Meat, Land And Lifestyle: The Ethics of Eating


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When I was much younger, my grandfather gave me some sound advice that has always stuck with me. “Charlie,” he said, “never eat meat unless you’re ready to kill it.” His words linger on not because of their truth -- something I would realize much later -- but rather because he was castrating pigs at the time.

My job, holding the back legs of the pig while he sliced away, was a bloody one. I slipped a couple of times, letting the pig free, after which my grandfather chased it around the pen with a hank of rope. All in all the experience wasn’t a pleasant one. But, I confess, the pork chops tasted particularly good that winter.

The late pioneer conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote that there are two spiritual dangers that result from not owning your own farm. The first, the assumption that heat comes from a furnace. The second, the assumption that breakfast comes from the grocery store. For the few who have a patch of land on which to raise their own breakfast, Leopold’s words ring true. For the rest of us, well, we all have to eat somehow.

Yet most of us don’t slaughter our own meat, and we do go to the grocery store. In this age of industrialized livestock operations, our hunger for meat brings us face to face with a real spiritual dilemma of how we will satisfy that hunger. Some of our options include raising our own livestock, buying factory farmed meat or supporting farmers who raise livestock ethically. For vegans and vegetarians, the choice is simple: don’t eat meat. Their many methods of justification, most of which have to do with what a professor once called “biomass reasons,” (in short, vegetables provide more food per acre of arable land than any type of animal) are intelligent and morally sound.

But a lot of people, non-farmers like myself, enjoy the occasional steak. As conscious and aware human beings, we must ponder the morality of eating meat in the first place, and particularly conventional, factory farm-raised meat. The lifetime of suffering that animals endure at industrialized farming operations is both disgusting and discouraging, yet this tainted meat is a diet staple of millions of people everyday.

One solution quickly gaining popularity is to purchase organic, free-range, cage-free or natural meat which can be an ethical alternative to factory farmed products. However, industrialized farming corporations have been quick to catch onto the higher price tag which can be attached to products bearing those labels, and have succeeded in blurring the guidelines as to what is truly natural and organic, and what is just hype to sell more expensively-priced, yet conventionally produced products. Even the word “organic” which previously assured the consumer of full product confidence and integrity has fallen prey to loopholes and loose interpretation. In short, consumers who are aware of these issues and confusion will make the best choices when it comes to purchasing and eating the foods that are healthiest for them.

Slaughterhouse Life

Meat, Land And Lifestyle: The Ethics of Eating - ChickensWith the passage of the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, the transportation, handling, stunning and slaughtering of farm animals became federally controlled. Today, only slaughterhouses that pass inspection are allowed to operate, and USDA employees are stationed inside these facilities to inspect for and cite violations. And yet, a number of inspectors have testified to the daily mutilation and butchering of live, conscious animals. A recent Washington Post investigation under the Freedom of Information Act cited numerous violations of code at slaughterhouses “ranging from the smallest, custom butcheries to modern, automated establishments.”

More heinous than these unregulated killings, however, are some of the daily living conditions on factory farms. In high-production feedlots, animals are crammed together in dark, feces-filled holding pens. Cattle, sheep and pigs are routinely castrated without anaesthesia, and chickens are fed a genetically modified grain mix to enhance breast growth. Calves raised for veal are often held in crates small enough to prohibit turning around; an iron-poor diet causes anemia, resulting in more highly-valued pale flesh. The majority of broiler chickens raised in this country have had their beaks snipped off and cauterized to prevent them from killing one another in their claustrophobic environment.

Piglets are weaned from their mothers after 10 days. To counteract these piglets’ innate desire to suck -- a by-product of this early weaning -- the majority of their tail is removed with pliers leaving the exposed nub incredibly painful to the touch. However, piglets are also very lethargic as they are crammed in small pens and don’t have their mothers around. Their tails are docked so that if Pig A tries to suck Pig B’s tail -- remember the oral fixation -- then Pig B will feel pain and scurry away. This, for Pig B, removes all chance of lethargy, as it may happen several times in one day, and makes for a more active pig. Since that one outlet for the oral fixation is gone, piglets will turn to the only other one available -- the food teat dispensing plenty of antibiotics along with the feed. Thus, they gain weight more quickly and stay more active with less chance for depression, all with one expedient process of maiming to the piglet. Adult pigs don’t fare much better. Sows are often chained around the neck inside an open-backed crate called a “rape rack” for easier breeding.

After an entire life lived in such brutal conditions, animals still have the route of slaughterhouse torture to travel. En route to the slaughterhouse, the legs of chickens and turkeys are often broken or damaged, after which they are packed tightly -- more than 1000 per truck -- and shipped through varying weather conditions to the slaughter facilities. Cattle to be slaughtered are galloped up a dark, enclosed chute with blood on both sides of them. At the top of the chute the cattle -- hyperventilating and full of adrenaline -- are hit a killing blow with a stun gun, where most of them die. Those who don’t are referred to as “dark cutters” -- meat tainted by adrenaline and other body chemicals which flood the panicked animal’s system until its eventual death. Ostriches in a slaughterhouse have their feathers removed with pliers while fully conscious. The birds are then electrically shocked and, still conscious, hung upside down to have their throats cut. The majority of meat sold in supermarkets today passes through some phase of these industrialized farming operations, and then winds up on our dinner plates as nourishment.

A Sustainable Vision

Nestled in the rolling grassland and forests of the Shenandoah Valley, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm practices what he likes to call “artisanal poultry production.” On his 100-acre farm, he raises 15,000 broiler chickens, 2000 layer hens, and 1000 turkeys. The birds are fed organic grain and raised in wood frame cages covered with chicken wire mesh. These shelters, moved daily to virgin grass, are open to the air and partially covered with aluminum roofing to protect the chickens from rain and bad weather.

Salatin embraces an ethos almost diametrically opposed to that of industrial operations. In his view, the farmer has an inherent interest in the health and welfare of the chickens. He feels that the highest level of accountability comes when the chain from farm to plate is the shortest. In keeping with that, he slaughters the chickens himself, selling the majority on-farm; a few are shipped to local restaurants. The result? An active, healthy chicken with a taste far superior to those he finds in local markets, even organic ones.

“We try,” he says, “to fully allow the bird to express its bird-ness; the chicken, its chicken-ness.” He opposes the industrial chicken business because, simply put, it violates the central tenets of his philosophy. In his view, it “takes a person who thinks and cares” to properly raise a bird.

Salatin’s birds are not marketed as organic -- though he is organic in practice and in spirit -- in large part because he is opposed to what he calls the “bureaucratization, the Wall Street-ization” of the organic and free range poultry industry. To illustrate his point, he relates an interesting anecdote.

A local farmer, after many years of raising baby broiler chicks for Perdue, was approached by them and asked if he would like to begin raising Perdue’s “free-range” broilers. When he agreed, technicians from the company cut three small holes in one side of his barn. In front of the holes they installed a small concrete pad bounded by an even smaller strip of lawn. The growing broilers, whose beaks were cauterized, ate antibiotic mash and never ventured outside. Except for one time -- right before supermarket bigwigs showed up for an on-farm inspection. Salatin says Perdue company suits showed up a half-hour before show time and hurled handful after handful of chickens out onto the concrete pad and the grass. The supermarket officials, seeing bloated chickens huddled on the grass and concrete, placed an immediate order for 100,000 of the “free-range” birds.

Ultimately, terms like “free-range,” and even “organic,” have become subject to doubt. As the laws presently stand, different organic certifiers operate in every state and region, and often have slightly different views of what organic truly means. In addition, one must be cognizant of Salatin’s warning about the corporatization of organic production where, in the last two to three years, large corporate farms and feedlots, realizing the monetary value of phrases like “organic” and “natural,” have converted parts of their operation to cash in on a new trend.

Following the passage of the National Organic Program’s (NOP) national standards for organic foods in October, 2002, a number of certification organizations endorsed by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB -- the National Organic Program’s subsidiary certification organization) have sprung up. The new standards, for all their worth in clarifying what organic really means, have noticeable loopholes, many of which new certification organizations can and do slip through.

The following information on terms, definitions, meat suppliers and stores is presented so that readers can get an objective view of some of the claims (and contradictions) made by the free-range industry, and then draw their own conclusions about which products to buy. These meat suppliers and natural food stores represent only a sampling of free-range meat suppliers for New England.

What It All Means

Organic -- This term still carries the most weight. After the passage of the NOP’s organic standards, the USDA Organic label means the following:

  1. Meat has not been irradiated, animals have not been in contact with sewage sludge, and genetically modified organisms have not been involved in any part of the production process;
  2. Animals have been raised in a way that conforms to recommendations concerning items on the national list of allowed synthetic and prohibited natural substances. (This list is lengthy and not easily understood by the layperson. Most prohibited substances have been proven to be harmful, but there is some wiggle room);
  3. The animal has not been treated with antibiotics;
  4. The animal has “access to the outdoors”; and
  5. The animal has been fed 100% organic grain (or organic pasture) for the entirety of its lifetime.

The word “organic” still retains much of its value, but there have been a number of complaints from awareness groups regarding the methods used in raising organic chicken. A significant failing of the USDA’s plan is its regulations regarding chicken; said chicken must have “access to the outdoors.” However, one Massachusetts chicken producer, who plans to build small outdoor porches for his chickens (presently crammed inside a metal barn), has been approved as USDA organic. Other USDA-certified organic meats -- turkey, beef, pork, etc. -- are strictly organic as certified.

NO HORMONES ADMINISTERED -- This label is meaningless, as treating chicken and pigs with hormones is prohibited in this country. While this term does have relevance in the beef industry, USDA inspectors do not visit these facilities to verify the claim.

RAISED WITHOUT ANITIBIOTICS -- Again, problematic because the government does not investigate these claims. However, in the industry this is often considered a step in the right direction.

NATURAL -- This term is valid, although the definition is somewhat vague: “natural” meat has had minimal processing and no artificial ingredients (other than salt and water) have been added. However, no claims are made about hormones, antibiotics, or the animal’s free range or organic status.

FREE-RANGE -- Per Joel Salatin’s anecdote, this term is a logistical nightmare. Any chicken that has access to an outdoor area -- often a concrete pad -- for five minutes a day is considered free-range. However, most small producers who label their meat free-range are the real thing. A common evasion, particularly in the case of egg producers, is to use the term “free to roam.” Essentially meaningless, this indicates that the chickens are not caged and may have a passing acquaintance with the outdoors.

Back to the Land

Meat, Land And Lifestyle: The Ethics of Eating - GoatWhile natural food stores and the like are often the easiest and most accessible venues for organic, free-range and natural meats, the best place to buy meat is from the farm itself. Unfortunately, small farming in America is and always has been a dying art. Every year, more and more farms go under, their land bought from them by agri-business giants whose sole aim is to make more food from less. The intrinsic value of small farms is in their connection to Earth, and their contribution to the surrounding communities.

In the Northeast, there are several organizations dedicated to the art of small farming, one of the most well known being NOFA, the Northeast Organic Farming Association. All NOFA chapters (there are seven, one for each New England state, plus New York) certify organic meat and vegetable production on small farms throughout their states. As an organization in place long before the advent of the NOP, NOFA is for many, a guiding light in organic production and certification. NOFA’s certification program is, if anything, far more rigorous than that of the USDA certification program. NOFA was one of many organizations spearheading the 1998 movement to reform the original NOP standards. Particularly useful in the search for healthy meat products is the Organic Food Guide published by NOFA/Mass every year, listing more than one hundred organic farms, shops and retail locations.

Julie Rawson, a NOFA/Mass certified organic farmer since 1987, raises chickens (both broilers and layer hens), pigs, turkeys, geese and ducks. Her vision in organic meat production was not only to feed her family, but also to provide a healthy meat option to local consumers. Her birds are free-range, living in houses very similar to those Salatin uses. Moved once every two days, the birds are fed organic grain (from Horse and Buggy Feeds, an organic grain producer in VT) and range on the farm’s many grassy stretches. The pigs she raises are fenced in a pasture area and moved once every three weeks.

Rawson, much like Salatin, farms as much for the good food as for the natural awareness she feels. “I’m trying to reach a level of what’s practical,” she says, “of what’s the greater good. I’m supporting a transition from conventional to organic, in agriculture and in life.” Asked about the ethics of meat eating and of raising animals for meat, she laughs. “Its very ethical to raise meat, as long as you do it with the greatest consideration of and appreciation for the animals. We all have to kill to eat, from a lowly micro-organism to a tiger.”

The Ethics of Meat Consumption

The issue of healthy meat touches on a number of very delicate issues having to do with the justification of eating meat in the first place. Let me begin by saying that I was raised on a small organic farm in Massachusetts and have helped slaughter a variety of animals. While my peers in elementary school were watching television and eating junk food, more often than not I was plucking chickens or milking the cow. I watched my grandfather castrate rams, even once helped slaughter a large sow. And yet, the question of ethics is one I have not been able to properly answer. It would be easy to justify my actions with Kant’s philosophy that only humans have rights; that only humans are logical, rational beings. As such, the slaughtering of animals would appear eminently defensible, given that the animal has no realization of its fate.

But I have held a bucket over a pig’s head, blinding it as it was led up a ramp to the waiting truck. Anyone who has heard a pig scream knows immediately that Kant never raised pigs. When a pig screams in fear it is a horrifyingly human sound. It might be Kant is right, that pigs don’t fully understand what is about to happen. Then again, if someone walked into my room with rope and a big knife, well...

Having been raised on a farm, I learned two things very early in life.

First, that all things must die, that we are all part of a larger cycle, and that the only preparation for death is a life well spent. Second, that animals raised for food are not so different from us. They may not be rational beings per se, but they can communicate in their own way, and they do feel many of the same emotions that run through all of us.

What to Do about Meat

Every self-aware person knows what their body needs to feel good and maintain good health. The problem, of course, is getting what the body needs in a healthy way. For many, eating meat is an established norm of their lifestyle. Perhaps my grandfather took it to an extreme: we can’t all kill the animals we later eat. Most of us can’t even raise the animals we eat. In light of this, if we want to continue eating meat, we must buy the meat others produce, and in so doing take the risks associated with it. But that doesn’t change the fact that raising our own is the best way. As society advances, we are slowly being separated from the land, slowly decreasing our connection to it, our respect for it and our understanding of it. Aldo Leopold was right: today, most of us do get our breakfast from the grocery store and from all outward appearances, humanity is also in grave spiritual danger.

It might be a pipe dream to imagine every meat-eater, or meat-eating community, with a piece of land to raise their own animals. But if every person who ate meat had to raise that animal and care for it themselves -- feed it, tend to it and understand their connection with it and with the earth; if every person who ate meat had to kill that animal themselves and pay homage to it, it might give us a chance, we humans, to express our human-ness.

Chuk Kittredge, a recent college graduate, likes to envision himself as a starving artist. When not snooping around natural foods stores, he divides his time between fretting about getting a job and reading trashy sci-fi novels. Either way, he spends a lot of time on the couch in a supine position. You can contact Chuk at chukkittredge@hotmail.com.

REFERENCES:

RECOMMENDED READING:

  • Kimbrell, Andrew, ed., Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, Island Press, 2002, 384 pp.
  • Singer, Peter, Animal Liberation, New York Review of Books;2nd Edition, 1990, 320 pp.
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