Monday, February 26, 2007

Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants

So I've been absent from the food blogging as of late. Two unrelated reasons for this:

1) I've been insanely busy, and Greg has been doing much of the cooking
2) I've started eating meat again. I had bacon on Saturday morning for the first time in 6 years. I had it again on Sunday, and a chicken salad sandwich to boot. I had to try it and think about it before I was willing to be public about it.

Aghast, horror, I know, for some of you that have known me during this time. To paraphrase Ricky Ricardo, I got some splainin' to do.

Six years ago, I read an article about chicken farming practices that had a statistic in it: 80% of USDA chicken inspectors don't eat chicken. It horrified me. What did they know that I didn't? Was this akin to someone who works in a coffeeshop not being able to stand the sight of a coffeepot at home? (Or alternately, as Roz on Frasier put it, the gynecologist she was dating coming home after work and telling her, "The next time I have to see another ..." But I digress). Or was it more serious than that - were the slaughterhouses so gruesome that chicken inspectors found the whole thing revolting?

After reading up on the matter, thinking long and hard, and finding myself one week later staring at a frozen Cosco mystery-meat-loaf of What Was Once Alive And Now Tastes Like Processed Crap (Probably With Actual Crap In It), sitting on the counter at my parents' home... I came to an epiphany. I simply couldn't, wouldn't, ingest anything that had to suffer before it died or anything that was part of a system that disagreed with my fundamental beliefs.

My issue was never directly with eating a living organism itself. I don't have an ethical conflict with consuming a being that doesn't have self-aware, "I Am A Cow and I Can Moo", sort of conscious thought. This is all for the same reason that I am willing to spend my days operating on and testing rats in behavioral paradigms (my graduate work is another topic for discussion). I'm happy to discuss why I believe those two things, but in an effort to trim down the size of this blog entry, I'll instead move on to what I find objectionable:
This is just a sampling and doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of what is wrong, wrong, wrong with the industrialized chicken industry. My quest for knowledge started with the chickens and quickly spread to the cattle industry. Meat consumption and production in this country (and other industrialized nations) is just bad for everybody:
And the icing on the cake, a fact that I was not aware of until I met Greg:

Yes, Mad Cow does exist, and yes, there have been confirmed cases in our livestock. Our government denies its existence, does not test cattle routinely, continues to partake in unsafe feeding practices, and does so much to ignore its potential that we probably have no concept of how many undiagnosed people die every year from it - when it is mistakenly termed "Spontaneous CJD" instead of "Variant CJD", or when it is just assumed to be dementia. The owner of the building that Greg works in died from CJD caused by tainted beef that they believe he ate in the United States (the only other option was a single meal the man had while he was in Italy, as opposed to a lifetime of eating meat in America). Would you still eat beef in France if you knew that 2 in 1000 cows were likely have mad cow disease (as they are in France)? Would you still eat beef in the US if you knew that we simply do not routinely test significant portions of our cows before they are led to slaughter, and so we have no idea at all what the ratio is for our own cattle? What would you do if you knew that elk and deer populations in the midwest are thoroughly infected with a similar prion/brain-wasting disease? What if you knew that prion diseases have been confirmed in our cattle population and then hushed up?

Are these facts our responsibility? Absolutely. There is nothing that we are more responsible for than our choices as consumers. For all you raving capitalists, I agree: capitalism works and it works really well, but it comes with responsibility. If we choose a capitalist society, we have to make sure our ethical decisions are directly tied in to our financial decisions. Otherwise we are a society without a conscience. How else will our ethical beliefs be represented by our culture?

What we buy is what we believe.

What would you do with these realizations? Maybe you would do what I did, and what so many other informed consumers across our world are increasingly choosing to do. You might refuse to consume meat that was part of the industry that promotes cruelty to animals, that directly takes food from the mouths of the poorest and hungriest in our world to the wealthiest and fattest (by increasing grain costs), that destroys our environment, that promotes unsustainable farming practices, that leads to unsafe working conditions, unethical government lobbying, bad health, bad science, and bad... well, bad life.

This is something that I firmly believe: the cattle industry, the chicken industry, and the pork industry are a bane of our humanity. This is a time in human history we will come to regret, when we have sacrificed our health, our lives, and our conscience for 99 cents per lb beef sales, for a quantity of animal protein that is neither necessary or healthy to consume, for being a part of what's easy and tastes good. No, I'm not being dramatic. I believe this whole heartedly.

Which is why I refused. I said no: no more mass produced meat, and if it's not mass-produced, then I'll less meat than I ever though I'd be able to, well, not eat. So I cut back. I went organic. I went sustainable. I had meat occasionally, and only when I could verify its source as being a type of farm with practices I believed in and would promote.

And then the trouble came, because if you're at a party and someone shoves a bowl of beef chili in your hands and you say you can't eat, they say, "Are you a vegetarian?"... you reply, "Sort of?", then try to shout over the music to explain exactly why you sometimes eat meat but are only refusing the meat they happen to serve in their home purchased at their grocery store on sale. And then they feel hurt, embarrassed and awkward, because this sort of explanation requires the kind of moral lecture that I was only willing to give to an audience of people who want to listen. (Alternately, I'll give it to an internet audience, 80% of whom have already closed their browser windows).

I made my life and lives' of the people I would have had to explain to simpler and less confrontational (though not easier): I went vegetarian - everybody understands that, I didn't eat any meat at all, and I was happy to explain myself to anyone who asked about my reasons.

So what's the problem? Here's the problem. I don't see anything wrong with eating small amounts of meat. I really don't. And I really want it, I crave it, and the cook in my yearns to use it. The only thing holding me back was the question: what would I say to someone when I'm at that party and they hand me a bowl of chili? Obviously not: "Sorry, I only eat meat that was produced with compassion, that was killed with humanity, that didn't add antibiotics to the groundwater supply, and whose health and well being was taken very careful care of before it was killed. Oh, and even if it meats those requirements, I'll only let meat be <5% percent of my diet, because otherwise I am contributing to global sustainability instability.

For so long I held myself back from making this choice because if it is a grey area. If I can't define my beliefs in one word, if I can't explain it as a black or white but not grey issue, how could I hold to it strongly?

Here's the truth. It is a grey area. What I believe falls precisely within the range of what the majority of people who eat what they eat without thinking about it define as neither here nor there. But we had better start divying up this grey area, or else pay the price in so many profound ways. I've decided to do what I truly think is right, make the modification to my eating habits, and be willing to explain it to anybody who asks. No, I will not have that chili. No, I will not order anything meat based at a restaurant. Yes, I will occasionally purchase sustainable meat products from places like Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and our local farmer's market. Yes, I will consume certain responsible fish species but not others (and I'll explain why it's not an arbitrary decision). I will always buy organic, free range eggs and milk that do not contain growth hormones.

I will make informed choices based on how I think we should all make informed choices - I will not try to "overkill" my stated beliefs to compensate for anything or anybody else. I don't often judge other peoples' eating habits, unless it is the "the public at large", but what I will say is this: I would encourage you to think about what you eat before you even think about buying it
Albert Einstein once said: "Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet." I agree with the essence of the quote, but here's one I like better: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." (My emphasis added)

Thank you, Michael Pollan. And I'll even make a slight addition: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Something that didn't scream when it died".

5 comments:

Jenifer said...

I agree with you and your decision to eat meat products that identify with your criteria for living. I've been trying to find natural/organic meat products for a long time. Thankfully, they are now much more accessible to me. Pork is one of the hardest for me to locate, so if you have any suggestions on a brand, I would be grateful.

You and my sister could easily give lectures on this topic.

Susan said...

What an informative post Rachael! It sounds like you have given it a lot of thought, and you should do what works for you.

Rachael said...

Thanks both for the comments. It is interesting to see the food blogging world, where there is such a variety of food/health/environmental interests that meld together.

Jennifer - the bacon I had on saturday came from Trader Joe's and was listed as "humanely raised" with no antibiotics/hormones/etc. I had to read about 10 bacon packages before finding one that I liked, so I'm not sure if it's something they'd carry everywhere or if the supply differs by location. I did, however, find this on google:

http://www.flyingpigsfarm.com/purchasepork.html

and this:

http://www.grassrunfarm.com/

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