This post is not meant to come across as criticism for the way others choose to eat (though I know without a doubt that some will feel that way no matter how I write it). My hope is that visitors will read, and take a few minutes to think critically about where the animals products you buy come from.
“I’m still eating meat but I’m eating less of it. And, I’ll never look at shrink-wrapped chicken cutlets the same way again.”
—Mickey Rapkin, GQ
Cristin is a frequent commenter with insightful contributions that I’ve really grown to love over the past year or so. She has both agreed and disagreed with me many times in the past, and I like that we can be honest with each other. We spent lots of time tweeting back and forth (she is LifeOnMulberry) and when I was preparing for my maternity leave period and looking for guest contributors, she was one of the people I turned to, even though she doesn’t have a blog of her own! She threw out a few different ideas, but things were never finalized and she didn’t end up posting for me that week. Instead, she sent me a copy of the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and told me to read it, post about it, and then pass the copy she bought for me on to someone else.
#1. Read it: Done
#2 Post about it: Doing it right now
#3 Give it away… I can’t do it!
I feel like I’m being really dramatic lately, but just like In Defense of Food this book changed my life. (Seriously, so many life changing books lately.) Remember my goal to eat less meat? We’ve been working on it, slowly, but we weren’t making much progress in the few weeks after I posted about my desire to cut back. Then I read Pollan’s writing and starting visiting the Farmer’s Market and everything came together and I was cooking with less meat and more vegetables and we were happy. Real Food advocates Nina Planck and Michael Pollan advocate strongly for free-range/pasture-fed/etc etc meat and I thought it was a good idea, but I admit I wasn’t fully committed due to the cost.
Then Cristin mails me this book Eating Animals and I start reading and I realize I never want to buy grocery store meat ever again, and since then I haven’t. Though some will balk at the title, assuming that it must be an argument for a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle, I didn’t find it to be so. It is a book that must be read with an open mind though, for it does urge you to think critically about why we choose to eat meat and which kinds (my parents were not impressed by the tidbits I quoted them about eating dogs, not really the best place to start if you’re trying to convince someone it’s a worthwhile read). What’s funny to me, is that I read Fast Food Nation when it was all the rage, and for some reason all I got from that was that I didn’t really want to eat at McDonalds and that slaughterhouse workers were mistreated.
I didn’t find it to be an argument for meat-free living, more a plea to think critically about where the meat you eat comes from. Eat mindfully. This post isn’t meant to be a review of the book Eating Animals (because book reviews aren’t my forte), more a chronicle of the way my own attitudes and practices have changed. I hope that reading how my thinking and practices has changed will inspire you to eat meat a little more mindfully as well.
“More than any other institution, the American industrial animal farm offers a nightmarish glimpse of what Capitalism can look like in the absence of moral or regulatory constraint. Here, in these places, life itself is redefined–as protein production–and with it, suffering. That venerable word becomes ’stress’, an economic problem in search of a cost-effective solution… The industrialization and dehumanization–of American animal farming is a relatively new, evitable, and local phenomenon: no other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do.” Michael Pollan, essay title “Food with a Face”, quoted in Animal Vegetable Miracle.
As I puzzled through the material, gagging a bit while thinking of chickens unable to walk, pigs having rods shoved up their rectums just for kicks and giggles, cattle being slaughtered alive by profit drive factory line slaughterhouses, my mind started turning to my religious beliefs. It might sound strange, but the more I thought about the LDS view of the Creation and why animals were placed on the earth, the more comfortable I felt about the consumption of animal products. I don’t believe that God intended us to eat no meat. But I do think that he expects us to be respectful toward them. They are his creation just as we are, and they deserve to live and die in dignity. I decided that killing animals to eat them didn’t feel wrong to me, so I would keep eating them.
I am not alone in using my religion to determine my diet, and specifically what animals I feel comfortable eating. Kosher laws determine how an animal must be slaughtered, as well as what animals can and cannot be consumed. The Quran explicity forbids a number of things, including the consumption of pork, and animals must be slaughtered in the name of Allah.
My decision is, I’m sure, partly influenced by my background. My maternal grandparents have a dairy. My paternal grandparents have a ranch. I took pigs to the fair for 6 years. I’ve had lots of close contact with animals destined for human consumption and I don’t feel bad about their eventual destiny. I loved my pigs though, so much that I would often crawl in the pen at the fair with them and lay in the sawdust snuggling up with them, and now that I know how they were slaughtered I do wish their final moments of life had been a bit different. I would still sell them for slaughter, but if I knew then what I know now I would have sought to ensure that the place where they were being killed did so with care and respect.
Once I had decided that I would eat meat, I needed to decide what kind. Free-range/pasture-fed/etc etc. That kind. Why? Because the more I learned about the living conditions of factory farmed and slaughtered animals, the more disgusted I felt that my purchases would contribute to the immense amount of suffering those creatures undergo. I firmly believe that anyone who looks into the way these animals live would seriously reconsider where the meat they are buying comes from (and I understand why so many people become vegetarian or vegan after doing so). I won’t be detailing things here, it’s something that you need to explore for yourself. Reading Eating Animals was a good place for me to start, and Foer has an excellent set of excerpts posted here. His website has a list of resources. The phrases floating in the background on the Eating Animals site link to forum topics where people have posted about questions and realizations they’ve had. If you really want to torture yourself you can watch this video on YouTube. I can’t imagine anyone watching that and not feeling a desire to change.
- I will not buy meat when I don’t know the source. How it was raised and how it died. I’m trying to buy only when I can purchase directly from the source.
- I will only order vegetarian when we eat out, unless we’re eating at a restaurant that sources humanely raised and slaughtered meat. This is a HUGE change for me, and I confess I’m still getting the hang of it. I just don’t think an animal should have to live and die in a horrible way so that I can have a steak or piece of bacon. I’ll be using the Eat Well Guide to help me find restaurants that focus on local, organic, and sustainable food.
- If the food is prepared or purchased by someone else, and I didn’t have the opportunity to voice my preference, I will eat it even if it’s factory farmed. Why? Because the animal is already dead! They suffered in life and suffered as they were dying and if I just throw that meat out I feel as though I’m wasting their sacrifice. The sandwich I ate at a photography workshop in Houston is an example of that. Yesterday I made tacos with a pound of factory farmed ground beef that has been sitting in our freezer for months. Eating at the homes of friends or family who may not be familiar with my new mindset is another example of a situation where I plan on sitting down to partake of what’s presented to me, no matter where it came from. I hope that one day I will become brave enough to speak up about what I”m trying to do, but I’m afraid of offending those close to me if they think I am preaching to them, and so for now I will be analyzing each situation individually and try to determine whether the meat that was prepared was done so under the assumption that I would be eating it. The dilemma that I face is that I’m not going vegetarian. How do you define the way I’m trying to eat? Awareatarian? Compassionavore?
- I am still buying eggs (albeit from the FM) and I still buy my favorite cheeses at Whole Foods, that likely come from cows that aren’t pasture-fed, even though I know there are troubling facts about the way that chickens and cows are raised in order to produce eggs and dairy at high volume. I’m still trying to decide where that perfect place is for me, and not ready to give up everything yet.
I finished Foer’s book almost a month ago, and I’m still discovering new information that changes my approach. This is definitely a huge learning experience, and I don’t think there is any way I could relate it all to you in one post. For right now I’m buying my meat at the farmer’s market, seeking out booths with signs that talk about humane animal husbandry methods. I’m still not very good at asking questions, but I’m working on it. I asked Sophia, a frequent commenter here on That Wife, if she would be willing to contribute a list of questions someone could ask when purchasing meat locally, to ensure that the provider is treating the animals in a humane way.
For cows meant to be slaughtered, I would ask:
Are they 100% grass fed, or just grass finished?
What slaughtering methods do you use? (ideally the animal will be stunned and completely unconscious before its throat is slit)
Do you remove horns, and if so, what is this process? (horn removal is extremely painful for the animals, and is often done with no pain relief before, during, or after)
How do you deal with “downed” cows?– The video Jenna linked to is unfortunately common practice. Often, downed cows are just piled in a back alley and left to slowly suffer and die of starvation, exposure, or dehydration.
For Dairy cows-
Are the calves kept with their mothers? If not,how soon are they removed, and where do they go?– All of the small farmer’s market farmers told me their calves were sent to veal crates.
If so, ask “What are the conditions of the veal operations to which your calves are sent? — I have to admit here, I personally don’t think there is such a thing as “humane veal”, but some operations now put them in pens instead of in crates. Still tiny, inside, they don’t get to go out in the sunshine and grass, and they are still fed a manipulated diet to keep the flesh supple, but it’s better than the crates in the dark where they cannot move at all. Also, I have come across two farmers, commenting on blogs, who say they let their calves nurse twice a day, because it makes them stronger and keeps the mother cow from being distressed. So, while extremely, extremely rare, you might be lucky enough to be near a farmer who allows the babies nurse periodically.
Do you send pregnant cows to slaughter?
Do you dock tails? —There is NO REASON to do this. Mrs. Niman, of Niman ranch fame, despises the practice.
How are your dairy cows slaughtered?
And then just general questions about lifestyle- do they get to graze on grass, are they allowed outside, etc.
Do you have a hatchery onsite, or do you purchase your hens from a hatchery?
How are the unwanted male chicks disposed of at the hatchery/how do you dispose of the unwanted male chicks at your hatchery?
Do you de-beak your hens?– De-beaking is really only necessary if the hens are kept so close together and stressed out that they can peck at one another. To me, de-beaking says “yeah, we really pack ‘em in, and they pretty much never go outside”. De-beaking is not needed with truly free range hens.
What are they fed?
Do your hens regularly get outside, to scratch and dust bathe and be in the sunshine?– Free range does not guarantee this, and cage free just means they can be locked in those barns like in “Food, Inc.”
How do you slaughter your hens once they are finished?
How do you slaughter?
How are your nursing sows treated?
Do you dock tails?
Similar questions to slaughter cows regarding getting to go outside, diet, etc.
And of course any other questions you might have about antibiotics use/organic methods/etc. Waste management is also a topic to inquire about, as contamination of our public water supplies by domestic animal production is a very big problem.
I hope this post has made you think a little bit, and that you will spend some time looking into where the animal products you consume come from and what practices you do and don’t feel comfortable with. I still have a long ways to go, and my incredible love for cheese will mean that I might never give up “conventional” ones. But just like I talked about last week in my voting with your food dollars post, each decision we make makes a difference. If one less animal suffers because of my choices, I think that’s a pretty good place to start.
To wrap this (very long) post up, a few last words of wisdom from Cristin and Sophia.
I am thrilled that Jenna was so invigorated by the copy of Eating Animals that I sent. When I first read this book, I had already read Singer’s “Eating Animals,” Nestle’s “Food Politics,” and the requisite Pollen assortment. I knew a lot of the truths of factory farming, but I didn’t know how to share them with my friends and family. Foer’s writing style is what made the material more accessible. He acknowledges in the book that changing even small parts of your diet is really difficult, because of our emotional connection to foods. I recently heard him speak and he admitted to still eating eggs, even though he hopes that someday, he will be able to give them up. I haven’t been able to change my diet as significantly as Jenna has, though I applaud her for her commitment and devotion to providing the healthiest and most ethical food options that are available to her. Foer and his book aren’t pushing 100% vegetarianism as the only option. He shared a conversation that he had with one of the NY Times food critics as an example of a positive small change; the food critic has gone on record as being a “vegetarian until dinner.” What’s important is creating a massive demand for ethically produced meat, which will eventually change the standards for all producers. Hopefully Jenna’s blog can help generate conversation and investigation in the homes of her many readers and help propel gradual change.
Sophia (who writes a fabulous food blog that will help you understand what a vegan eats on a daily basis!):
While learning about the massive factory farming institution can be overwhelming, the good news is that there are all kinds of ways to avoid it in ways that work for each individual. Jenna decided she was ok with eating meat, but wanted that meat to be raised and slaughtered humanely. Some people are weekday vegetarians, some take part in Meatless Mondays, some only eat meat they hunted. At this point in my life, from ethical, environmental, and health perspectives, a vegan diet is right for me. If I liked meat more, I would probably be seeking out meat following standards similar to Jenna’s. However, giving up meat was not a sacrifice for me, and instead of focusing on finding humane sources of meat, I choose to focus on getting protein from other sources. I believe that both my choice to eat a vegan diet, and Jenna’s choice to eat humanely raised meat, are beneficial to animal welfare and to personal health. It’s all about evaluating one’s priorities, lifestyle, and personal preference. It can seem daunting, as though one person won’t make a difference, but if you think about it, most of us eat about three times a day. Voting with our dollar, when it comes to food, is one of the most frequent forms of activism you can take part in.
Not sure where to start? Signing up for the weekly Meatless Monday email is a great first step. Seek out others in your area trying to live their life the same way using the Slow Food site, and let them share with you what they know. Find a local farm or farmer’s market and buy your meat there (yes it will cost more, but if you eat less you should end paying about the same amount as before!). Eat Wild will help you find farmers that will ship directly to you!