I had an existential crisis in the meat section of Trader Joe’s. I was staring at all chicken: chicken pieces packaged separately, chicken pieces in a big bundle, whole chickens, chicken boobs, “natural” chicken, “free-range” chicken, cheap chicken, less-cheap chicken.
On the one hand, I guess you could say, wow! what bounty! Look at all that protein so readily available to me, sparing me from having to get out to the back pasture with an ax and be all with the plucking and whatnot.
On the other hand, wow! look at all that cheap protein, farmed god knows where, killed god knows where by who knows what methods in who knows what layers of shit.
What should I buy? Or should I not buy it at all?
I’ve just finished reading Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer (not to be confused with Jonathans Lethem or Franzen; this Jonathan is the Everything is Illuminated guy). The book is brilliant; it should be required reading for every human on the planet and excerpts should be plastered on billboards, buildings, and in the subway, forcing us to confront our eating habits.
We all sort of know about factory farms (those huge muddy shit pits that call themselves hog farms, chickens in cages not much bigger than this laptop screen) but many of us–okay, maybe only me–seem to close our eyes when it comes time to doing the grocery shopping.
Because really, who wants to know–really know–the conditions under which most of our proteins (beef, chicken, pork, fish) are produced?
Foer’s book takes a lot of information that’s already been circulating out there, from Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Marion Nestle, and others, and distills it into a central question: how can we allow ourselves to eat meat (and poultry and, yes, fish) that has almost certainly been produced under inhumane conditions (at best) and torturous, environmentally disastrous conditions (at worst)?
In the paperback version, Eating Animals has sixty pages of footnotes documenting its sources, but the book reads like a novel; there isn’t a dull moment. Instead it’s a jaw-dropping account of the infuriating (dangerous, violent, corrupting, polluting) methods used in this country to produce animal protein at relatively low costs, at least in the short term. Long-term costs, of course, include environmental destruction, toxic waste, and tainted food supplies, but heck. What’s that to keeping the price of chicken at under two bucks a pound?
What about my free-range chicken, I hear you say (as I thought to myself, rather smugly, as I read). Bwhahahaha! Foer says that “the free-range label is bullshit. It should provide no more peace of mind than “all-natural,” “fresh,” or ‘magical.'” Free-range, you see, is not defined by the USDA. Free-range simply means access to the outdoors–which can mean that a shed housing 30,000 chickens has one little door open to a five-by-five patch of dirt. And the door is usually closed. Further, free-range has nothing to do with how those chickens are handled, in either life or death.
We eat lots of seafood, though, a friend of mine said when I told her what I was reading. So that’s better, right? (She sounded anxious). Well, sorry kids, there’s no Santa Claus there, either. Let’s choose just one factor in “farmed fish,” shall we? How about…sea lice, which thrive in the filthy water of farmed fish. Sea lice create open sores and can sometimes eat right down to the bones. Yummy! And “wild-caught” fish? Let’s say your fish is caught on so-called “long lines,” which can reach out a distance of seventy-five miles. The targeted fish are caught, sure, but so are about 4.5 million sea animals, called “bycatch”: sea creatures caught up by the long lines but not used: 3.3 million sharks, 1 million marlins, 60,00 sea turtles, 75, 000 albatross, 20,000 dolphins and whales.
So much for fish. Continue Reading →