost no federal guidelines regulating what happens to it.
- Smithfield alone annually kills more individuals hogs than the combined human populations of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Detroit, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Columbus, Austin, Fort Worth, and Memphis - some 31 million animals. According to conservative EPA figures, each hog produces two to four times as much 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.
- …list of shit typically found in the shit of factory-farmed hogs [includes]: “ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanid, phosphorus, nitrates and heavy metals. In addition, the waste nurses more than 100 microbial pathogens that can make humans sick, including salmonella, cryptosporidium, streptococci and giardia”…The impression the pig industry wishes to give is that fields can absorb the toxins in the hog feces, but we know this isn’t true. Run-off creeps into waterways, and poisonous gases like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide evaporate into the air. When the football field-sized cesspools are approaching overflowing, Smithfield, like others in the industry, spray the liquefied manure onto fields.
- My note: Why are people not thinking more about this when we see salmonella and E. coli outbreaks in lettuce and other produce? There are really few other ways to explain how produce becomes infected with E. coli.
- …in 1995, Smithfield spilled more than twenty million gallons of lagoon waste into the New River in North Carolina. The spill remains the largest environmental disaster of its kind…The spill released enough liquid manure to fill 250 Olympic-size swimming pools…Smithfield was fined $12.6 million…[the] company that now grosses $12.6 million every ten hours. Smithfield’s former CEO Joseph Luter III received $12.6 million in stock options in 2001.”
- My note: How is it possible that Americans are so up in arms about banking executives making large bonuses or getting attractive stock compensation packages because of the mortgage crisis and the growing income gap, but no one gives a shit (accidental but not unwelcomed pun) about these factory farming executives getting massive compensation packages when their companies are destroying the very earth we live on, making us sick, and abusing millions and million of animals each year? Do we really care that much more about our bank accounts or the square footage of our homes than we do about our health, the health of our children and loves ones, and the well-being of innocent animals?
There are very interesting discussions throughout the book about the rise of factory farming and the process of genetically modifying animals over time to make them “ideal” for consumption (ideal only if you ignore huge externalities like environmental destruction - both through waste run-off and global warming - human sickness brought on by filthy factory conditions, and growing human resistance to antibiotics due to those found in meat). These passages, however, are too long to be repeated here, but are very much worth the read. There is also quite a bit written about the intelligence of pigs, about the type of communities pigs form, about the changes in the nature of formerly pet-like pigs through rise of the factory farming industry, and about pig slaughter - again, too lengthy to repeat here and, also, sad for me to revisit.
The big question this book created in my mind was this: How have I been aware of all of these facts (and by facts I mean atrocities) on some level for most of my young adult and adult life and not acted on this awareness? Also, how is it that my peers, friends, family members, and so forth demonstrate the same apathy? Frankly, none of us are poor. In fact, most of the people in my life are upper middle class or above. Certainly, we have no need to purchase cheap meat from factory farms. Furthermore, most of us are well-educated and exposed to these issues and facts. So why are we all acting as though these facts don’t matter, that they don’t affect our lives, that we can buy $5 steaks from Kroger and call it a day? Certainly, one can make the argument that one person changing his or her diet won’t change an incredibly broad and powerful industry like the factory farming industry - but that’s just like saying one person’s vote doesn’t count in the presidential election. If we all make that same assumption, no one will vote and, similarly, no one will change his or her eating behavior. In addition, one person’s decision to change or to act can influence those around him or her. So a decision to forgo meat or exclusively eat meat from local, sustainable farms could result in one, two, three, or more people in one’s circle making the same decision. And then it’s a domino effect. Look at, for example, the swift action taken by general consumers in response to the “pink slime” debacle uncovered by The Wall Street Journal on March 15th. By March 22nd, all of the major grocery stores had responded to consumer outcry and either banned meat containing “pink slime,” i.e. lean finely textured beef, or implemented new policies wherein consumers would be able to find out which meat contains “pink slime” and which meat does not. If consumers can force the hands of nearly every major U.S. grocery chain in a matter of one week – including the notoriously stubborn Wal-Mart – think what we can accomplish if we rally against the truly awful, perverse system that is factory farming.
Some people may also make the argument that the factory farming industry is so large and powerful that to try and topple it would be nearly impossible, and even if it were feasible, there would be nothing to replace it with. However, I think it’s important to remember that factory farming as we know it is an incredibly contemporary development. Even 40 years ago, a large percentage of meat came from your local farm – raised, slaughtered, and sold by a member of your own community without any kind of corporate oversight. Returning to that system is not impossible. There are plenty of “family farms” out there - they are just essentially contractors for companies like Tyson (poultry), Smithfield Foods (pork), and National Beef (self evident). In fact, many farmers would be financially better off if they were not being strangled by huge factory farming conglomerates that outsource to them and force them to always cut costs and lower prices – usually at the cost of their livelihoods, the well-being of their workers, and certainly the health and well-being of their animals.
For the past month or so, I have gone primarily vegetarian – though that’s more of a byproduct of not being able to discern where my meat is coming from, as I would eat meat if it was local/sustainable/ethical, etcetera (although Foer points out that there isn’t even enough “…nonfactory chicken produced in America to feed the population of Staten Island and not enough non factory pork to serve New York City, let alone the country.”). I have however, eaten fish and shellfish on a handful of occasions - Foer makes very good points as to why we should either avoid fish/shellfish or select only those that are sustainable, but I’ve found myself in several travel/work dining situations that were prohibitive to vegetarianism. In terms of veganism - that is a lifestyle I don’t think I’d ever be able to conquer. And, anyway, I think (maybe incorrectly) that I’d have an easier time finding dairy and eggs that come from animals that have been treated ethically than I could with meat.
Though I feel that this foray into vegetarianism (maybe I have to say pescetarianism to be fair) has been relatively simple and painless, I fear that much of my sentiment toward this “lifestyle change” is due to the very nature of my current lifestyle. I work 13 plus hours a day. I have worked nearly every weekend since the start of the year. I haven’t seen my parents or any of my family since October/November. I only see my boyfriend every six weeks or so (and that might be generous). So I’m living in a pretty siloed environment in which eating is not a part of my interactions with others. There is no one around with whom food is part of the very fabric of our relationship. When I’m with my boyfriend, or when I go home to New Orleans, or when I’m with my family for holidays, this “lifestyle change” becomes much more challenging. While I’m fully open to eating meat if it is local/sustainable/ethical, that’s not always an option. It’s a realistic option with my mother, but with my father, this demand might produce more of a negative reaction than the simple refusal to eat meat – though that would undoubtedly also result in a heated argument (nevermind that I’m a self-supporting adult). With my boyfriend, though he also likes the idea of eating the type of meat I’d like to restrict my diet to, his budget and generous gifts of Omaha Steaks from his parents don’t make the purchase of local/sustainable/ethical meat possible even half of the time.
So what do I do? Do I inconvenience everyone around me for the sake of the ideals presented in Eating Animals? Do I limit my travel experiences and enjoyment of life, or at least as I’ve defined that for 23 years? Foer agrees that this is where the challenge comes into play. When I’m alone in New York, my “lifestyle change” is not at all problematic. If I had more vegetarians/vegans in my life, it would also be made simpler. But as it stands, I don’t know how successfully I can stick to these seemingly optimistic/romanticized ideals about my diet. I mean, my lord, I’ve even raved to the bf (strangely enough, I always pronounce that as “beef”) about Taco Bell’s new Doritos-shell taco and how much I want to try it – even though the meat found in Taco Bell’s food is one of the best representations of everything that is wrong with factory farming. It’s cheap, low quality, regularly (enough) plagued by E. coli – and by purchasing it, I would only be feeding into the factory farm system and reinforcing the idea that everyone just wants cheap, cheap, cheap meat regardless of environmental impacts, health implications, or animal abuse. Which, interestingly enough, has never been proven to be the case. In fact, the best studies we have indicate that people would willingly sacrifice cheap meat for more ethical and sustainable production.
In 2007, an Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics nationwide telephone survey found that 76% of Americans believe that animal welfare is more important than low meat prices. A 2003 Gallup News Service poll reported that 96% of Americans said that animals deserve legal protection and roughly two-thirds advocated passing “strict laws” regarding animal cruelty in factory farms. Nonetheless, most Americans still happily live as carnivores, and most do not go out of their way to buy meat from sources other than factory farms. In fact, most don’t consider the source of their meat, even if they are implicitly giving their consent to the factory farming industry by purchasing its products.
But to take this stance is to ignore a vast library of research and statistics regarding the externalities of the factory farming industry - the way in which its practices pollute our water and our produce, harm workers and take advantage of the poor and/or of immigrants, bulk up our children with hormones, make us more resistant to critical antibiotics. It is not tremendously hard to change your eating habits when you examine your lifestyle in a box - there are numerous non-meat sources of daily nutritional requirements, even if you don’t live in a big city or have access to organic stores like Whole Foods. And when you examine a vegetarian or humane meat-eating lifestyle in the context of interactions with others - even if it seems difficult at first, your changing ways may inspire those who are close to you and, thus, make it a community movement.
We should all care about this issue - it should rank up there with the budget and with women’s rights. Because even if we balance our budget and ensure that women get the care they need to avoid cancer, complicated pregnancies, and the like - if our world becomes overwhelmed with animal waste, if our food is contaminated, if we can no longer fight off illnesses with antibiotics, and if factory farms give rise to massive epidemics and pandemics, well then the other issues that our government is fighting over won’t mean a thing.