Given that I spent more than 20 years of my life as a lacto-ovo vegetarian, I’ve come a long way with meat. As I learned of the profound health-promoting effects of eating well-raised, naturally-fed healthy animals, I transitioned fairly easily to eating more flesh. I started with “easy” meats like chicken and salmon, but quickly discovered my love of real meat: steaks, chops, ribs, shank, loin, marrow, heart. Depending on the cut, my preference is often to eat it rare. As part of a personal growth project, I took a beef butchery class at 4505 Meats, and plan on doing some deer or elk hunting in the near future.
I’ve written and spoken about the health and ethical issues related to the use of animals as food. I feel deeply that it is a moral imperative to treat animals in a respectful and humane way, and that this imperative is not negated by the fact that, in the end, we kill and eat some of these animals. The horrors of industrial production of meat animals is a topic for another day, but relevant for that discussion is the concept of voluntary ignorance about the methods used to raise and kill our meat animals. Factory farming would not be successful without its invisibility to the public, and without purposeful deception and widespread abuse by large corporations like Smithfield or Tyson. These profitable corporations routinely treat your future food in a manner that they’d be arrested for if they were doing it to your dog or cat. That should give you some pause.
However, it’s not just the “evil corporations” that carry the responsibility here. The consumer is also to blame, since the consumers’ collective lack of demand for transparency has allowed the development of a clandestine, inhumane meat production system. Several US states have passed laws that prohibit photographing or recording in meat production facilities. Passed under the ridiculous guise of “food safety”, these laws obviously serve to shelter the abuses of industrial farming operations from public scrutiny. In many cases, we consumers prefer ignorance to the harsh, ugly reality of where more than 99% of our meat comes from.
The other major consideration here is the financial one. Americans spend the smallest percentage of their income on food of any country in the world. A few decades ago, Americans spent three or four times as much on food (by percentage) as they do now. So consumers demand cheap meat and are willing to turn a blind eye to how that meat is produced, and unscrupulous companies are willing to produce and sell large amounts of that industrially-produced meat to consumers at progressively lower prices—but at great cost.
One way out of the quagmire is demanding transparency in food production, and becoming personally involved (to the degree that is possible) in each of our own food chains. If the purveyor won’t tell you how and where their animals are raised, don’t buy their products. And if the farmer refuses to let you visit the farm, don’t support that farm. It is not exactly fun to ponder (or personally observe) the reality that a living, breathing animal must die so that we may be optimally healthy and robust, but that does not negate that reality. After all, look where avoiding the realities of farm animals’ lives and deaths has taken us. Being more personally involved in and connected to the source of my food allows me to both improve the quality of my own food, and to positively influence the food production system by “voting with my fork” (thank you, Michael Pollan).
All of this has been a preamble, I suppose, to why I feel compelled to actually observe the life and, at times, death of some of my food. Admittedly, I have little tolerance for the justification of “I just can’t handle seeing animals die.” If you voluntarily choose to remain ignorant to the realities of food production, do you deserve to partake in the animal whose life was taken? Yes, to many of us, killing animals is distasteful and ugly and messy and emotionally disturbing. But the personal discomfort that we may experience as a result of genuine personal observation of reality serves to emotionally and spiritually connect us more deeply to our food, our world, and those loved ones that we share this Good Food with. The longstanding deficiency of that deep-rooted connection to the animals we eat has facilitated the construction of an entirely immoral food production system. We cannot afford—as an individual or a society—to continue to turn a blind eye to that inhumane system. As Gandhi notes, “You can judge the morality of a nation by the way the society treats its animals.”
My personal response to that immorality is to demand transparency, and bear witness to not only the animals’ life, but its death. It may make me uncomfortable or sad, but more importantly, it also makes me deeply thankful for and respectful of the animals that I eat. I’m not saying that everyone (or myself, for that matter) needs to participate in or observe the slaughter of every animal they eat; that is neither practical nor necessary. But refusing to emotionally confront the most uncomfortable aspect of eating animals seems deeply disrespectful to me. Open your eyes, and look into your food’s eyes. It will make the world a better place.
[I originally wrote this in 2011, and my sentiment still stands. I now have my own rifle, which is a weird, weird thing for a peaceful, pro-gun-control Canadian. But in my world, personal growth trumps personal preference.]