Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ignorance: No Laughing Matter for Animals

One of the many happy scenes of life on the farm ingrained on us since childhood. The reality: that it's a myth on par with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Yet long after we learn the truth about Kris Kringle, we continue believing in the farm animal myth for life. Why?

In the film Leap Year, Amy Adams and Matthew Goode are at an idyllic bed & breakfast in Ireland. In the garden, Goode takes one of the chickens strolling about and breaks its neck, much to the shock of Adams. He asks where she thinks her chicken comes from. Adams says the freezer case, and lets out a nervous laugh.

Now to real life: in my French class, a student brings back culinary souvenirs from her travels to France, including a can of foie gras. "Doesn't it bother you how it's produced?" I asked. The reply, "No, not really. I've seen the ducks and geese and it looks like they have very nice lives." I have a good idea of where she got this impression. A Rick Steves travel show, in which he visits a foie gras farm in the Dordogne region. The owner gives a "family-friendly" tour and says the ducks and geese eat a large supply naturally for their long migrations. If so, I wonder, why are the long metal pipes needed to shove the food down their throat? Why would "force feeding" be needed at all? How would the owner know it doesn't bother them? Maybe she should have a metal pipe forcing food down her throat as an experiment. Kate Winslet narrated a not-so-family-friendly look at foie gras farms.

This classmate also said "I try not to think about where my hamburger comes from." Amy Adams-style nervous laughter followed.

The Frugal Girl documents her food waste weekly, and one post focused on chicken. One commenter bemoaned, "I think it is so terrible when meat is wasted. These animals were living breathing creatures, often having lived their short miserable lives confined in cages. For me, it feels so disrespectful to have them slaughtered only to be thrown in the trash." I couldn't agree more.

To which someone replied, "the animal was dead b4 you bought it. i don't think it has any feelings on the subject. it's not sitting up in "chicken heaven"saying "what you threw me in the garbage?" LOL. i agree that sometimes their lives aren't very nice but that has nothing to do with the person eating them, but the people raising them."

Personally, I'm not LOL, and I think it has very much to do with the people eating them. Do people really think they can wash their hands morally because they are not doing the dirty work themselves? Their sense of entitlement, particularly among people who insist on meat, milk or eggs at every single meal at the cheapest prices available, is the very root of the problems. The Frugal Girl may be "cheerfully living on less," but the animals she eats aren't living so cheerfully.

Is there a chicken heaven? I hope so, because for them, it's hell on earth.

According to the Humane Society,

"Nearly all animals killed for food in the U.S. are chickens and turkeys—more than nine billion each year. They're shackled upside down, paralyzed by electrified water and dragged over mechanical throat-cutting blades...all while conscious. Millions of birds each year miss the blades and drown in tanks of scalding water. This occurs because the U.S. Department of Agriculture exempts birds from its enforcement of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which requires that farm animals be insensible to pain before they're shackled and killed."

If animals had the life of the chicken in Leap Year - freedom in the countryside and a quick death, eating animals might not seem so horrific. But today's farm animals have no freedom whatsoever. How natural it is to eat animals is up for debate. What is against nature to me is bringing them in the world to endure - not to enjoy life whatsoever. Never a dust bath for a chicken, never a frolic in the hay for a pig, no time to bond between mother cow and calf. People who run factory farms aren't worthy of the term "farmer." They are businessmen. The do not cultivate life, they suppress it.

People feign ignorance, but more often, it's denial. Whether ignorant or in denial - a population in either state is easy to control, much to the delight of people who wish to profit off of them.

The psychology of our thinking toward food is fascinating. Why, for instance, are we so disgusted by tap water, but it's not disgusting to regularly eat drugged up chickens, cows and pigs raised in factory farms that have been wriggling around in their own feces? I think of a line in Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency in which one character observes of another, "she had shaped reality to suit her." Denying extreme cruelty, the use of growth hormones and antibiotics, the effects on workers and the environment doesn't deny the reality just because it doesn't suit one to think about it, and people shouldn't shift the blame onto the producers and say those who eat it have "nothing" to do with it.

Think local food is the answer? An article in The New York Times, "Push to Eat Local Food Is Hampered by Shortage" did a reality check: "Independent farmers around the country say they are forced to make slaughter appointments before animals are born and to drive hundreds of miles to facilities...causing stress to livestock." Know a local butcher? Ask where the animals are raised, and where they are slaughtered.

The Times went on to note, "As the locavore movement and self-butchering movements grow, so do cries of 'Not in my backyard.'"

Most seem to want cheap food, but hands up anyone who wants an industrial sized pig, cow or chicken operation in their backyard? How about doing the job yourself? Would you want to collect the eggs for those 99 cents a dozen cartons yourself in a shed with thousands of chickens stacked in metal cages? No, it's someone else's dirty work, someone else's polluted waterways, someone else's suffering.

Do I still hear nervous laughter?

"I just wanna feel what life should be.
I just want enough space to turn around.
Someday maybe you'll treat me like you." - Free Me, Goldfinger


Cate said...

YES. This is why we only eat sustainable meat--because we're horrified by the thought of perpetuating such a vicious cycle. I refuse to give my food dollars to companies who abuse their animals. It makes me sick to think about eating animals who suffered during their lifetimes, to say nothing of the disgusting conditions they live in (and which surely have an effect on the quality of the meat). You're right, the entitlement is really scary. I do my best to avoid food waste in general, but I REALLY try to avoid meat waste, because it's a waste of a life.

ConsciouslyFrugal said...

This seriously needs to be printed in a a national publication. Preach it!

As kid from farm country, I've always believed that if you can't kill and prep the animal yourself (as in, emotionally can't do it), then you shouldn't be eating meat. If we required everyone to slaughter the animals they consume, we'd see a helluva lot less meat consumption, regardless of where or how it was raised.

Obviously, I've killed an animal or two in my time and am a meat eater. Killing a living thing is far from idyllic, even in genuine farm settings.

Catherine @ The Vegan Good Life said...

Cate, that's so great you spend a little more for better welfare (and I know you go meatless often). If people could just do that, think about all the suffering that would be alleviated. If people can find the funds for bottled water (which seems to be in so many shopping carts), why not better welfare? Humane products have a long way to go, but it's better than the factory farmed products for those who wish to eat meat. People vote with their dollars, and what they are buying speaks volumes.

CF, thank you for the praise and your story. I totally agree that many would not eat meat. As a nation of cat and dog lovers sensitive to those animals, how many could really kill what's on their plate? And not only kill, but feed in those awful warehouses with dead or debilitated animals about, and then they have to drive on a truck countless miles for a painless death? Turkey inseminating anyone? Peter Singer and Jim Mason did it while researching The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. They didn't last a day. Not quite the picture of the red barn with animals basking in the pasture and sunshine most think of.

Cate said...

Just wondering- how do you think humane products have a long way to go? I think it definitely depends on what you classify as humane (for example, I won't buy meat in the grocery store no matter how "humane" it supposedly is--but from a local farmer? Yep.)

Catherine @ The Vegan Good Life said...

Hi Cate. At the heart of it: weak labeling standards, and it's buyer beware.

I recommend Farm Sanctuary's Truth Behind Labeling Report. I'm dividing the link into two lines otherwise it won't show up:


Even just the summary gives a lot of great information.

It's all very confusing for consumers. Knowing your farmer directly is ideal and getting as much information from them as you can.

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl said...

Hi Catherine-

Though you and I differ on the subject of veganism, I just wanted you to know that I am not at all of the same mind as some of my commenters.

I absolutely, positively do think that if we're going to slaughter animals, the least we can do is try to use we slaughter (this is why I am not opposed to fishing for sustenance but I am opposed to sport fishing). I try my darndest to use up everything I buy, but it's really, really hard, and sometimes I fail.

I am much better than I used to be, though!

Recently, my husband and I have decided to bite the bullet and try to buy more local food, including meat. I buy eggs from a blog reader who lives a few minutes from my house, I got some beef from a farmer acquaintance of ours, and I get milk from them when they have it (in glass mason jars).

Hopefully I'll be able to find more sources of truly local food as time goes by.

Anyhow, just wanted you to know that I don't at all share the flippant attitude of some of my readers.

Catherine @ The Vegan Good Life said...

Thanks for the comment Kristen, much appreciated. I was really upset by that woman's comment refusing to take any blame, believing that her demand has nothing to do with the supply issues, and her mocking the great suffering of animals with her "chicken heaven" joke. Hopefully, she won't come back in another life as a factory farmed chicken.

I sincerely appreciate your efforts to promote food waste awareness. When I volunteered at a food pantry and we threw out 20 percent of the food (due to expiration dates), I thought the same thing as the one commenter, that all these animals suffered to be thrown in the trash.

It's all about raising awareness and understanding why products are so cheap, especially among the frugal-minded. I often see frugal bloggers proudly displaying cheap food products, but there is a reason they are so cheap (especially among animal products. I don't think chickens should have to produce an egg for eight cents).

In the documentary Food Beware, which looks at the issues in French agriculture (including heavy pesticide use), someone said if products included the real cost to society (environmental cleanups, health care costs, etc.), they wouldn't be so cheap.

That's great you are supporting your local farmers. I'm not the perfect vegan (I speak about this openly) nor do I make the best choices always, and don't expect everyone to follow one dietary path, just to be aware about where their food comes from and to understand the cheapest products often mean the worst animal welfare conditions possible. It's about their bodies and souls, and what we are putting into ours.

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl said...

I hear you. I recently had this dicussion with some of my friends, and I am completely unable to understand how they think it's no better to use up all the chicken than to not. Yes, it's already dead, but if it's already dead, you should at least try to use it all up!

I TOTALLY agree with you about the cheap food blogging...I touched on that in my post about the $4/week grocery shopper. Saving money on groceries is no great feat to me if you're subsisting on stuff that's not even really food.

I'm not perfect (we do eat some cereal, and we drink soda with our homemade pizza once a week), but we are not a family that eats only packaged foods.