Thursday, March 1, 2012

Eating the 1%

I have two bird carcasses in my freezer. Well, actually, they don’t have feathers or heads anymore. They are the result of my husband and I attempting to put our knife where our mouths are and be responsible for the food we eat. I’ve said time and again that if we eat meat, we ought to not only know where it comes from but be prepared to kill it ourselves. Most people shudder at the thought. I do too. But it is the very fact that we are shielded from the actual killing of the animals we eat that makes it so easy to turn our heads at the atrocities that are going on this very second in the meat industry.

The beef you eat comes from cows that are spending their abnormally short lifetimes standing in their own manure, eating food that their bodies were never meant to eat, and being pumped full of antibiotics to keep them from getting sick from that very food and those conditions. Makes NO sense. Cows are meant to eat grass, wander in herds, and yes, be eaten eventually.

Chicken in a pot (on the porch)
The chicken and eggs you eat come from chickens that are living in near darkness, crowded in to spaces so close they can’t turn around, let alone spread their wings, take dirt baths, or peck the ground for grubs. I love watching the antics of my own chickens. Watching them streaking (in their own waddly way) from tree to bush to barn as if they are under fire amuses me to no end. The grand chase and battles that ensue when one pulls up an earthworm from the garden are an animal reenactment of my kids with the last cookie in the jar. They curiously peck anything new, like the football abandoned in the yard or the freshly carved jack-o-lantern on the porch. These are chickens in a “natural” habitat. While they may be exceedingly dumb animals, I do believe they are smart enough to know they are miserable in a typical industry chicken house.

The bacon you eat comes from pigs that must have their trademark curly tails “docked” so they won’t be bitten off by the other pigs crowded together with them in their holding pens for their brief time on earth (the industry has “progressed” to be able to get a piglet from birth to slaughter in just 4 months). They never have the opportunity to root or wander or play.

I suppose it comes down to how you perceive animals. Do you think they are people in furry suits, or are they unintelligent creatures whose only purpose on earth is to provide food for us? I’m somewhere in the middle of that equation. Why is it we eat pigs, but not dogs? Pigs are supposed to be more intelligent and, at least when they are little, they are equally cute. Pot Belly pigs aren’t eaten, but I assume they make excellent bacon.

I’m a horse owner and have provided foster care for horses that have been saved from slaughter by a local horse rescue. I’m kind of ambivalent about my feelings on this. Certainly, once these horses come to live with me I’m horrified that they almost ended up on someone’s dinner table. But in context, I suppose I don’t have a huge issue with the slaughter of horses for meat and whatever else it is they do with them AS LONG AS they are treated kindly during the process. Heartless, I know. I have horsey friends who will probably challenge me on this.

I do believe animals are intelligent (some more than others, my dog Gracie is just about the dumbest dog I’ve encountered and I’ve yet to meet an animal dumber than a chicken). So the idea that animals don’t really mind the harsh conditions prior to slaughter seems misguided. Raising animals in cruel conditions in order improve profit margins is a crime and I don’t buy meat that has been produced in those conditions.

But…… what about meat that has been produced in happy, healthy conditions? My chickens, for instance. The three roosters we butchered last fall spent the summer digging up grubs, chasing the hens, and lounging in the shade. For a chicken headed for slaughter they were in the 1%. But when it came time to kill them, it was so emotionally stressful that we let the fourth rooster go (ironically he was eaten that night by a fox) rather than put ourselves through it.

I don’t know how many emotions an animal “feels”, but I’m certain they feel pain and they experience fear (as the knowledge that they are about to feel pain). We tried to make it as quick and painless as possible, and in our fumbling efforts we were not as quick as we might have been if we had more experience. So these three roosters lived a good, short life and were killed quickly and humanely. And still two carcasses sit in my freezer. This is because I cooked the first one while he was still fresh and made him in to chicken and cheese enchiladas. And then choked on every bite.

I have to wonder if the people who live in slaughter houses ever eat meat. Maybe they can disassociate themselves from their work. Maybe they put on the blinders, much as the rest of us do, and buy the valu-pack at Wal-Mart without a second thought.

I still think that if you eat meat, you ought to be able to hunt and/or butcher the animal. We owe the animal that much. We need to respect the life that was given for us. And we should respect it enough to demand that it is treated humanely before it becomes our dinner.

The meat producers would have us believe that the only way to provide enough meat for the growing appetite of this country is to raise it nose-to-tail in a stockyard and feed it corn. But that is a lie. Raising animals in mass production only ensures that the prices stay low, the meat companies make lots of money, immense amounts of oil are wasted (growing and transporting corn), and the pharmaceutical companies get rich selling their antibiotics. If we took all the land that we use to raise feed corn and plow it under for grass, there would be plenty of space to raise enough meat. It might require a little more effort and sure, it might cost a little more (although I’d like to do the cost-analysis when you compare the real cost of growing corn and making the chemicals and antibiotics versus just turning a cow loose on grass). Heck, a change like that might bring back the cowboys (I’m all for cowboys).

Chickens don’t need nearly the amount of space as a cow, so changing that industry is even simpler. But again, it might raise the cost of your mcnuggets and reduce the profit margins of then poultry manufacturers.

Because I’m rambling, I won’t even go in to the difference in the nutrient value of meat raised on the diet it was designed to eat. But there’s that too.

I’m working up the nerve to cook another one of our chickens. I’m hoping enough time has passed that the images of the actual killing will have receded far enough in my mind to keep my throat from closing up.

Before you ask, yes, I’m well aware of the hypocrisy surrounding my choice to eat meat. Believe me, it weighs on my heart. I just wish it weighed on the hearts of the rest of the people with the power to bring change.

There is hope. McDonald’s, which purchases over 21 billion dollars worth of pork each year, recently informed suppliers that they will have to remove the “crates” they use tocontain pregnant sows. These crates keep the sows from ever even turning around in their lifetime of producing mass quantities of piglets. I would think confinement like this of such an intelligent animal would lead to mad pig disease. At any rate, this move will affect the entire industry. Finally McDonald’s does something we can be proud of. Let’s hope they take a look at the beef and poultry industries next – now that could change the world.


  1. Excellent post! We don't slaughter our chickens (there are only seven hens and my daughter has named them, so...), but most of our meat comes from wild game that we hunt on our land. And being able to shoot well is a prerequisite to hunting in our family, because we put a high priority on a quick, humane kill. And if an animal isn't killed instantly, the hunters have been known to track it for 12 hours or more, even going back the next day to find it. We don't want an animal to suffer needlessly, plus we don't want to waste the meat. That being said, I can sympathize with you on eating freshly slaughtered meat: I am in charge of processing, and I usually can't eat any of it for a few weeks after it's processed and put in the freezer!

    Love this blog - you touch on the subjects I'm passionate about.

  2. Thanks for reading Marie. It was a long and winding post and I struggled to make my thoughts clear. We did eat another chicken last night - it wasn't as hard this time, but still not easy. I suppose it might be easier if we didn't raise them ourselves. My hats off to you for hunting your food. Seems better all around, the birds most likely never know what hit them (so to speak!).

  3. We have a lot in common... I hunt wild boar, turkey, geese, ducks and deer. On my property if you kill it, you clean it, you'll eat it.

    I don't have time for "crack-pots" shooting then walking away. It's important to keep your rifle sighted and practic. I make sure people who hunt with me have skills for a clean shot and licensed. I hunt only enough to provide for my family for the year and when we sit down at a table, We thank God for his Grace and providing for our family.

    I smoke most of the pork, and use the fat, which there isn't much on a wild boar, to mix in ground venison for "bacon burgers", we go through 40lbs/year.

    Gracie is also our Chocolate Lab's name....

    Cheers, Dave Freeman

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