Let me say this from the giddy up: I am not a vegan. I’m not, I’m not, I’m not. I don’t eat beef or pork – a side effect, of sorts, of being the rebellious teenager of a woman who ate steak, ribs, pork chops and fried chicken on a continuum – but I eat my chicken, my seafood, and my dairy and eggs. In short, what I’m about to say doesn’t come from a place of nutritional superiority – it comes from a place of understanding.
It’s frustrating that I have to start this off with a disclaimer, because I shouldn’t have to, but I’d hate for this space to be polluted with people battling nonsensically over what the best choice is for nutritional sustainability, and healthily redefining “ethics” when it comes to feeding a nation… a world, even. Alas, I gotta do it.
Rolling Stone, in all its epic dopeness, published a very grizzly report about what goes on behind the scenes of our animal production facilities. As someone who owns pets and has both the capacity to see animals as beings who should be treated lovingly, and the ability to understand that some animals die to feed others, I’ve long struggled with the compromises we make in order to have cheap meat.. especially when it sacrifices the quality of what we get. As someone who believes very deeply in transparency, I’m super horrified by not only what this article uncovered, but also by the fact that these corporations are actively trying to butter up our politicians in order to legally prevent anyone from shining a light on what goes on behind the scenes. For all we’d know, every cow is a happy cow and nothing ever goes wrong. There’d be no antibiotics, no infections, no mad cow disease risks and cages, no cannibalism and no six-foot high stacks of chicken shit.
If it weren’t for these activists – and yes, there are plenty outside of PETA – we’d know none of this. We’d be getting sick and have no theory even remotely close to what’s truly going on.
The article is actually pretty exceptional programing work, so it should be read on a desktop computer, and should be read on a settled stomach. I’ll quote through my post, so check those out first and then go read the article.
There are several massive takeaways from the Rolling Stone expose, things that we should all pay much better attention to:
1) No animal is safe.
You are a typical egg-laying chicken in America, and this is your life: You’re trapped in a cage with six to eight hens, each given less than a square foot of space to roost and sleep in. The cages rise five high and run thousands long in a warehouse without windows or skylights. You see and smell nothing from the moment of your birth but the shit coming down through the open slats of the battery cages above you. It coats your feathers and becomes a second skin; by the time you’re plucked from your cage for slaughter, your bones and wings breaking in the grasp of harried workers, you look less like a hen than an oil-spill duck, blackened by years of droppings. Your eyes tear constantly from the fumes of your own urine, you wheeze and gasp like a retired miner, and you’re beset every second of the waking day by mice and plaguelike clouds of flies. If you’re a broiler chicken (raised specifically for meat), thanks to “meat science” and its chemical levers – growth hormones, antibiotics and genetically engineered feed – you weigh at least double what you would in the wild, but lack the muscle even to waddle, let alone fly. Like egg-laying hens – your comrades in suffering – you get sick young with late-life woes: heart disease, osteoporosis. It’s frankly a mercy you’ll be dead and processed in 45 days, yanked from your floor pen and slaughtered. The egg-layers you leave behind will grind on for another two years or so (or until they’re “spent” and can’t produce any more eggs), then they’re killed too.
You’re a typical milk cow in America, and this is your life. You are raised, like pigs, on a concrete slab in a stall barely bigger than your body. There, you never touch grass or see sun till the day you’re herded to slaughter. A cocktail of drugs, combined with breeding decisions, has grossly distended the size of your udder such that you’d trip over it if allowed to graze, which of course you’re not. Your hooves have rotted black from standing in your own shit, your teats are scarred, swollen and leaking pus – infected by mastitis – and you’re sick to the verge of total collapse from giving nearly 22,000 pounds of milk a year. (That’s more than double what your forebears produced just 40 years ago.) By the time they’ve used you up (typically at four years of age), your bones are so brittle that they often snap beneath you and leave you unable to get off the ground on your own power.
Brittle bones aren’t the only reason cows become nonambulatory. A “downer” cow is an animal unable to stand on its own due to injury or illness; downers are deemed unfit by the federal government for human consumption. They are three times likelier to harbor a potentially deadly strain of E. coli, and at higher risk of carrying salmonella bacteria and transmitting bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, as it’s quaintly known. But before you’re classified as a downer, Big Meat will use every trick up its wizard’s sleeve to keep you on your feet. Workers hit you in the eyes with a cattle prod, or in the groin, if you like that better; stick a fire hose down your throat to get you to stand, a ploy inspired by those who brought you Abu Ghraib; and, if all else fails, they hoist you with a forklift and load you onto a flatbed bound for slaughter.
In 2007, the Humane Society caught Westland/Hallmark red-handed, and just over two months later it busted the Southern California rendering plant for dumping 37 million pounds of downed-cow beef into the national “low cost or free” school-lunch program. No, it wasn’t enough merely to pawn toxic meat on an unsuspecting public; the company sold it to the Department of Agriculture for more than $156 million, which approved it for poor kids’ meal trays. That scandal shut the plant down, put Westland/Hallmark out of business and started riots in South Korea, where protesters – fearing exposure to mad cow disease – fought a pending deal to reverse an almost five-year ban on American beef. The total tab for that outrage remains a mystery, but is thought to be in the billions. [source]
I just… don’t have the heart to share it all. It’s overwhelmingly sad.
I needed to superhighlight that one passage again, because it is terribly important: the people least likely to have the knowledge that this is going on, the least amount of time to devote to learning about this, and the least ability to fight this… are having their children fed the remains of cows who are illegally slaughtered for consumption. They are three times more likely to carry mad cow disease.
It’s safe to assume that the meat isn’t the only place where these programs cut corners. And we expect children in poverty to perform as well as children out of it.
2) These spaces are a safe haven for sadists and outright animal abusers.
Two springs ago, Sarah hired on with a breeding barn called Wyoming Premium Farms, a sprawling monolith in flyspeck Wheatland, population 3,641. At her plant, which was about as long as four football fields and connected to a separate birthing barn, she was one of 12 to 15 workers tending nearly 1,000 pigs each, which is par for the course in these places. Employee turnover was high and the morale rock-bottom; the animals paid for it in blood. “The workers were so stressed that they beat the sows during the weaning process and moved ’em back to the breeding barn,” Sarah says. “Some moms would resist and these guys would just pounce, three or four kicking and punching a sow at once. My first day there, I saw a sow break her leg trying to get back to her young. They shoved her into an alley and left her for a week before someone put a bolt in her head.”
“Was it that old guy, Steve, who beat the sow?” says Juan. He’d been working at a Premium barn nearby, where he spent his days extracting beakers of semen from boars and his nights washing the stench off his skin.
“No, he abused piglets,” she says of Steve Perry, a tattooed man who seemed to take pleasure in abusing newborn pigs – flinging them around by their legs, boasting of stabbing a sow with a pen and ripping the ear off another. He was one of nine workers charged with animal cruelty in connection with the case that Sarah built. All lost their positions at the farm; five paid modest fines and were placed on probation for six months. But Perry entered a plea of not guilty, and later was employed at the barn where Juan found work. Eventually, he pleaded out to two counts of animal cruelty and was slapped with a small fine and a short jail stint. Meanwhile, Sarah found evidence that eventually helped to out Tyson Foods as a Premium client. [source]
And so it goes with farmers who gave up farming to become cruel jailers of their stock. “I saw it firsthand when I worked upstate – it’s like they hate their own animals for having feelings,” says Cody Carlson, an animal-rights activist who left investigations to go to law school. “I had a job at a barn with this sick-fuck boss who was proud of the stuff he did to cows. One day, we’re doing repairs on a gate in the barn and a couple of cows stroll over to watch us work. Well, one grazes him with her snout, just to be playful, and he smashes her in the face with his wrench. I also got him bragging about past assaults, like tying a cow to a fence and taking turns beating her, getting the other guys to work her over.” [source]
These companies aren’t interested in filtering these people out, because why? It’s a rough job, the pay isn’t spectacular, and keeping the requirements as light as possible makes it even easier for them to attract people to the low-paying work. The stresses of high output compel people to take it out on the young sows and piglets to make themselves feel better. To de-stress.
The same way I tell y’all to take a bubble bath to destress, these people beat defenseless animals. They’re not beating something that could rip them to shreds. They’re beating piglets.
Am I adequately expressing my disgust here?
3) It’s painfully easy to see how or why there are so many problems with meat. It’s also easy to see why so much stuff needs to get hosed down with ammonia or goodness knows what:
“This gust of ammonia and urine stench hits you when you open the door, there’s chicken shit piled up six feet high before they tractor it out with Bobcats, and your nose and lungs burn like you took a torch to ’em.” Mice, flies and feces carpeted the tiny cages, mummified birds shared space with live ones, and their eggs rolled onto conveyor belts that ran 24 hours a day. “This wasn’t some mom-and-pop – this was 10 million hens,” Carlson says. “Their eggs are in every market you go into.” Amazingly, no indictments sprang from Carlson’s tapes: This was customary industry practice that broke no laws. But four months later, the FDA swooped in. It busted several Iowa hen farms whose vile conditions spawned a salmonella outbreak in 23 states, triggering the largest egg recall in recent U.S. history. [source]
4) The industry cuts costs in production… so they can use that money to influence law and policy.
“Despite everything we know about animals now – that they think, they feel, they form connections – we still treat them worse than dirt,” says HSUS’s Sweetland. “The law is way behind the science, but we’re starting to make gains. Look at what happened in New York.” After Carlson’s tape aired, New York State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal proposed a law against docking, or cutting the tails off, calves, a practice as pointless as it is despicable. Three years later, the bill is still pending in the Agriculture committee. [source]
Thanks to Citizens United, it’s impossible to control the flow of corporate dollars flung into elections… which means that the threat of removing corporate dollars that an elected official was counting on to win his or her next election becomes equally tenuous. And it’s not merely that they won’t put money into your campaign – it’s that they’ll put that money into your competitor. You know, to get you booted from office.
It takes a mountain of money to outweigh the dollars that corporations funnel into elections, which means that corporate interests are often best reflected in our public policy far more often than the interests of the public. An “ag gag bill” – a bill specifically intended to prevent activist-types from snitching – only serves to prevent the public from knowing how slaughterhouses are cutting costs, thereby endangering the public’s health.
A wave of new laws, almost entirely drafted by lawmakers and lobbyists and referred to as “Ag-Gag” bills, are making it illegal to take a farm job undercover; apply for a farm job without disclosing a background as a journalist or animal-rights activist; and hold evidence of animal abuse past 24 to 48 hours before turning it over to authorities. Since it takes weeks or sometimes months to develop a case – and since groups like HSUS have pledged not to break the law – these bills are stopping watchdogs in their tracks and giving factory farmers free rein behind their walls. [source]
Politicians fear them and, apparently, so do district attorneys:
After several weeks of training, he hired on at Willet, a giant dairy in Locke, New York, that churned out 40,000 gallons of milk a day. So damning was his footage of standard factory-farming practice – chopping the tails off calves without anesthesia; gouging the horns off their heads with hot branding irons, also without anesthesia; punching cows, kicking calves, beating desperately sick downers – that Nightline ran it on national TV, confronting Willet’s CEO on camera. “Our animals are critically important to our well-being, so we work hard to treat them well,” droned Lyndon Odell of the 5,000 cows standing in lagoons of their own shit. Shown tape of the tortured calves, and pressed on whether a cow feels pain, he rolled his shoulders and mumbled, “I guess I can’t speak for the cow.” It bears saying here that nothing would have come from the tape if left to the whims of Jon Budelmann, the Cayuga County DA. “We approached him with our evidence and he told us to f— off – he wasn’t going to take on Big Dairy,” says Carlson. “It was only after we went to the media with the tape that he got off his ass and brought charges.” (Budelmann later cleared Willet of any wrongdoing, telling the Syracuse Post-Standard that while Willet’s practices might seem harsh to consumers, they’re “not currently illegal in New York state.”) [source]
5) …and how are they endangering the public’s health? Well, what are they feeding these animals? If there’s over 300,000 animals on a given farm, they’re probably feeding them leftovers, garbage… right?
In its scrutiny of Big Meat – a cartel of corporations that have swallowed family farms, moved the animals indoors to prison-style plants in the middle of rural nowhere, far from the gaze of nervous consumers, and bred their livestock to and past exhaustion – the Humane Society […] is performing a service that the federal government can’t, or won’t, render: keeping an eye on the way American meat is grown. That’s rightfully the job of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the agency is so short-staffed that it typically only sends inspectors out to slaughterhouses, where they check a small sample of pigs, cows and sheep before they’re put to death. That hour before her end is usually the only time a pig sees a government rep; from the moment she’s born, she’s on her own, spending four or five years in a tiny crate and kept perpetually pregnant and made sick from breathing in her own waste while fed food packed with growth-promoting drugs, and sometimes even garbage. (The word “garbage” isn’t proverbial: Mixed in with the grain can be an assortment of trash, including ground glass from light bulbs, used syringes and the crushed testicles of their young. Very little on a factory farm is ever discarded.) [source]
I am not unaware of the realities of having 300 million people in one country, many of whom like their meat. We need large amounts of space to raise large amounts of animals so that we have a well-fed nation. I get that. I get that the demand needs to meet the supply.
Here’s what I don’t get, though: you choose to raise meat in large quantities? Fine. You choose to cut corners, in order to bring down the cost of production? Fine. You choose to “get big or go home?” Also fine. What’s not fine is trying to circumvent the public from learning what’s going on with their food. If people want to make an actively informed decision, why prevent them from doing so?
Because this industry knows damned well they have no business letting things go on like this.
What does all of this mean for the average eater?
It’s hard to look at an article like this, and not think about whether or not this was the fate of your sandwich, or your dinner last night. “Organic” isn’t about a standard of ethics for the animal (or its produce, like the egg), only the process used to create it.
There are lots of farms out there, most likely at your local farmer’s market, that believe in ethically managing meat production. Some elements of the Rolling Stone essay, to me, were merely about the horrors of working in these facilities – of course cows are hung upside down and bled to dry… that’s why we don’t get packaged meat coated in blood – but those of us who feel moved to do something have a few options:
1) You are more than encouraged to choose a lifestyle that abstains from these products. Meat and dairy might be great sources of protein, but they’re not the only sources. Your average Soul Food-sized portion of collard greens are a better source of calcium than your suggested serving size of milk. If you feel compelled to do so, there are infinite resources to help you get started.
2) Consume less meat, while upping the quality. If you’ve bought one of my meal plans, you’re familiar with my mantra of “not eating meat every day” in order to save money. And, if you notice, many of the dishes I’ve prepared for the Clean Eating Boot Camp are actually low on animal byproduct. That’s by design. Oftentimes, people fear embracing fresh produce because they don’t know how to cook it – rice and meat, rice and beans, meat and potato are the three main kinds of meal structures that people know in America, and I designed my boot camp to help change that. Embracing recipes that treat meat like less of the star of the plate, and more like a very well-dressed featured guest allows you to use less meat and use the leftover money to buy a higher quality of meat. Once a year for his birthday, I buy Eddy a 16oz porterhouse steak from the farmer’s market. Ethically sourced, organic, happy cow, died naturally. $27. I give it a peppered crust, pan-sear it and bake it, and serve it with potatoes. It’s literally steak and potatoes. Simple, well-seasoned, and he loves it. (For $27, he’d better.)
Mark Bittman also has a fabulous book, Vegan Before 6, that encourages people to eat more of a plant-based diet in a way that doesn’t result in them feeling deprived or unsatisfied. A plan as simple as a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, a salad for lunch, and then your choice for dinner gets the job done fantastically, and the options are endless.
Meatless Mondays, also known as #meatlessmondays on twitter also shows tons of dishes that you can make that are hearty and filling dinner options sans meat.
Books like How to Cook Everything: Vegetarian, The Naked Food Diet, Ways to Cook: Vegetarian, and The Organic Cook’s Bible are invaluable resources for someone looking to venture out into plant-centered eating. (And those are all my personal Amazon.com links – if you buy from those links, I get a few pennies.)
They’re not better resources than my Clean Eating Boot Camp, though. Juuuust sayin’.
3) Stay on your congresspersons’ asses about this. They need to know that there is a high enough demand for people — voters — who want them to pay attention to this kind of behavior in their food manufacturing. The meat manufacturing industry — not mature enough to call it “big meat,” sorry — not only funnels money into politics, but they also use money to pay for false advertising to spin what’s happening in not only politics but media, in general. Large corporate farming outlets magically turn into “small businesses,” and legislation “cripples them.” I’m sorry, but if your farm cannot survive without paying your emoployees a fair wage to keep them from abusing the animals, then you need to be shut down.
And, lastly, as contentious a space as this is, I think we need to remember that the cost in trying to change our lives is high – not just in money, but in time. Time invested in reading, in learning, in understanding, and in changing how an entire household eats. My husband was a stone-cold 7-day-a-week meat eater, and now I can slide a good five days of vegan plates under his nose and he wouldn’t even notice. It took years to get to the point where I’m not only competent with veggies, but also able to create meals good enough to convert others… and I’m not even vegan. I just like saving money.
Conversion is hard. And we need to be mindful of that when we talk about this with others. It is hard, and money is tight. (Even when it isn’t tight, it’s tight.) Everyone can’t afford to make “these” choices, and we shouldn’t condemn them for saying so. When we want to encourage people to convert, we should consider telling them to try, to learn, and not to just go cold turkey. Even if we feel a sense of superiority or enlightenment, people still find it difficult to change their mode of thinking if the person delivering the information comes off like a jackass.
In looking at this, I definitely need to overhaul my fridge and take a long, hard look at where I buy some of the things I buy. My cheeses, my eggs, my chicken thighs.. gonna take some time. What about you? What did you take away from this? What will you be doing to improve what you buy? What have you done to improve what you buy?