Well this is disgusting, and offensive on several levels. It’s no secret that the American meat industry is inhumane and under-regulated, but the Humane Society has just released a video of slaughterhouse employees essentially torturing cows in order to get them to stand up for health inspectors — employees shoot water up the cows’ noses, electrocute them, and jab them in the eyes. Beyond being simply inhumane and shockingly cruel, it’s also a major health hazard — cows that refuse to get up may have Mad Cow Disease, among other problems, and their sedentary state can be a cue to inspectors. Animals that have been laying down have also been wallowing in feces, increasing the risk of transmitting salmonella, e. coli, and other diseases.
And did I mention that the slaughterhouse where the video was shot recently received an award from the Department of Agriculture for Supplier of the Year for the National School Lunch Program?
I’ve mentioned this before, but I was vegetarian for about half of my life — I started eating meat again when I was 21 and living with a family in Italy. I still rarely eat red meat (I’ll have a steak once every two months or so), and I generally dislike pork and chicken (I eat chicken probably twice a month); my big weakness is fish, which I admittedly eat a ton of, mostly in raw form. Environmental issues aside, I can’t bring myself to feel too guilty about eating fish, but I’m fully aware that I should stop eating other meats cold-turkey (so to speak). My opposition to meat eating doesn’t come from the belief that eating animals is morally wrong; I don’t think it is. But I do think that we have a responsibility to be ethical meat-eaters.
To me, that means that we treat animals as beings worthy of basic dignity, and when we kill them for food, we do it as painlessly and quickly as possible. It means that cruel factory farming practices should be outlawed. It means that we must balance our desire to eat meat with our greater obligations to a healthy planet and a sound environment.
To stronger animal rights activists, my reasoning probably sounds ridiculous — how can one argue for treating animals with dignity, and in the same breath say that it’s morally acceptable to kill them for food? That’s a huge ethical and moral divide that I’m not going to be able to bridge in this post, but for now I’ll just say that it’s my belief that human animals are superior to other animals, and that, like other omnivores, we are fully within our natural rights to eat meat. However, humans have also been blessed with greater cognitive skills which enable us to comprehend issues of moral relativity, which let us understand the degree of suffering we cause, and which empower us to find ethical solutions. Given that, I think we have an obligation to make meat-eating as ethical as possible.
In my ideal world, no one would eat meat, and meat-eating would be unnecessary and unappealing. But we don’t live in that world yet, and for a lot of people, meat-eating is not only a pleasure but a necessity. And yes, I know this is where a lot of vegans are going to argue with me, and I’ve heard a million times that it’s quite possible to go vegan, eat for cheap, and get all the necessary protein, vitamins, minerals, etc — but, sorry, it’s just not an option for many people. Strict diets like veganism take a lot of planning, and planning takes time. Veganism is especially difficult if you have kids; double the difficulty if money is tight (just try raising a vegan kid on a subsidized school lunch program).
I have lots of respect for vegans; I wish I had enough self-discipline to do it, but I don’t. Plus, I’m a die-hard foodie, and while every vegan I’ve ever known claims that it’s possible to be a vegan and still eat great food, I’m 99 percent sure that it’s impossible to be a vegan and eat the kinds of food that I love. Luckily — and contrary to popular stereotype — most vegans I know are perfectly satisfied with their dietary choices, and are in no hurry to make anyone else feel guilty for making different ones (although they’re also happy to help other people make more ethical decisions, should they be so inclined).
But all that aside (and this post wasn’t intended to be an anti-vegan statement — and nor am I anti-vegan — so I’ll reign that in), for me, the issue comes down to one of personal choices vs. systemic change. And while I’m all for making individual ethical choices, I think it’s crucial to recognize that individuals only have so much power. It’s the classic Wal-Mart issue — sure, Wal-Mart is evil, but at the end of the day it’s the best financial option for a whole lot of people, and I’ll be damned if I ever pass judgment on anyone for shopping there, even as I’m perfectly content to pass judgment on the company. It’s great that some individuals can refuse to shop at Wal-Mart; but people shouldn’t have to make a choice between ethical shopping and feeding/clothing their families. It’s great that some individuals can refuse to eat meat or animal products of any kind, and it’s great that many of those people can still afford to eat well-balanced and nutritionally-sound meals every day; but people shouldn’t have to make a choice between ethical eating and having enough healthy, affordable food to go around.
Conservatives (and, indeed, plenty of liberals) will tell you that de-regulation of places like slaughterhouses is fine; it keeps costs down, and it lets workers do their jobs without governmental interference. Consumers, they argue, can decide for themselves if they don’t want to eat meat, just like they can decide for themselves whether or not they want to support corporations like Wal-Mart.
But in the reality-based world, we all know it’s not that simple. People simply don’t know what’s in their meat; they don’t know the environmental devastation that factory farming (cattle farming in particular) has caused; they don’t know how cruelly animals are treated. And even if they do know, what other option do they have? For a lot of Americans, a meat-free diet is simply not an option — the reasons behind that may be health-related, financial, or cultural, but they’re all very real and even the most optimistic of animal rights activists can’t expect that to change anytime soon. In the meantime, regulating the meat industry for health and ethical violations is absolutely crucial — not just for the well-being of cows and pigs, but for the basic health of human animals as well.