Meat Eating and Forgetfulness

April 22, 2010

A Zoo Full of Zebras[1]:

The Collective American Diet of Meat and Forgetfulness

by Brett S. Arnold

No one fired a pistol to mark the start of the race to the bottom. The earth just tilted and everyone slid into the hole.

-Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals

If you went door to door, randomly and nationwide, and asked the people within, doe-eyed and skeptical as they cracked the front door open (leaving the tiny metal lock chain in place) what they would prefer for the future of gun control:

a)     More control is necessary for our safety

b)    It’s a matter of freedom, personal choice, and rights; we need less control

c)     I believe, more or less, we have a good balance of A and B. Let’s maintain what we’ve got now

–you would probably find that most (most) Americans would answer C[2]. It is my belief that in general it is very difficult to get people to act on anything outside of the status quo. That is, if something appears to be working, why attempt to fix what isn’t broken? We are, fundamentally, creatures of habit. Though it certainly isn’t hard to imagine a healthy population of people also answering both A or B either. Why then do we picture these results being so much more skewed (statistically, not ethically) if we were going around with a similar survey, but about factory farming and livestock slaughter practices? Some would say “We should improve legislation,” some would slam the door, some wouldn’t know what you talking about exactly, but on the whole most people would probably say the system we have now is okay. What’s hard to imagine is people being for more liberal regulation in slaughterhouses, and so the results would probably sway more towards stricter laws about how farms can function and what methods are appropriate (if any) for slaughter[3]. Deep down, everyone knows the system isn’t perfect. Ask anyone if they want to see footage of what goes on in slaughterhouses and meat-packaging plants and they will inevitably say no. Whether this is because they assume they will see something excessively gruesome, or they’ll see (what some would call) animals suffering, or perhaps be faced with their own mortality in some existential way, varies on a case-to-case basis, but regardless, their refusal has to point to something, doesn’t it? Nobody really wants to know where their food comes from, and everyone knows if they found out all the details they wouldn’t like what they heard. Ignorance is bliss, and meat tastes good. Here’s the point: People have an amazing capacity to simply forget where exactly their dinner came from.

Clearly, we have a moral line in our heads; one that if crossed, we would stand up against to pursue change (or so we’d like to think). But, perhaps that line is extremely blurred and self-serving. At best it’s ill informed. If you carried out the same hypothetical meat survey in the U.S. in the 1950s[4]—largely before the paradigm for farming shifted away from the typical American’s view of the family farm to the current all-too-real (and paradoxically all-too-easily forgotten) horrors of the factory farm system, which resembles nothings even remotely close to the picture-book idea so many have of “Farmer John” plowing the fields and milking his cows—you’d probably find that back then, too, most would answer C, “I think the farming system we have now is working fine. I don’t want less regulation on how animals are slaughtered, and I surely don’t want more.”  However, the way in which America farms is vastly different now then it was 60 years ago. Why then was this change allowed to occur, if most people thought that the then-current (1950) system was working, and why now would we say that it also seems okay? Where did our moral lines go; the ones we were supposed to stand up for and protect?

What many of us view as a good democratic system has its faults. Public knowledge of the factory farm system is limited, and thus there hasn’t been much in the way of change via voting and policy adoption. It’s not that people simply don’t care. There must be something more complex going on, which on the surface may appear to be very simple:

1)    People are very inclined to believe the advertising by the factory farm system and/or are kept in the dark about its workings

2)    People are able, often willingly, to forget where their food came from and that (even simpler) it was ever a living creature at all

Perhaps the biggest reason for this is that we are so far removed from the process of how most meat reaches the table (from the chicken’s birth in a large, super-controlled room that maintains an eternal spring and mostly daylight, to its short life in a large dark room, in a cage so small it can’t even turn around, below twenty of the same cages, which accounts for the never-ending release of feces onto its head, where it is pumped so full of hormones[5] it will develop many times faster than it would in the wild (the stress of which may literally break its bones), to the shackled transport after an average of 29 days (many will die in route to their eventual death anyway), until they finally reach the slaughterhouse itself (which is a different beast altogether)). It’s hard to imagine the level of poultry consumed annually would remain anywhere near the level that it is now if every time you went to a restaurant, the waiter showed you a video of the life the chicken you were about to eat led, until he brought it (the chicken) out to you, still alive, and slaughtered it right before you. And this doesn’t just go for chickens, but for all types of livestock. The reason we eat so much of it is because it’s so easy, and so cheap (which after the all the health and cleanup costs for humans and the environment that are not included on the grocery store tag, but on your taxes instead, makes even this last point debatable). The argument arises that all man, in earlier times, had to “prepare” his own food, and therefore did all the slaughtering himself, thus making it invalid to say that having to watch every slaughter would have any real effect on how we choose to eat meat. However the fact is that meat consumption as a whole has risen more than 154 percent since 1950[6], so it appears, if anything, that our level of involvement in, or at least knowledge of, the slaughtering process has had an adverse effect on our level of meat eating, especially as we become further and further removed from the farming process[7].

The point of this article is not to condemn omnivores. David Foster Wallace, in his essay Consider the Lobster, about the Maine Lobster Festival, has this to say: “Is it possible that future generations will regard our present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Mengele’s experiments? My own initial reaction is that such a comparison in hysterical, extreme — and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe that animals are less morally important than human beings.”[8] I myself eat meat, but with a little research on what it is exactly I’m consuming, I feel that my decisions are, in fact, my decisions, and not entirely influenced by the collective will of those who eat (which, as far as I know, is everyone). The problem isn’t eating meat itself, it’s eating way too much, and if we continue on our current, unsustainable path, this is what will lead us to be remembered like Nero. Personally, I have committed to being a vegetarian on Wednesdays[9]. This may seem like an abstract way of cutting down on the amount of meat I eat, but (a) it’s easy to remember (or, to not forget), (b) a day that typically isn’t a very social one for me (meaning that I’m not going to restaurants typically, or at friends’ homes where I might not have the option to eat vegetarian), and (c) sort of symbolic in a way that’s pleasing to myself. People ask: what about protein? Aren’t you worried for your health? Did you know that the only reason humans developed the prefrontal cortex was because of our high levels of protein consumption? Aside from the fact that protein consumption has increased so dramatically in the last few decades (based on the previous chicken example), it’s clear that most Americans have fully bought into “the protein myth,”[10] which is pushed so hard and relates directly to the rise in factory farming. “To consume a diet that contains enough, but not too much, protein, simply replace animal products with grains, vegetables, legumes (peas, beans, and lentils), and fruits. As long as one is eating a variety of plant foods in sufficient quantity to maintain one’s weight, the body gets plenty of protein.”[11] Being aware of the choices you have for eating, while trying to maintain a healthy diet, is half the battle. Clearly, we have all been lied to along the way. We have to slow down before we reach the point of no return and the animals we consume aren’t even recognizable anymore. I picture us, the omnivores, falling from a plane with the parachute not yet deployed. We’re falling and quickly approaching terminal velocity, nearing 3,000 feet, when usually we’d deploy our packs,[12] but all the jumpers around us haven’t yet either, and so we keep going, not fully realizing the harm we are able to inflict upon ourselves. 2,900 feet, 2,800, 2,200, and still we are in a free fall. When do we pull the cord? And when is it to late? Obviously, if we hit the cold, hard earth without deploying our packs, it’s game over, but there’s a distance at which if the cord isn’t pulled by then, we might as well not even have bothered reaching for it. We wont be able to slow down in time.

The questions about eating meat are complex enough to fill a book, and indeed they have—many.  The point to walk away with, though, is that we have to think consciously about what it means to kill animals for sustenance, or we may end up with a system none of us can live with. We have to have ethical boundaries that we adhere to and act on, lest we be taken advantage of. What’s remarkable about the factory farm system is that is happened largely behind our backs. Most people have literally no idea how a hog gets from the farm to their plates, and if they do think they know, their idea is probably dated and wrong, and so we assume that the whole system is not that bad, when really, it’s worse than we could ever imagine. We are the frogs in the pot growing ever hotter, and all of us, without knowing, are going along with it.


[1] Thesis title for Thomas Wolfe’s 1951 undergraduate thesis at Washington and Lee University: “A Zoo Full of Zebras: Anti-Intellectualism in America.”

<a href=”http://smg.photobucket.com/albums/v403/penguintheft/?action=view&current=thewelcomewagon.jpg&#8221; target=”_blank”><img src=”http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v403/penguintheft/thewelcomewagon.jpg&#8221; border=”0″ alt=”Photobucket”></a>

[2] As of 1993/1994, 49 percent of American households owned a gun. Firearms account for 2.7 percent of all fatal accidents for children under 14 (1995). http://www.justfacts.com/guncontrol

[3] “96% of Americans [say] that animals deserve at least some protection from harm and exploitation, while just 3% say animals don’t need protection ‘since they are just animals.’ Twenty-five percent of Americans say that animals deserve ‘the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation.’ http://www.gallup.com/poll/8461/public-lukewarm-animal-rights.aspx

[4] According the Humane Society, sourcing the USDA and the Economic Research Service, in 1950 the U.S. per capita meat consumption of chicken was 21 pounds. This number grew steadily (and continues to grow), and as of 2007 the number of pounds consumed per person was 87. One source says that each chicken yields about 5.11 lbs. of meat. That means that everyone consumes approximately 17 whole chickens every year, as opposed to 4 in 1950, and so there has been at least a 414 percent increase in the amount of chickens consumed, per person, every year. Any argument that our current amount of “protein” consumption is healthy and necessary doesn’t really hold up.

[5] “From 1935-1995, the average weight of ‘broilers’ [chickens meant for consuming] increased by 65 percent, while their time-to-market dropped 60 percent and their feed requirements dropped 57 percent,” Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals.

[6] Sourced from the Humane Society.

[7] The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that currently “there are over 285,000,000 people living in the United States. Of that population, less than 1% claim farming as an occupation (and about 2% actually live on farms). There are only about 960,000 persons claiming farming as their principal occupation and a similar number of farmers claiming some other principal occupation. The number of farms in the U.S. stands at about two million.” This is opposed to 1950 (to keep the comparisons in order), in which farmers were 12.2 percent of the total labor force (agclassroom.org). That’s a 12,200 percent decline.

[8] Published in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, 2006. Originally published in Gourmet magazine, 2004.

[9] Theoretically, this should cut my meat consumption by 14 percent, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but if I included all the times I’ve been in line somewhere to buy a hamburger but decided not to, the percentage would be much higher. The more I think about not eating meat on Wednesdays, the more my desire for meat falls on all the other days of the week.

[10] “Americans tend to take in twice the amount of protein they need already. […] They are often unaware of the health risks associated with a high-protein diet. Excess protein has been linked with osteoporosis, kidney disease, calcium stones in the urinary tract, and some cancers.” http://www.pcrm.org/health/veginfo/vsk/protein_myth.html

[11] Ibid.

[12] According to the United States Parachute Association. http://www.uspa.org/AboutSkydiving/FrequentlyAskedQuestions/tabid/57/Default.aspx

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April 22, 2010

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