Yesterday, at the gym, I had the TV turned to No Reservations. Anthony Bourdain was somewhere in Louisiana sampling local Cajun cuisine. In preparation for a community hog roast, a pig was shot and killed; then on camera, the still-quivering pig was shown bleeding out, and a group of people began prepping it by scraping the hair off of the skin.
At that moment a guy on the rowing machine turned to me in disgust and said, “That’s gross. I can’t believe they’re showing that.”
I laughed, but his comment stuck with me for the rest of the night. Isn’t it strange that we hardly bat an eye at zombies getting shot through the head on The Walking Dead, or a man getting his throat cut on Breaking Bad, yet a pig being prepped for a meal makes us recoil in horror? Are we so far removed from the food cycle that watching it is more terrifying than a viewing of Saw?
We’re not six degrees of separation from what we eat — we’re fifty degrees of separation.
If the guy at the gym thought No Reservations was bad, he should read the book Eating Animals. He’ll have nightmares. Author Jonathan Safran Foer goes where other books and movies have gone before — opening the curtain on the industrialized meat industry — and blows those curtains wide open with his unsparing, forceful and passionate writing.
That chicken on your dinner plate? That piece of bacon with your eggs? Those eggs themselves? Chances are the animal that became your food suffered immensely, contributed to an ever-growing environmental disaster, and was diseased, sick, covered in feces, or otherwise unfit for consumption.
Foer is a vegetarian whose essential stance is that we shouldn’t eat meat at all. I’m an omnivore. I eat meat, and have no ethical opposition to eating meat. I just don’t want to eat THIS kind of meat.
Foer spares no details as he shines a light on the unimaginable animal abuse and cruelty taking place on factory farms. Chickens toppling over on broken legs because they’re unable to support their own weight, pigs slammed to the ground and having rods stuck up their anuses for worker amusement, animals having their eyes popped out, cows skinned alive because the bolt fired into their heads failed to render them unconscious. The horrors go on and on.
I felt the same reaction in my gut as when I read about Japanese atrocities against the Chinese in the book The Rape of Nanking: How can humans do this to another living creature??
If animal abuse fails to sway you, then let’s get selfish and consider what factory farming does to us. It seems everyone has food allergies these days. Asthma rates are on the rise. Guess what role genetically modified food played in that? We consume animals pumped with hormones and antibiotics and who knows what else. They become part of our bodies. It’s no wonder our bodies react by going haywire. We all want our cheap meat now, but lord do we pay for it later.
A chapter is devoted to the environmental disaster of factory farms — an unending amount of animal waste that flows into our waterways and contaminates everything in its path, even dispersing into the air as a mist, making residents in nearby communities you guessed it… sick.
Factory farms turn the natural symbiosis of a working farm (animals create manure, manure fertilizes crops) on its head. It’s just tons and tons of shit with nowhere to go. You want to breathe in a mist of shit? Me neither.
And guess what all that shit also does — it creates disease. Foer ominously forewarns how dangerously close we are to another avian/swine flu pandemic. Jam thousands of animals together (many of which are sick), feed them ground bits of other animals, confine them in their own excrement, and you’re gonna have a problem. When the next deadly flu virus rears its ugly head, there’s a good chance it’ll come from a factory farmed animal. Lovely.
So what’s the solution? I have no idea. You can ask people to stop eating meat altogether (not likely), ask them to eat less (maybe), or ask them to only buy from local farmers’ markets (way out of reach economically for the average person). Or you can encourage the public to rise up and demand real change from the meat industry (difficult, but I suppose possible?).
And uh, you may want to avoid those Smithfield hams.
I’ve gone the eating-less-meat and buying-local route. For the past few years I’ve cooked the Michael Pollan way — “Eat mostly plants” — cooking with small portions of meat, or none at all. I no longer buy meat from regular supermarkets and try to mostly purchase it from farmers’ markets, where at least I have a little more understanding of where it comes from.
Of course, this doesn’t make me at all morally superior. In fact, I’m more of a hypocrite than ever. When I dine out I still freely eat meat (without questioning where the meat came from), I’m attached at the hip to my iPhone and Macbook (assembled by exploited Chinese factory workers), I like clothes (likely made in an overseas sweatshop), I print documents at work (bye bye trees), I wear leather and use hair products (likely tested on animals), and if I get sick, I take medicine (also tested on animals).
Does my “eating mostly vegetables at home” lifestyle make any difference in the world, or does it simply serve to make me feel good? Sadly, I think it’s the latter. As my friend Danielle at work said, “It’s so hard to not exploit something or someone.”
Maybe simply being informed is a positive first step. I strongly encourage everyone to read Eating Animals. It should be essential reading in schools and book clubs. I don’t care what your stance is on all this going in. Just read it. Read it with an open mind.
Because if you think watching a pig get killed on No Reservations is gross, you ain’t seen nothing yet.