Spend enough time reading about the quotidian tribulations of poultry proprietors and you quickly learn about the centrality of violence in chicken ownership. In point of fact the chickens, so long as they are pumping out eggs with sufficient speed, are typically treated with a measure of decency, but woe to any creature that comes between a chicken owner and her precious eggs.
In the latest labeling scandal to rock the foodie world, an Oakland-based restaurant is enduring a Yelp-inspired pile-on for failing to reveal that trace amounts of compassion were discovered in its homemade sausage. The eatery, Olde Depot, is widely known for its delicious vegan sausages. However, its reputation did not precede it for a carnivorously-inclined cohort whose palates were unknowingly violated by the bitter taint of compassion.
Instead of thinking about how we were meant to eat, as if we were frozen in time or detached from the world around us, wouldn’t it make more sense to ask how we want to be? This distinction seems important. It frees us from the anxiety of feeling out of sync with a non-existent golden age of harmonious environmental interaction while challenging us to think how we might use our rapidly evolved frontal lobe to eat in a way that incorporates something the paleofantasy excludes: compassion.
It’s easy to be outraged at these slaughterers. It’s harder to understand, however, why they do what they do. It’s not because they are bad people. One of the most difficult aspects in covering the human-animal relationship is that so often very good people do terrible things and have no idea that they are complicit in structured evil. It is thus all the more critical that advocates work to identify and communicate the psychological and rhetorical strategies that prevent a more authentic assessment of what it means to kill an animal that you do not have to kill.
Last month, an employee at a slaughterhouse in Fresno, California walked into work, pulled out a gun, and shot four people, two of them execution style, before attempting to take his own life. Coworkers, many of whom described the suspect as “nice” and “respectful,” claimed to be puzzled by this outburst. The president of Valley Protein, the abattoir where the shooting happened, declared the incident to be a “random act.”
Agribusiness insists that manure is necessary for commercial farming and animal products are essential to our health. It’s a case of the fox, not just minding the hen house, but also trying to teach us something contrary to biology 101 where we learned that only true carnivores require the flesh of animals for health and survival. But what to make of their claim that manure is essential for fertilizing soil? McWilliams points to the veganic farming movement as the signs of a future of farming without animal exploitation.
as animal rights ideas inch closer and closer to the mainstream, liberals face the risk of being exposed for espousing a basic way of life–omnivorism–that reifies abuse, hierarchy, intolerance, and arbitrary dominion over those most in need of our cooperation and compassion. They risk, in other words, being exposed as violators not only of animal rights, but of their own deeply held values.
The mobile slaughterhouse is promoted by advocates of small-scale animal agriculture as a solution to the very serious problem of access to commercial processing facilities. Large producers benefit from consolidated, federally-inspected slaughterhouses. Scale economies and all that. The small guys don’t benefit, however, and have thus pushed aggressively for more flexible and locally-available, federally-inspected sources of slaughter.
I write with a simple, if revolutionary, idea: close all your meat counters. Every single one. Forget (for the moment) dairy and eggs and all the animal-based products dependent on systematic suffering that you believe are integral to a robust stock price. We can deal with these items later. For now, as a step toward a better future, just shut down the meat markets. Forever.
Ninety-five percent of meat eaters today express an avid interest in animal welfare. Given the extent of this concern, certification has become big business. Unlike “organic,” however, there’s no legal definition for “humane.” Interpretations therefore flex as far as industrial producers can convince their certifiers–who are paid by producers–to stomach. Turns out the biggest certifiers can stomach quite a bit of suffering. Consider the following sketches of the dominant welfare labels, the ones you are likely to see in high-end chains such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Fresh Fields, and Wegman’s:
When we drift into the vexed territory of benevolent control and ownership over animals, by what set of standards do we determine what makes an animal happy, or what kind of environments are conducive to the development of their mental and emotional lives? Given that answers to these questions are beyond the ability of humans to grasp for themselves, is it possible to own or oversee an animal while creating settings that foster genuine satisfaction?
Consumers opposed to factory farming want to know more about the animals we eat. How were they raised? Did they live on a pasture? What did they eat? Where were they slaughtered? The ultimate problem with these questions, important as they are, is that it’s generally not in any producer’s interest to provide complete answers. The labels that describe animal products today thus rely on an industry-influenced lexicon that salves our conscience but obscures the harsh reality of raising, killing, and eating animals.
The world is red in tooth and claw, it is said. Animals kill and eat each other as a matter of course. It’s as natural as breathing, sleeping, and breeding. But yet … What this elision obscures is the self evident truth that humans are the only species with the potential to conceptualize and consciously apply basic moral principles to the chaos of biological life.
Unless small-scale farms have a plan to upend the most basic principle of classical economics–not to mention human nature–their endorsement of eating animals will continue to be, however inadvertently–an endorsement of factory farming. They will, of course, deny this. And they will, of course, be deluding themselves. Worse, they’ll be harming animals. Indeed, their delusions are just as complicit in the senseless killing of billions of animals as are the factory farms they claim to hate so vehemently.