Posts Tagged ‘happy meat’
In the December 23/30 edition of the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin has a thoughtful “Talk of the Town” piece on the death penalty. In particular, he explores the weird circumstances currently surrounding the matter of how we kill death row inmates. The article ends with an arresting paragraph that, without in any way intending to, highlights the potentially illogical position taken by those who believe in the idea of “humane slaughter” for farm animals.
Toobin writes, “The oxymoronic quest for humane executions only accentuates the absurdity of allowing the death penalty in a civilized society. It’s understandable that Supreme Court Justices have tried to make the process a little more palatable; and there is a meagre kind of progress in moving from the chair to the gurney. But the essential fact about both is that they come with leather straps to restrain a human being so that the state can kill him. No technology can render that process any less grotesque.”
Toobin’s argument offers a remarkably uselful parallel to the ethical vegan’s argument that there’s no such thing as humane slaughter, no matter how “palatable” we try to make it. Indeed, that it’s an oxymoron. Similarly, Toobin effectively captures the idea that “humane” farming at least grants animals some measure of freedom before they’re offed–”a meager kind of progress.” Even so, there’s no denying that the end result–the unnecessary death of a sentient being–is “grotesque.” Thus, the question is raised: can you oppose the death penalty as “cruel and unusual” while supporting the “humane” slaughter of sentient animals?
I’m sitting here having a hard time seeing how you could identify a quality unique to humans that singularly justified their right to avoid the state sponsored killing of a human (no matter what the crime) while, at the same time, allowed for the humane-farmer killing of a sentient non-human. Perhaps I’m wrong in assuming that consumers who seek out happy meat are also people inclined to oppose the death penalty. But, if I’m right in assuming this rough correlation, I’d be eager to start a conversation about whether or not you can oppose the death penalty but support “humane slaughter” of animals.
If there’s a guiding tenet in my repertoire of ideas it’s that the promotion of “happy meat’ is still the promotion of eating animals and, as such, will always be an indirect but culturally powerful endorsement of the most efficient producer of animals goods–namely, factory farms. So, to promote “humane animal farms” as a viable alternative to factory farmed meat is not only illogical, it’s possibly even counter productive. That’s the Big Idea, as it were.
A conversation I had with an editor friend of mine last night shed fresh light on my hypothesis. My friend eats animals but generally those sourced from the right places–local, humane, organic, and so on. By any standard, he’s a conscientious consumer who knows the local food scene as intimately as anyone. He takes food and the ethics of eating seriously and follows the ideas here at The Pitchfork with more than due diligence.
In the course of our conversation—on that second beer (the Whip In’s “Bitterama”)— I noted how difficult eating away from home could be. Vegans are often placed in the awkward position of having to say “sorry, but I don’t eat that.” And we say it, and we mean it, and we do it because our chosen values dictate that we do so. For most of us, there’s never any question about the choice. As I explained this position to my friend, a question that had never occurred to me suddenly popped into my head: would a conscientious carnivore such as my friend reject, say, a hamburger served at a dinner party if it was sourced from a factory farm?
I think it’s a fascinating question.
The vegan asks, “is there meat in that pasta sauce”? But the conscientious carnivore never asks, “is that meat from a factory farm”? Why? That’s not an easy question to answer, but it has something to do with the clarity of convictions. The ethical vegan draws a line and, because what’s at stake is participation in the intentional and unnecessary death of a sentient animal, he holds firmly to that line and says “no thanks.”
By contrast, the conscientious carnivore draws a line and, because what’s at stake is ultimately not differentiated by participation in unnecessary death, he easily allows the line to blur. After all, the animal he eats, in the case of factory meat or happy meat, died so he could have that burger. Why make such a fuss at a dinner party when so little is at stake?
In any case, my friend admitted that he never asks such a question. Obviously, he’s not alone.
I think these differing reactions say a great deal about veganism as a radical and fundamentally subversive way to undermine the horrors of industrial animal agriculture. They also say a great deal about the comparative tepidity of the “small, local, organic” option as a path toward change. We can bitch and moan all we like about the evils of industrial agriculture, but until we start saying “no” to the real problem–eating animals–the titans of agribusiness will keep sleeping well at night, secure in the knowledge that we’ll never ask, “is that meat from a factory farm.”
[NB: There have been some great comments and conversations in the last few posts. Please check them out. I hope to respond to several in upcoming posts.]
Montreal is a bilingual, vegan-friendly, friendly-friendly, big-time city seemingly full of young people with a predilection for talking incessantly and brilliantly about animals. I spoke last night in a beautiful room at McGill University about the hidden problems with small-scale, non-industrial farms. I’m the worst critic of my own talks (being far more at ease and in control behind the computer) but last night I can say that when our time was up I was eager to keep going. So I take that as a sign that something went well enough, or at least that I was properly caffeinated for the experience.
The essence of whatever popular interest there is in my topic seems to stem from a vague sense that the sustainable food movement’s happy farm/happy meat rhetoric is actively obscuring the darker realities that inflict suffering on animals raised in what appear to be more humane conditions. (That was a badly written sentence, but go easy, as I’m at the airport, blurry, and nursing my first cup of coffee). Giving some specificity to that vagueness, my presentation reminds viewers (and, when my book comes out, readers) that, while a pastured system might have welfare advantages over a factory farm, it’s not by any means a viable or ethically sound replacement for industrial animal agriculture. Several people told me they desperately need more grist for this mill. Of course they do: nobody in the popular media is writing about this topic.
Here’s a thought I had in the very middle of my talk: For better or worse, none of what I talk about when it comes to this topic is rocket science. There’s rarely a need—given that my intention is to encourage people to consider leaving animals out of their diet—to ascend into high-intellectual ether. Understanding that sentient animals suffer when they are raised primarily to be slaughtered and commodified does not require a grounding in Bentham or Kant or Singer or Regan. It just requires empathy and compassion, qualities we seem to have, at times, on our better days, in abundance. When an astute member of the audience noted that, even if farm animals were pampered while on the happy farm, they’re still killed about a tenth of the way through their lives, thus being denied 90 percent of their potential happiness, I think people (lots of omnivores in the crowd) intuitively get why that’s wrong. Whether it’s wrong enough to inspire behavioral change is another story. But at least the ball gets rolling.
I greatly enjoyed post-talk discussions about the ethics of domestication without slaughter, the strengths and weaknesses of the land ethic, the inherent flaws in conventional activism, and the appropriateness of the slavery analogy to the prospect of animal liberation. These discussions played out at a vegan restaurant called “Invitation” [in-vee-tah-see-on], where I ate a perfectly spiced curry dish and drank a glass of white wine before going down for a few hours of sleep and getting back to the airport, where everyone seems to be exceedingly polite given the obscenely early hour of the day (or any hour, for that matter).
Leaving my taxi this morning, my exceedingly polite taxi driver, who spoke French as his first language, told me to “have a good success” as I climbed out of the car. I told him, “thank you, I already have. And you have a good success, too”
Consumers of “happy meat” are easily seduced by the ditzy idea that, so long as the animal they eat doesn’t come from a factory farm, they’re morally exonerated from the slaughter and suffering they’ve caused for no good reason other than to satisfy their palates. This sense of exoneration is not only dishonestly achieved, but it perpetuates something that advocates of “humanely” raised animals might not care to perpetuate: it hollows out the entire notion of “welfare,” thereby undermining the core meaning of an idea that lends grace and dignity to all relationships.
One major reason that the happy meat crowd opposes factory farming is because it violates animals’ basic welfare. They say it all the time. In industrial settings, pigs can’t be pigs; chickens can’t be chickens; and cows can’t be cows; (and, we could add, humans can’t be humans). So, the idea goes, move animals onto pastures where pigs can be pigs, chickens can be chickens, and cows can be cows. This transition, it seems safe to say, improves their welfare.
Indeed, putting aside for now the complexities of providing “proper” conditions for these complex animals on “happy” farms, and putting aside the question of the morality of animal ownership, it’s safe to say that there’s some merit to the idea that greater space equals greater happiness for farm animals. So, in free range systems, animal welfare, we can all provisionally agree, is improved and the concept of “welfare” is preserved in its basic form.
But then, on slaughter day, a carnivalesque flip-flop turns happiness into horror. “Welfare” is suddenly transformed into an excuse to kill. The happy farm becomes a very sad farm for the animals who pleasurable existence is now forced to end. The complicit producers and consumers will hone their rationalizations and say “oh, the pig lived a good life,” or “death is only one day,” or “hey, this was better than living on a factory farm.” And, however perverse their logic, it will all sound legit enough for the foodie press to turn these phrases into culinary gospel. Of course, it’s all predicated on the expectation that we never stop to truly think about what we are doing, and saying.
What’s happening here is a tragic redefinition of welfare, one sadistically expanded to include the arbitrary killing of an animal whose welfare ostensibly matters enough to raise in a setting that increases her happiness. What’s happening is that the entire idea of welfare is being gutted of its most humane and enlightened premise–the premise that animals are sentient beings with moral worth. Why else get so vexed about how they’re raised? Ah, but then that vexation is viciously contradicted by the decision to kill the animal and serve his flesh for dinner. Still, rather than contemplate that contradiction, the happy animal eaters simply feel smug in their false virtue. Unthinking is easier.
The upshot goes beyond animals and agriculture. This redefinition of “welfare” to include the act of killing an innocent animal who does not want to die is an object lesson of sorts. It teaches us how suffering obscured by language reverberates beyond a particular realm (in this case, agriculture) and infects society at large. When welfare is cheapened, after all, every one of us loses–whether we eat animals or not. Every relationship–be it based on love, friendship, or basic respect–is weakened. Yet another reason to fight back against this tyrannical activity.
* A version of this piece ran in Slate in 2009.
The horrible fates of factory-farmed pigs are relatively well-known: They live crammed in drab confinement. Their tails are docked, they’re castrated to reduce aggression, and they’re stuffed with growth promoters and antibiotic-laden feed. In the minds of most, the humane alternative is the free-range cultivation of pigs, an arrangement that affords access to open space and the chance to behave like pigs. As a system of swine management, however, free-range—even though it mercifully allows ample pig mobility—is in many ways far from the ideal that most people imagine it to be.
Take the case of Jamon Iberico de bellota, a cured Spanish ham that enjoys the distinction of costing around $200 per pound. These elite swine—a privileged fraction of all Iberico pigs raised by Spanish farmers—are often heralded as living in bucolic bliss as they munch on a steady and plentiful diet of acorns. According to the popular image, they do nothing but “live, sleep, and forage in the open,” are “pampered,” and live “a leisurely, free-range life.” The raising of Iberico pigs, to be sure, is manifestly more ethical than conventional factory pork production. But the measures taken to cultivate these pigs— which includes their mutilation through ringing, castration, and spaying—have significant animal welfare implications and deserve their fair share of scrutiny.
Iberico producers affix their pigs with nose rings in order to prevent them from destroying the oak forest. Nothing, however, could be more inimical to a pig’s instinctual behavior. “Pigs are natural foragers,” explains the Soil Association, which forbids the practice, “and ringing prevents the pig from rooting.” The ring’s effectiveness depends on pain—when the pig roots, the ring hurts its snout. Pigs must be forcibly restrained before their noses are bored into with iron tongs to set the ring, and the rings must be replaced frequently. (In this case, a picture proves the point pretty well.) There are also nonphysical side effects to consider. Bruce Friedrich, a PETA spokesman, told me that “ringing also causes psychological pain,” including “life-long depression” from being denied something so “basic to its identity.”
To be fair, the Spanish producers are hardly alone in this practice. Ringing is nearly universal on free-range pig farms in the United States. Producers like the famed Niman Ranch, which has a pristine reputation for animal welfare, permit it, but that shouldn’t obscure the contested nature of the procedure. In addition to the Soil Association, the Farm Animal Welfare Council in the United Kingdom officially opposes the practice, as does Compassion in World Farming and the United Kingdom’s RSPCA. In the United States, the watchdog group Food and Water Watch supports the ban of tail-docking and nose-ringing, and the Humane Society told me in an e-mail to count them among the opposed as well.
Castration is, well, castration. As with nose-ringing, it’s not only endemic to Iberico production; it’s characteristic of pig farming in general. The main reason free-range producers castrate is to ensure that an unpleasant taste (“boar taint,” which comes with adolescence) doesn’t pervade the meat. With anesthesia, castration causes minor pain from postoperative swelling. Without anesthesia, it’s an excruciating experience. Iberico producers, as is the case with most free-range pig farmers in the United States (including Niman), castrate without painkillers. They justify this decision by castrating during the first week of a piglet’s life, assuming that the three-second procedure is less painful at this stage. According to a German study, however, “neonates [infant pigs] are capable of feeling pain and react more sensitive[ly] to pain than adults.” The chairwoman of Denmark’s Animal Welfare Council declared, “We firmly believe that it is necessary to use painkillers with any surgical castration.” Perhaps the best testimony of pain comes from this blog post on Fertile Ground USA, which includes an eyewitness account of a nonanesthetized castration. Norway forbids pig castration without anesthesia. Switzerland will follow suit this year.
Spaying is no picnic either. This procedure is generally specific to Iberico production, primarily because of the uniqueness of la dehesa—the large oak forest where these pigs roam. Free-range systems in the United States normally do not include wild boars, most of whom are perfectly happy to dilute precious genetic stock with their feral DNA. More to the point, it’s more costly for farmers to send pregnant gilts to market. Spaying is done by restraining the gilt on its side, cutting open the left flank, and pulling out the ovaries and oviduct. Essentially, it’s a hysterectomy typically performed, according to animal welfare activist Temple Grandin, without anesthesia. The French have banned the practice because, as Grandin and HER co-writer, N.G. Gregory, write in Animal Welfare and Meat Production, “it is considered cruel.”*
But with Iberico production, even this trade-off is not as clear as it might seem. Iberico pigs actually spend the first nine months of their lives in confinement. Granted, it’s not factory-farm confinement—they’ve got some room to move and all-natural feed to eat, nor are they docked or clipped. But the promoted benefits of free-range are absent—no sun, no freshly fallen acorns, no wallowing in big mud pits. While indoors, they’re castrated, spayed, kept to a feeding schedule, administered antibiotics when sick, directed to eat and sleep in carefully chosen locations, and, just before the barn doors open to the freedom of la dehesa, mutilated with a nose ring.
As responsible consumers, it’s easy to decide to avoid factory-farmed pork. The hard part is what to make of the most acceptable alternative. Does free-range farming justify the mutilation that’s often required to keep pigs outdoors? As an ethical matter, the question is open to endless debate. What the conscientious meat eater can take away from it is not so much a concrete answer as a more nuanced way to think about our food choices. In this age of deeply convincing attacks on factory farms, consumers must be careful not to immediately assume that every alternative to factory farming is as “all natural” or humane as its advocates will inevitably declare. The alternatives might require still more alternatives
I had an Atlantic piece run today [http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/10/should-urban-farmers-be-allowed-to-slaughter-backyard-animals/246526/] and I just spent some time reading the comments. And, lo, I discovered a diamond in the rough. A commenter named Bea Elliott, whom I do not know, has been writing some very smart, honest, and insightful responses to several defenders of animal slaughter. What I’m really impressed about is that she seems very nice about the whole thing. No flame throwing, no overheated rhetoric, no name-calling, just cool logic and compassion. She has a remarkable ear for the euphemisms and obfuscations that characterize so much of the happy meat rhetoric. Here she is at work, responding to “Just_Gross,” “Amy Philipson,” and “Rosemary Lees”:
Just Gross: I live in a small city in a larger agricultural county where people can have chickens in their backyards. For eggs. I’m all for that. But if my neighbors with chickens started to slaughter their animals in their yards, nope: the noise, the smell, the leftovers.. can’t keep all that inside the fence. How can small scale slaughter be done without impacting neighbors? I know the dangers of factory farms — I eat little to no flesh at all — but I also fear what pain a well intentioned amateur might inflict on a backyard animal. How does one learn to butcher an animal humanely in their backyard? I disagree with the entire premise of animals as property that owners can dispose of as desired, but thats a different discussion. For the purposes of this discussion, I understand why people raise their own food; maybe one way to address this would be to have a community “slaughteria,” — god forgive me, that sounds repulsive — where people can slaughter their animals humanely, isolated from neighbors, with the assistance of a trained butcher. Public health concerns addressed. I’ve been to Joel Salatin’s farm. Its hard to imagine anyone slaughtering their animals in the City of Oakland or any other urban area having as much privacy or isolation from neighbors as is present at Polyface. Apples and oranges, folks.
Rosemany: We learned how to process our poultry from the Joel Salatin youtube vidoes! He is amazing. I actually processed a chicken this afternoon. It take about 40 minutes from coop to fridge. It is humane, clean, and peaceful. I put all of the chicken scraps and feathers into a disposable plastic shopping bag and throw it away in the garbage afterward. There is little more in it than if you would clean a whole bird from the grocery store. It isn’t apples and oranges. It is education and respect for your animals and your neighbors, it can be done well. The only apple to speak of here are the couple of bad apples that didn’t respect either and it’s why we’re having this conversation. (And I think that it is way grosser to throw away a poo filled disposable diaper than organic chicken parts!)
Bea Elliott: Hi Rosemary – You say it isn’t apples and oranges… But that’s exactly what you’re turning it into. You say you “processed a chicken” – What you did was kill a living being. You say it’s “humane” – Since “humane” means to be concerned with the alleviation of suffering – Are we to assume that this bird was ill or in aging pain? Sick? No. I hardly think that. I assume this bird was quite healthy and fit for life. So there was no thought of putting her/him out of misery – Nothing “humane” there. You say it’s about “respect” – But is there really “respect” for life when it’s taken? No again.
It seems that people with a hunger for home-grown (and any) flesh like to use certain words to defend their actions… I have no doubt that animal-eating folks even consider themselves “kind”. But words do mean exact things… Apples and oranges have their own identity – And so does compassion and selfishness.Finally, to those who would say it is “your business” what’s done on “your property”… But this is not so either as we are an evolving species that sets new and better standards for our actions. The more we know about life and the sentience of other beings – The more we should respond with genuine concern (respect) for their lives. It IS our social responsibility to tear away from outdated and unnecessary killing. What you do in your own backyard IS my business if it includes victims… If this was not the case, there would still be child labor, women as chattel, human slavery and so on. For now there is also “processing” rabbits and birds – Surely we should and will advance beyond the unnecessary taking of innocent life.
Amy Philipson: So you are saying we should let them suffer before we kill them? How much should we let them suffer? It there a line where, on one side is not enough suffering and on the other is useless torture? All life ends, where we differ is in the opinion of when and how is appropriate. The real question might be, “Is it better for the chicken to never exist at all than to have a short life?” or, ”How long does the chicken need to live before it’s life is worth living?” or, “How much suffering at the end does it take to negate a life filled with scratching, bugs, sunbathing , pecking your neighbor on the head, and all the other little things that make a chicken’s life fulfilling?” or, “If you get eaten, does that make your life less good than if you are buried in the ground?” There is more there to consider than just “Meat is Murder”. Also, your statement, “But is there really “respect” for life when it’s taken? No again.” is a little offensively assumptive. This is your opinion, your religion, not mine. I respect my chickens. They are beautiful, they are alive, they are walking miracles. I do not let racoons chew their heads off, I do not let small children chase them around the yard, I know who they are. However, in the ecosystem that is my garden, they have their place, I have mine. I let their population grow a bit high this year and the garden is suffering accordingly. That is my responsibility which I will be fixing here soon, not waiting until they scratch the garden to bits and die of hunger, neglect, or age. We are omnivores, they and I, I’m not going to throw them in a hole in the ground when they are dead, nor am I going to feed them to each other (though they are more than willing). Again, I work hard at keeping and improving the balance here in my little corner of paradise and I am offended that, because I can eat meat without hurting my conscience, somehow I am supposed to be disrespectful and a lesser being than you.
Bea Elliott: Hi Amy… Of course I’m not saying to let them suffer! I’m saying not to breed them to kill them in the first place! It is double speak to say that when there are alternatives to killing… And doing so anyway is “humane”. That’s just truth. “All life ends”… Yes, but taking life doesn’t have to be part of that mandate. Millions don’t kill and don’t pay to have someone else kill for us… Obviously being an omnivore we do have a wide range of other nutritious foods…I too have given home to a small flock of “walking miracles” – They were rescued from an industrial “farm”… I have no intentions to ever end their lives, unless of course I was starving and every bit of vegetation on the earth was gone — Thankfully, for now I have no desire or need to consume any body.Finally, I’m not suggesting that anyone live up to my opinions, my standards or my “religion”… I’m merely hoping that people live up to their own. Most people will recognize that it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering… Since there are many healthy and satisfying options to flesh – Seems that they *would* be living up to their *own* values if they chose to opt out of “meat”. I don’t mean to be offensive – Just rational in using words for the exact meaning they represent. Kindness, justice, mercy, compassion just don’t mix with frivolous killing. Sorry.