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« Elsewhere | Main | Food Linkage »

April 28, 2006

"Fast Food Nation" 2: The Slaughterhouse and the Carrot

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A few more musings prompted by my recent reading of Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation." (For earlier musings, click here and here.)

In France in the mid-'70s, I attended opening-day ceremonies at a brand-new slaughterhouse. I was doing an internship with the French national energy company. We'd been invited because the company had set up the gas and electricity for the plant. When I was offered the chance to attend the ceremonies, I hesitated for a few seconds. I don't generally do well with blood ... Would a visit make me ill? ... Perhaps it would leave me with nightmares? ... But I was also young, cocky, and curious. And when would I ever get a similar chance?

Alongside executives and officials, I toured the shiney, empty plant (workers stood in their work positions as we passed by) and applauded as ribbons were cut. Then I followed the first pigs through the slaughtering process.

It was a gruesome spectacle. The beasts were herded and prodded from an outdoor pen through a kind of fenced funnel and into the slaughterhouse. A guy at a gate released them one at a time. The next worker shot a bolt into the beast's head. The next hooked a chain around its back ankles, and the cadaver was hauled into the air, to be swung along from a kind of overhead conveyor belt. Lickity-split, another worker cut open the pig's throat. As the pig sailed along towards further processing, a gusher of ruby-red blood drained into a stainless-steel trough beneath.

OK, I most certainly was feeling some queasiness. The order of subsequent events jumbles in my memory. At one early point, the pig passed through a kind of miniature carwash. It was flamed and flayed in other machines until bristles and hairs were gone. I can't remember when the head came off -- you'd think I'd have a recollection of such a moment, but I don't. I recall some other moments vividly, though. The removal of the trotters was, for some reason, especially hard to watch. But the big showpiece came when a worker slit the pig's belly open. The next worker reached inside and pulled out a big armful of slimey, warm guts. Plop they went onto a steel pan.

Eventually the creature was flayed, gutted, dismembered, cut, sliced, and trimmed, and its parts were wrapped in plastic and ready for shipping. Executives, officials, and visitors congratulated each other, shook hands, and went their separate ways. The pigs kept filing into the warehouse. The workers continued slicing, stabbing, scooping ...

Many years later, I spent an afternoon on an industrial farm in a dry part of the American west. It was, of course, about a billionth as gruesome an experience as visiting a slaughterhouse. Still.

The boss gave me a tour of his business. He showed me carrot seeds. He showed me soil. He seemed proud of the fact that the dirt was unpromising; in fact, it seemed about as fertile as crumbled-up styrofoam. He showed me water, which had been diverted to his farm from very far away. He showed me pesticides and fertilizer, both derived from petroleum. Combine 'em together with sun, and -- Well, it was all very scientific, it gave him a lot of professional satisfaction, and it resulted in tons of market-competitive carrots. He beamed, pulled a carrot out of the fertilizer- and pesticide-laced sand, brushed it off, and handed the orange root to me. I thanked him and ate it. It tasted like a carrot.

I don't mean to make too much of either of these minor personal adventures, and even self-dramatizing MBlowhard wouldn't say that they were defining moments. I'm also not going to play too-pure-for-life. I know that if I agonized too much about the ways many products come into being, I'd have no choice but to become a hermit. And I do enjoy living in the world.

All that said, I found my modest visits to food-production-land eye-opening. At the slaughterhouse, I was impressed by how quickly a living mammal can be transformed into grocery-store-style food. But I found it impossible not to feel sympathy for the pigs, who were clearly not having their best day. I also found it impossible not to feel sympathy for the slaughterhouse workers. Sure, yes, thank you very much: They were probably glad to be employed. But would anyone expect them to be happy to be spending their working lives dismembering freshly-killed mammals, or scooping warm, bloody guts out of passing pig carcasses?

As time passed after my visit to the slaughterhouse, I ate less and less meat. I had indeed spent the visit in a strange state: transfixed, horrified. Even today, that afternoon seems more like a dream I can't shake than like most of my memories. In any case, within a few years, I realized that I'd become a de facto vegetarian, so I made it official. I remained one for about fifteen years. Even today, when I eat meat it's always with some appreciation for how the food came to wind up on the plate before me.

As for the carrots: My fellow-feeling is much more attenuated by the time it reaches carrots, god knows. Even so, that particular visit made its impact too. Pesticides, fertilizer, water, and sun: that's all those carrots grew up on. Where was the decaying-matter-style "real" food? I was left wondering whether a child could grow up on nothing but protein powder, water, and vitamins. Perhaps it could, if only up to a certain point -- but would we think it a good idea?

Ever since my factory-farm visit, I've preferred consuming "organic" produce. I'm no fanatic about this. I'm a big-city guy who often eats at restaurants and at friends' places. But still: You can talk as much science-style sense to me as you want. I simply prefer to eat carrots that achieved carrothood in real soil, deriving their nutrients from non-petroleum-based, "organic" matter.

As for people who don't make much of the food question, well, it's their prerogative, of course. Lydia McGrew of Right Reason (and many critics of the Crunchy Con thang generally) seems to think that how and what you choose to eat are questions of trivial importance. I can't go along with that judgment. Where my own nourishment is concerned, I'd rather take some care. Where public health is concerned, I can think of few fields where decent regulation and policing seem as important. Where the production of food is concerned: Hey, big-big money and big-big power are at stake, billions of animal lives hang in the balance, and the well-being, safety, and health of all of us are involved. These considerations don't total up to anything minor in my calculus.

Nuts though many in the animal-rights world are, I'm unable to be entirely dismissive of all of their arguments. (As for their extremism: Well, I don't have to share it, do it? Besides, it's a simple fact of life that crusaders are often a little nuts. But some of them serve worthwhile purposes: They alert us to matters we'd otherwise overlook. Perhaps a flourishing culture needs some kooks. But perhaps a flourishing culture also needs to know how to take them.) The look in those pigs' eyes has stayed with me for more than three decades, as has the general atmosphere of fear, blood, and death. In any case, I accept a bit of what the animal-rights people say. At a minimum: If we're going to raise and slaughter billions of beasts in order to feed ourselves, I'd certainly prefer that we do it respectfully. They're giving up their lives to feed us, after all. Why not show some decency and some gratitude?

I'm not by any means dismissive of people concerned about high-tech, industrial-style agriculture either. Let's hear it for big yields and for filling the stomachs of the masses, of course. But I simply don't find it appetizing to eat a veggie that I know to be nothing but seed-plus-water-plus-sun-plus-petroleum-products. The combo may "work" in the sense of resulting in something veggie-like. But the idea of it turns my stomach. I didn't have a good feeling eating the carrot I was handed years ago, and I'd rather avoid such carrots generally.

As for the "feelings" thing ... Well, of course the feelings end of things is often overemphasized these days. Still, all other debates aside for a second or two: Isn't "having a good feeling about it" a big and basic part of eating? If you feel bad about what's on your plate, you may not even wind up eating it. (Incidentally, if you eat Frankenfood and you have a good feeling about the whole process, that's fine with me.) But can anyone reasonably claim that, where eating is concerned, the psychological (ie., icky/appetizing) element isn't important? And once our fortunes have ascended past the struggling-with-starvation level, why shouldn't we fuss over these matters? Which, to my mind, raises interesting questions about aesthetics. Perhaps the "aesthetics" side of life isn't always as inessential or as optional as Americans sometimes like to make it out to be.

Some semi-relevant facts and figures from Eric Schlosser:

  • Working in a slaughterhouse is one of the most, if not the most, dangerous job in America. The injury rate in a slaughterhouse is three times higher than in a typical factory. One in three slaughterhouse workers is injured on the job every year, despite wearing suits of chain mail meant to protect them from blades and knives.

  • Repetitive-stress injury rates are 35 times higher among slaughterhouse workers than they among average workers.

  • A big meat processing plant can turn out 800,000 pounds of chopped beef a day. The flesh of dozens of different cattle may turn up in a single hamburger patty.

  • In Schlosser's opinion, the worst job in America is the job of cleaning up the slaughterhouse at the end of the day. This is done by outside crews. They're dressed in protective clothing. They're spraying hot water laced with chlorine. They're clambering up and over lots of industrial machinery in slippery conditions. They're often shin-deep in blood and guts. And then they return and do the job all over again the next night.

  • The American-industrial way of raising and processing veggies and meat has, as we all know, resulted in a lot of bland or tasteless food. As a consequence, food producers jazz many of their products up with lab-synthesized flavors. Much of the taste and aroma of American fast food -- ie., the additives that make our taste buds perk up -- is now manufactured at a series of large chemical plants off the New Jersey Turnpike.

  • In recent decades, American meat plants have revved production rates up to amazingly high levels. A Chicago-style meatpacking plant in 1900 slaughtered 50 cattle an hour. In the early 1980s, advanced meatpacking plants slaughtered 175 cattle an hour. Today, the rate is up to 400 an hour.

  • There's a close relationship between slaughter-rates and two other things: worker injuries and tainted meat products. Past a certain point, the faster you slaughter cattle, the more workers get injured, and the more meat winds up in bad shape. European countries evidently keep production rates somewhat lower than ours to guard against these consequences.

These following facts are probably completely irrelevant in terms of this posting. But the little boy in me can't resist passing them along anyway:

  • Every steer being fattened for beef drops 50 pounds of manure a day.

  • The cattle moving through a couple of gigantic feedlots near Greeley, Colorado, produce more shit-per-day than people in Boston, Denver, Atlanta, and St. Louis combined do.

  • These feedlots are a way of raising cattle that has been developed and has become widespread only in the last few decades. Geezers and Boomers? This is not how the cattle whose beef you grew up on were raised. These lots are enormous and crowded. Despite being grass-eaters, the cattle are fed on corn and on animal by-products. The cattle are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, and they get little exercise, According to Schlosser, cattle raised in modern American feedlots essentially live in mud and pools of their own shit.

  • Competitive forces have played a big role in the development of these conditions. These forces have also driven consolidation. In 1970, the top four meatpacking firms slaughtered 21% of the nation's cattle. Today, the top four meatpacking firms slaughter 84% of the nation's cattle.

As I noted here, the meatpacking business (much influenced by the fast-food industry), is dependent on cheap immigrant and illegal-immigrant laborers. These people are easy to exploit and underpay. They don't organize, they don't (yet) know how to turn to lawyers, they quit after only a short time (in other words, they don't build up big benefits) -- and there are always more of them on the way. (The American government subsidizes these arrangements with hiring and "training" bonuses and incentives, by the way.) Steve Sailer reports that meatpackers are giving employees a day off to attend rallies in support of immigration reform (aka amnesty).

What kinds of exposure to food-production have you had? How did it affect you?



posted by Michael at April 28, 2006


Back when I wrote TV spots for Jell-O, we were not *allowed* to visit the rendering plant, period--which, of course, inflamed my curiosity all the more.

I share your concern about "real" food and buying from small/organic producers. I pretty much have to eat meat on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, but I try to do it more mindfully. In fact, I think food consciousness is a great starting point for mindfulness. Anything can be, but as you said, why not something that affects me, my health, a bunch of animals' health, the planet, etc.?

Posted by: communicatrix on April 28, 2006 7:48 PM

Eating organic produce because it's "better for the environment" is not always a wise idea. While the fruits and vegetables may not use petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, they often are shipped in from much more distant locations than are conventional produce, therefore using more fuels in the transportation process. Of course, organic produce often tastes better and probably is healthier, so eating it on those grounds is a perfectly wise decision.

Posted by: Peter on April 28, 2006 8:46 PM

You're right, Peter--it's a complex equation. Since I'm in SoCal, we have a lot of local producers. One of my BIG changes to implement is getting back in the habit of buying my produce at local farmers' markets.

Posted by: communicatrix on April 28, 2006 9:14 PM

Bless you, Michael.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 28, 2006 10:23 PM

Came back to say that I really LIKE the "Mexican" version of the national anthem. I find it respectful and emotional and resourceful. I wonder if I can get someone around here to write a Blackfeet version. Of course, they had a lot of songs when this was their country.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 28, 2006 10:26 PM

I was a film researcher in the 1980s and one of the archival-footage places was located in the meat-packing district of NYC. That did it for me--that and the animal-rights film I once worked on for HBO. I've been a veggie since 1988.
My dad worked for Upton Sinclair in the 1930s--you know his famous expose of the meat-packing industry, The Jungle.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 29, 2006 1:13 AM

The first lap of this mile-long essay was entrancing. You've got a real gift.

Posted by: Sasquatch on April 29, 2006 1:49 AM

Other Peter,

But is it true that conventional produce has to travel less to get to my kitchen? I doubt it, but I wonder if there is any data on that.

But your point is, of course, valid. I wonder what we have lost by sundering our community from our food so much. Our family farm is organic and, as such, we send most the produce to the east and west coasts. One day, through the opacity of the giant distributor chains, our local grocery store ended up with some of our product. I remember my mom was thrilled as hell and called everyone she knew. It hasn't happened since.

Posted by: Peter on April 29, 2006 5:51 AM

I once worked in a pickle factory for six weeks and couldn't eat pickles for a couple of years. I still hear the screams of the innocent little gherkins before - but I'll draw the curtain of propriety over that part of the story.

The organic bit is nonsense. Organic foods - whatever that label really means - were shown recently to be something like ten times as likely to be contaminated by coliform bacteria as "regular" food. The word "organic" is meaningless, though. The only thing it really guarantees is a five- to ten-fold price increase. If you think certain food tastes better, eat it. But "organic", "natural" and the like are scam words. The volume of food necessary to keep our population healthy could not be grown by so-called organic methods. And life expectancy continues to rise. As far as meat-eating goes, ever seen a tiger devour a deer? Life is not clean and kind. The pigs wouldn't exist for a second if they weren't going to be eaten. Get over it. Meat tastes great.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on April 29, 2006 7:59 AM

"If we're going to raise and slaughter billions of beasts in order to feed ourselves, I'd certainly prefer that we do it respectfully. They're giving up their lives to feed us, after all. Why not show some decency and some gratitude?"
Meaning what, approximately? Can you give examples?

Posted by: David Fleck on April 29, 2006 8:13 AM

Thank you, Robert Speirs, exactly my thoughts. Hurrah for beef steak.

Michael, when (and if) you'll master the art of fast and precise chicken cutting (which requires badly messing their anatomy coupla times) in your cooking classes, may be your opinion of butchers will change. I know, there is a difference between industrial assembly (in this case, disassembly) lines and your local friendly Italian guy in bloody apron, but it's the same difference as in all professions that has been industrialized: a village smith and an operator of the auto conveyor @ GM plant?
Also, re: those poor not-unionized workers at the meat-packing operations - good for them for working in a honest environment and good for their employers. This country started to slip down, in my opinion, right when the unions won all the unearned benefits (a classic blackmail scheme). "Underpaid", you say? Who, I beg you, decides, how much is under and over in this case? If the market rate for an unqualified job like pig-stomack-cutter is, let's say, $6/hr - than that's what he's going to get, not an union pay of $15, based on nothing but demagoguery and socialist lust for expropriation.
Nobody chained that poor worker to his knife; if the conditions aren't to his liking, he's free to leave and become a journalist or an architect. Why doesn't he?

Posted by: Tat on April 29, 2006 9:35 AM

It brought back memories of my father taking me for a tour of a hog slaughtering center in a small Kentucky town on my 11th birthday. Part of his desperate effort to make sure I grew up to be a real man. Whatever that is. I saw what you saw, reacted as you reacted and still get queasy as I remember. I did become a real man, but not on his terms,

Posted by: citrus on April 29, 2006 10:00 AM

My parents were the first generation in my family not to have a concrete slaughter house on their property.

My grandfathers, and most of my uncles raised their own cows, pigs and chickens and slaughtered them. My dad continued to buy live chickens into my teens. I have vivid memories of the birds running through the back yard after they'd met their fates on the chopping block.

My dad kept a quarter acre garden. We relied on it... it wasn't for decoration. My mom canned food for the winter. We traded produce from the garden for eggs speckled with shit from my aunt's coop.

Needless to say, my folks did not have a sentimental view of the fate of animals. They were hard people. I've noticed that the farther we get away from the nasty realities of food production, the more refined our sensibilities become.

Part of my teenage rebellion against my family was to run away to San Francisco, where I became an aesthete. Not that this was all bad. San Francisco has a long tradition of reverence for food, and the local produce is fantastic.

As time passed, I missed the hard speaking and hard living men and women of my home town in rural llinois, and I began to drift back frequently. The people are so damned honest, such square shooters, and so very humble.

The phoniness and artifice of New York City (and even Chicago) have their charms, too. But, I find myself laughing at the pitifully tender feelings of the sensitive city dwellers.

One thing I do remember: The kids in the 4H club would raise a prize steer, or pig or lamb and beam with pride when they won the blue ribbon. Then they would cry like babies when their prize pet was led off for slaughter.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 29, 2006 10:15 AM

Mark the calendars: I'm in agreement with Shouting Thomas.

I've noticed that the farther we get away from the nasty realities of food production, the more refined our sensibilities become.

Same with the concept of "poor opressed worker".

And I second the "raising a farm animal and then crying sending him to the slaughter" part. When I was 7 and living in a town in Eastern Kazakhstan, one of my chores was to transport my little sister to and from her babysitter, who had a cow and a calf. This calf, Zhdanka, was my pet. When he was sold to the kolkhoz' herd and I was present at the process of branding his forhead with the stamp, I couldn't sleep for hours. Because he was a person to me.
Which didn't revert me from admiring kid leather gloves and Calf-leather Spanish shoes. Oh, and I adore veal stuffed with prunes and shallots.

Posted by: Tat on April 29, 2006 10:47 AM

Tat -
You are correct about the economics of the slaughterhouse industry. Until the influx of immigrants changed the industry about 20 years ago, the workers were among the highest-paid of all industrial workers in the United States thanks to militant unionization, even though their skill levels weren't always particularly high. Maintaining such artifically inflated price levels made no economic sense.
Of course, the influx of cheap immigrant labor into the slaughterhouses hasn't meant that meat prices are any cheaper in relative terms ...

Posted by: Peter on April 29, 2006 11:30 AM

Since the pig is zapped before being dismembered what's so cruel about the slaughterhouse?

Posted by: ricpic on April 29, 2006 11:36 AM

Colleen -- Where I grew up, jello was one of the major food groups. I've always been curious about how it's made (I mean, I know how it's made, but actually witnessing the process). But you've got me thinking I'm better off not knowing ...

Peter 1 -- Sigh, everything's complicated. Still, I suspect (or at least hope) that a few efforts to buy local and buy organic can help. Not that I'm going to get my knickers in a twist about this ...

Mary -- Eager to hear more from you about what you've seen of the feedlots and meat producers out your way. All I know is what I've read in Schlosser and some mags. Is it as horrifying as he describes it?

WS -- Schlosser's clearly attempting to be the new Upton Sinclair. The book was very popular, so maybe he's succeeded. I don't see any reforms taking place, though, darn it.

Sasquatch -- Thanks. I do go on though, don't I?

Peter 2 -- You work an organic farm? I'd love to hear more about it. Schlosser and others make it sound like small farmers and people who want to grow/harvest/slaughter/etc tastier, healthier, small-scale food are virtually prevented from doing so by laws and regs that favor industrial production. Is that a fair assessment?

Robert -- "The screams of innocent little gherkins" is very funny. You won't catch me arguing that life is pretty, btw. At the same time, that awful industrial carrot I ate ...

David -- Sure. It'd be nice if the chickens, cattle, pigs etc had a chance to do a little livin' before being cooped up and turned into food factories. Clipping off chicken beaks, obliging cows to live on corn (and then pumping them full of antibiotics to counter the ensuing infections) -- it all strikes me as pretty horrible. Temple Grandin (the famous autistic animal person) has even managed to design less traumatic ways for livestock to enter slaughterhouses. I mean, why not reduce the amount of suffering in the world? And why add to it?

Tat -- There's a *big* diff between the traditional butcher and what we have now, just as there's a big diff between keeping cattle in pastures eating grass and raising them in feedlots on inappropriate food and meds. The reason the meat processing corps are able to pay the low wages they do has less to do with the fact that that's what the job is worth and more to do with high and illegal immigration. As long as more and more Mexicans are around, then wages can be kept absurdly low. Cut off the flow and wages would have to rise.

Citrus -- I'd love hear more about the diff between your dad's version of "a man" and the one you actually developed into. That whole "manhood" question is an interesting one, no?

ST -- A combo of bohemia and something a lot more down-to-earth would be nice to engineer, wouldn't it? I wonder if there's any real-world way to do it. Growing up on a farm (or farm-like something) seems to hit people in interesting ways. I knew a woman who grew up on a California farm in the '20s and '30s. She was amazingly unfazed by life, and especially by anything having to do with sex. I asked her about it once. She said that if you grow up around animals, there's very little humans can do that'll shock you.

Tat -- Zhdanka and Tatyana -- it sounds like a folk or fairy tale! Veal with prunes and shallots is double-yummy.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 29, 2006 11:38 AM

Hit the "post" button at the same time as Peter and Ricpic ...

Peter -- It's weird the way that the meatpacking biz is dependent on not just high levels of Mexican immigration, but high levels of illegal immigration. I wonder if there are examples from the past of major American businesses relying on high levels of illegal immigration ... But I'm very weak on biz history...

Ricpic -- During my day at the slaughterhouse, there was a lot of terror and unhappiness among the pigs as they were led to slaughter. Once the smell of blood got into the air, that seemed to give the secret away, and the pigs at the front of the line picked it up and passed it along. After the bolt through the brain, what I was most struck by was how ... er, humanlike the corpses were, as well as how awful many of the jobs the workers were doing was. I really have no problem with the idea of eating other animals. (Life's tough!)But treating them as they're apparently treated in factory-farm settings strikes me as pretty horrible. I'm not about to pass a law requiring it, but it was sure interesting to get a glimpse of how food is actually produced. I wonder if Tatyana, ST, and the others who have 'way more experience of it than I do would agree. What's funny are the many Americans who are so cocooned that they seem to have no idea how food gets to a plate. I ran into a bunch of them at a beginning-cooking class not too long ago. Many of the beginners seemed freaked out by the fact that veggies grow up in (gasp) dirt, and that raw meats aren't a pretty sight. Everything that wasn't pre-packaged struck them as icky. Funny that some people are that disengaged from the whole process...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 29, 2006 12:16 PM

Fascinating stuff, as always, MB. FWIW, I think it's great that we are living in a time & country where secondary and tertiary concerns like organic veggies and slaughterhouse methodologies allow people to make the choice, and for others to profit off that choice.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on April 29, 2006 12:29 PM

Have you heard about Temple Grandin? She's an animal scientist and probably the world's leading expert on slaughterhouse design, who has figured out ways to minimize the stress and fear that animals experience. What's interesting is that she's also autistic, scarcely able to function in human society, and says that because of her condition she can relate to animals in a way that normal humans cannot.

Posted by: Peter on April 29, 2006 12:58 PM

I watched some Amishmen slaughter a gang of pigs once. It was just like Michael's thing, only slower, and they bashed them on the head old-skool with sledgehammers instead of shooting them with bolts. Callow youth that I was, I actually thought it was pretty cool.

I lived in a poor Dominican neighborhood (Washington Heights, NYC, 168th Street station of the A line), and most of the people kept chickens in cages in their apartments, chickens which they presumably slaughtered themselves. Flocks of chickens often could be seen rinning loose in vacant lots between Art Deco apartment buildings. Visiting the building superintendent was like going to the zoo - goats, chickens, even what looked like a turkey one time, all caged up in his, er, fragrant apartment. The local branches of suburban chain supermarkets stocked things like livers and tripe and pig's heads and chicken's feet and goat meat and so forth. The Jamaican guy who looked after the lobby ate a big bowl of goat stew every afternoon. It was all very rustic, yet took place within a fifteen-minute subway ride of Times Square and Rockefeller Center.

Posted by: Brian on April 29, 2006 1:43 PM

Matthew Scully's book on animal rights, Dominion, has been described as "a book to treasure even by those who will reject most of his conclusions".

Scully is an avowed conservative Republican and a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, whose awareness of the conditions in modern slaughterhouses led him to become a vegetarian.

Posted by: Bill on April 29, 2006 5:00 PM

Many of the beginners seemed freaked out by the fact that veggies grow up in (gasp) dirt,

Please tell us you asked them where they believed vegetables came from.

and that raw meats aren't a pretty sight.

I have a hard time believing that anyone spending money for a cooking class had never experienced raw meat. Were you at something limited to royalty?

[deleted standard hayseed rant about city slickers and an abnormal disconnect from the cycle of life, along with the effects of public education over the last 30 years]

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on April 29, 2006 6:49 PM

If you are not willing to kill your own food then go starve.

I'll admit though, I do find the idea of free range carrots kind of cool.

Posted by: Lee on April 29, 2006 10:46 PM

Despite being grass-eaters, the cattle are fed on corn and on animal by-products.
Not down here, they're not. We have a small (920 head) feedlot. No corn, mainly due to being able to grow our own barley. Also, this is a cotton-growing area, so most of the protein requirements are met by cottonseed and hulls. Which is a side issue at best. What is important is that in Australia there has been a voluntary ban on using animal by-products since 1996, primarily to prevent BSE. I believe this has since been legislated. Animal by-products were fairly rare before then, anyway. I believe animal by-products have been banned in the pig meat industry in this country since the '70s.
FWIW, we kill most of our own meat. Pigs are the simplest; put a scoop of feed on the ground next the fence of their pen, when one of them starts eating, poke a rifle between its ears and it's all over.
Sheep are a bit of a bugger as we let them wander around. It can be a bit of a challenge to kill one without stressing it (stressing the animal releases adrenaline, which toughens the meat. Probably why younger carcases are in favour these days.) Cattle are simple, but heavier work. They are also the only carcases that we get butchered by a pro.

Posted by: Dirk Thruster on April 30, 2006 5:46 AM

Having been married to a taxidermist, I've handled many a dead animal and not just for food. Fine-haired and sentimental folks can't tolerate the thought of mounted animals, but others can and do. I found the bodies "touching" in more than one way. How many have had a chance to really look at a grizzly foot or have disassembled a fox, skinning it and looking at the muscle groups in their sheaths of pearlescent tissue?

As a hunter (actually more of a hunter's helper, since -- like Charlie Russell -- I never shot anything myself. I just hazed deer out of the brush and then helped haul them back to the truck) I helped to kill and field dress animals still smoking with life.

As an animal control officer, I walked past piles of dead pets and strays we'd had to kill because they were excess and in summer I often filled a garbage can with dead cats and possoms from the streets of Portland -- some seeming asleep and others scrambled almost past the point of recognition.

As an eater, when I go down to the post office every morning, I'm across the street from the butcher who piles bones and hides out back until he has a chance to haul them wherever they go. Out the front come the white-wrapped packages of meat. The front is for people, the back attracts cats.

I don't find any of this all that disturbing. I've never been inside an industrial level slaughterhouse. There's a small feedlot on the way to the trash roll-off site and every time I go out that way I look at the fattening animals: all the same, all dull and curious at once, all obsessively eating whatever it in their bins. The larger feedlots are more obnoxious. The really major feedlots are not here -- the big meat industry folks try hard to keep these things under their control and to suppress local entrepreneurs. Michael, if you can ever find a book about Medora, North Dakota, where a French Marquis de Mores (his wife's name was Medora) tried to create a packing plant on the new railroad line, be sure to make time for it. Such a blend of Western and high culture is pretty amazing. Medora (the wife) had to leave in a hurry when they were burned out (the packing plant) but her house survived intact and can be toured. There is a glass-roofed atrium in the center and a long wraparound veranda. The rooms are furnished with fine things and Medora's small water-colors hang over her writing desk.

It's the industrial handling of food -- live and dead -- that is shocking and objectionable in my view. It is for profit and corners are cut that lead to human deaths either in the processing or the eating of the meat. I don't object to eating meat or wearing leather. I curl my lip at pantywaist humaniacs trying to legislate that all cats be kept indoors all their lives to protect birds (what about the mice??) and I don't much like having to legislate and close borders to control things like mad cow disease.

The origins of Communion and the altar are in the chopping block, you know. Incarnation. Carne=meat. The early Christians developed their liturgy from their domestic lives in a rural setting where every house had a chopping block and a stock pond. We can't go back to that, but maybe we should return to a world view that is less inclined to face the constant and interweaving sacrifice of small and large lives. Anyway, the marbled slabs of beef kill us slowly.

Michael, I've managed to get a potato and some asparagas into sermons. The potato was an example of the trope of dismemberment in the service of creativity (you have to cut up a potato and plant it to get more potatoes) -- some experts claim this is the origin of some of our bloodier rituals, even including Jesus' bloody death. (They cite the wound in the side, etc.) And the asparagas was an example of Tolstoy's statement that "somewhere there is a green stick with a word written on it that will save the world." I wrote on each asparagas spear (with edible quality magic marker) "peace," or "love," or "joy." We ate 'em in a vegetable communion.

This post is too long, but my point is that everything is connected and we are treating both animals and humans in ways that are small daily holocausts -- holocaust, of course, meaning the sacrifice of the entire animal, which we don't do. We waste much of what we kill.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 30, 2006 6:34 AM

We can't go back to that, but maybe we should return to a world view that is less inclined to face the constant and interweaving sacrifice of small and large lives.

Mary, I'd say that the conventional wisdom world view has quite successfully achieved that -- witness MB's fellow students, unaware of the origins of such oddities as vegetables and meat.

I'd also say that when people don't understand the sacrifices made, human and animal and vegetable, that is where you'll find the most waste. Someone who's clueless that a live cow died to put a standing rib roast on the table is much less inclined to tuck into the leftovers for a couple of days than someone who raised a young heifer for market. Someone who's never planted, tended, and picked pole beans is much more likely to dump the remainders of dinner down the dispose-all than have an extra helping or take them to lunch the next day. That's my experience, anyway.

Maybe a semester of 4H should be a requirement for graduation from high school.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on April 30, 2006 8:22 AM

I've never been to a slaughterhouse. I'm sure they are unpleasant. So are battlefields. So are hospitals. That something is disturbing does not necessarily mean that it is immoral or otherwise unjustified.

Similarly, I see no need to hunt or kill my own meat. I know how it's done. Why does it matter whether I do it myself or have someone else do it for me? It's the same for the animal either way. Indeed it seems to me that the real question is whether it is moral to kill animals at all. It's not as though humans have to eat meat or wear hides to survive (not anymore in our society, anyway). I don't know the answer to this question, but I think that in the absence of certainty there is a good case for minimizing killing. (BTW, I think that the moral case for killing wild animals is probably stronger than for domestic ones, since for many game animals the likely alternative to being killed quickly by humans is eventual starvation or worse.)

WRT vegetables, your carrot needs a particular set of nutrients in order to grow. Does it matter whether the carrot gets those nutrients from earth, hydroponically supplied chemicals or shit? Unlike the animal question the vegetable thing sounds like a pure issue of aesthetics. Me, I am happy to eat genetically-modified vegetables grown in chemical-fortified styrofoam or even sewage -- particularly, in the latter case, if the veggies are irradiated to kill pathogens. The entire social movement centered around "organic" food strikes me as a scam, or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a religion, but to each his own.

Posted by: Jonathan on April 30, 2006 12:04 PM

Robert -
If one of the prime factors in your food selection is a low bacteria count, then fine, organic is useless. Fortunately (for me and for many) people buy organic for other reasons - quality and sustainability. Especially since the National Organic Program (2002), "Organic" means something very specific and regulated.
And it is patently false that organic can't meet the same production as conventional. Come to my family farm, I'll show you.

Michael -
It's a family farm on which, for now, I no longer work. But needless to say I have a very intimate connection with it.
Schlosser's point (as you described it) is both true and misleading. First, a story.
When my dad switched over to organic, he did it because it is a 'superior method of farming.' That is the official line, and it is true -- but to be perfectly honest, a more fundamental reason for the switch was simplyu to survive. At the time, organics was even more of a niche market than it is now, and his small farmer friends were declaring bankruptcy left and right. Farming organic - especially in hindsight - was the only way for a 160 acre farm to compete. That is probably even more true today. So, far from being shut out, for us, it was the only door open.

But in another sense he may have a point. Ever since Organic policy was centralized in the National Organic Program, some of the industrial organic farms (Folks like Earthbound and others) have been lobbying to have regulations chipped away to make it easier to... well... farm industrially. And it is working.

Therefore, it may be the case that, in several years, entry into organic markets may be much more difficult, but I don't see that being true now, at least in the organic market.

I'd be happy to answer any other questions about farming and organics you may have.

Posted by: Peter on April 30, 2006 2:30 PM

"We can't go back to that, but maybe we should return to a world view that is less inclined to face the constant and interweaving sacrifice of small and large lives."

"Mary, I'd say that the conventional wisdom world view has quite successfully achieved that -- witness MB's fellow students, unaware of the origins of such oddities as vegetables and meat."

Scott, thanks for catching this. I can't explain why it didn't come out that way (not enough coffee?) but I meant to say "more" rather than "less."

Jonathon: "(BTW, I think that the moral case for killing wild animals is probably stronger than for domestic ones, since for many game animals the likely alternative to being killed quickly by humans is eventual starvation or worse.)" Wow! That's a pretty dark view of the life of a wild animal! Where on earth did it come from?? Hunter propaganda?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 30, 2006 3:13 PM

Oh, I lost interest in meat after performing autposies during my residency......and the pig farms I grew up near smelled awful!

Hypocrite that I am, I still eat meat (not beef) but not very often and I don't cook it much. I like all the tofu alternatives I get at the Trader Joes. Yeah for tofu hotdogs!

Clearly, I am not a foodie.

Posted by: MD on April 30, 2006 4:16 PM

Heh....what's an 'autposie?" I meant autopsy, of course.

Posted by: MD on April 30, 2006 4:24 PM

MD, "autopsie" looks very minor, when you consider

I lost interest in meat after performing autopsy

Were you a cannibal before?

Posted by: Tat on April 30, 2006 4:39 PM, Tatyana. I do remember there being fried chicken in the hospital cafeteria the day after I witnessed my first autopsy. The boney, stringy, sinewy hospital-cafeteria kind which would put anyone off of meat, I think. But hospital-cafeteria food is a unique and special thing. I don't mean that in a good way.

Posted by: MD on April 30, 2006 5:02 PM

Aside from the ickiness of it all and the health debits of chemically injected meat standing in filth eating food they can't digest and the scandalous employment practices and the destruction to the economy of small farmers and ranchers -- we're probably doing more damage to more animals by eliminating their habitat than by eating them.

None of the cues we have for "doing wrong" are operative in the largest damages to the planet. No blood we can see.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 30, 2006 11:16 PM

A woman I work with, who is about my age (46), suffered from protein deficiency as a child. She grew up in the USA, but her family was poor, and coming from a family of six, she got very little meat as a child (her Father drank up most of the family income). She still suffers from health problems as a result of the poor nutrition she had as a child. I agree that factory farming has many objectionable aspects, but meat (especially turkey) is cheaper than it was 40-odd years ago, and for this I am grateful, as I'm sure many poorer people are today. We shouldn't lose sight of the benefits of our current system, just because it is aesthetically objectioable.

Posted by: tschafer on May 1, 2006 11:37 AM

I think part of the allure of organic foods is the desire to close the widening gap between food source and food consumer. Knowing that care has been taken to produce food in a healthy and sustainable manner, and that the food was produced locally, creates some kind of connection with what we're eating. Granted, a lot of that is pure marketing hype.

Posted by: the patriarch on May 1, 2006 12:43 PM

I grew up on a small family farm in rural Nebraska, and the town 20 miles away had a large industrial meat packing plant. I knew several kids from my class who worked there briefly after high school. I say "briefly" because none of them could stand it for more than 3 months. And I mean literally 3 months--I remember talking to them in the fall after graduation and they had all quit. These were kids who grew up on a farm like myself, and they were unequivocal: it was the worst job in the world. Dangerous, filthy, degrading, impossible to get the smell of blood and guts out of clothing and hair and nostrils at the end of the day. They all saw several people badly injured on the job, and experienced first-hand the callousness of the plant management to the injuries and appalling work conditions.

This was before the industry started recruiting and bussing illegals up from the border, but you could see the direction the industry was going. They didn't want to pay to create a work environment in which non-desperate people would want to work, or pay wages that non-desperate people were willing to work at.

It's a vile industry, period. I'm not an expert in industrial design, and Iím not exactly sure what a humane meat processing plant would look like, but Iím confident it does not have to be this way. These were conscious choices made by the people at the top about what they wanted to pay their workforce and how they wanted to design their plants, and they went the inhuman route to maximize profits.

Your posting makes all the right points about taking a balanced view (as well as semi-endorsing the activists who aren't balanced but whose agitation is absolutely necessary). I grew up on a livestock farm, where the cattle were grazed in open fields and the hogs were not crated but allowed to wander in open enclosures. And at the end of the day the cattle were "finished" in confinements and all the animals were killed for meat. There's a reasonable way to raise and slaughter animals for food. It's not always pretty, but it's far from the hell of modern industrial livestock farming.

Posted by: Steve on May 1, 2006 1:17 PM

Also, I should add that Orwell got it right -- pigs are by far the most intelligent livestock on a farm, and my Dad and I always had great affection for them. They were hell to herd into the truck to send to market--very ornery and independent, and no doubt bored and irritable after living their lives in a fenced lot--but I remember my father refusing to use the electric prods that other farmers would use to bring them into line.

I can picture their fear and terror in an industrial slaughterhouse, and it's always turned my stomach thinking about it.

Posted by: Steve on May 1, 2006 1:26 PM

I agree that disemboweled animals are gross, but I would argue that the gruesomeness of an event has little to do with whether it is right or wrong. If killing pigs is immoral, it's just as immoral whether or not it's done with respect, reverence, on a small scale, tidily, and safely.

Posted by: Paul N on May 2, 2006 11:43 PM

Hhhmmm, This blog and another article "101 Reasons Why I'ma Vegetarian" has got me revisiting the whole vegetarian thing. I mean, I'm 40 years old, recently diagnosed with high blood pressure...

A couple months ago, my twin toddler daughters, Zoey and Ninette and my son, Phillip, went to Possum Creek here in Dayton Ohio (USA). We were looking at the 2 donkeys and 2 cows. One is a teenage dairy cow (black and white) and the other resembles a bull (a young, black fighting buss)...

Anyway, my kids were feeding the two cows hay and I got a bit idea, I said "Come on cows!!! Whfewweewwtt" whistling out the 'come on' call to them while clapping my hand loudly upon my thigh. Then I took a jogging like stance and began slightly jogging, as if setting off to race, in the direction alongside the weak fence. To my utter surprise, after a moment of what appeared there having confirred with the other, the cows both took off in my direction, but inside the fence, and proceeded to run alongside the fence as I ran parallel them on our side. They galloped along as my children (3, 3, and 9) and I ran and laughed and ran and ran, until all reached the end of the fence. The two cows frolicked around jovially, like dogs would during play. After catching breath, I verbaly invited them to "Come on Losers, Race us again!" Sure enough, the cows followed suite! Back and forth for about 15 minutes we ran with those damn cows until I almost coupled over and coded from heart attack (which I did not have, literally)

Soon it was time to go. But I'll never forget that day, that moment. It doesn't seem clear---the need to consume animals.... It's not a life-maintaining necessity.

Posted by: Marci the blacklady on May 17, 2006 1:38 PM

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