The obvious inspiration for this blog is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which for me is the book of Genesis for this issue. The film Food Inc. would be Exodus, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, Leviticus.
Here’s the basic story: 98% of our meat comes from factory-farmed animals (that is, animals raised and slaughtered under excruciatingly inhumane conditions). Agribusiness works (and lobbies) hard to hide this reality from us, and our government all but blesses their efforts. Many of us know these things on some level, but we try not to think about them too much or in too much detail. Particularly at dinner time.
I am one of these many. This blog will chronicle my odyssey toward knowing how to feed myself (something that you’d think I would have learned in 40 years, but alas). Like the actual Odyssey, I expect it to be full of horror and deception, glory and faith, torture and—on a good day—redemption.
Hmm. The Bible and The Odyssey. I seem to have set very high expectations for my writing.
Here’s the thing: Like most humans, I love to eat. Truly, madly, deeply. To me, every meal (and snack) is a precious gift, a sensuous celebration. There is a region of my heart that will always belong to bacon. And cheeseburgers. And chicken soup.
The other great (non-human) love of my life is animals: not only the two remarkable cats that share our apartment, but every dog on the street, the sloths I encountered in the rainforest of Costa Rica, the lemurs on the National Geographic Channel, the pets at the shelter I volunteer at, and every other creature in the animal kingdom. There’s even a word for this: biophilia, the affinity humans feel for other life forms (the definition includes plants as well, but I’m not so into plants). I am a born biophiliac.
So after reading and watching Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus, I finally resolved to only eat animals who had lived good lives and been slaughtered quickly and painlessly (which pretty much rules out eating the meat served in restaurants). I believed this was doable because I had the Golden Ticket.
It’s true. With my like-minded partner, Michael, I happen to live within crawling distance of The Park Slope Food Coop, one of the oldest and most successful member-owned and operated food stores in the country, with more than 15,000 members. Stocked full of organic this and cage-free that, and powered by a heap of admirable ideals, the co-op was going to be our one-stop source of meat and animal products, keeping us in a state of humane, carnivorous grace.
Or so I imagined. On my next shop, I checked out the labels on the chicken, beef, turkey, fish, eggs, cheese, butter, and milk. One kind of chicken had an official-looking seal that read “Certified Humane.” Most of the rest had some combination of the following terms: organic, pasture-raised, all-natural, minimally-processed, grass-fed, free-range, cage-free. I already knew plenty about the term “organic”—at least as defined and regulated (loosely, in both cases) by the USDA. In short, while it has some significance for human health (no hormones or antibiotics), it has little bearing on how animals live and nothing to do with how they die.
For the remaining terms, some research yielded bad news: food marketing claims such as “grass-fed” and “cage-free” have no regulatory definition by the USDA. The agency pre-approves product labels based on producer testimonials and does nothing to confirm compliance.
At this point, my idealism kicked in and I decided to talk to the meat buyer at our co-op. As I imagined it, he would have first-hand knowledge of the practices of the co-op’s meat suppliers. Inspired by my enthusiasm, he would suggest forming an Animal Welfare Committee—spearheaded by yours truly! I and my fellow committee members would create shelf signage that would decode and deconstruct producers’ labeling claims. This would lead to members making better choices and increase the demand for products from better producers.
My fantasy came crashing down when the meat buyer failed to return my phone calls and letters.
Several “cooperative” developments followed, but the big twist came a few weeks ago as Michael and I were sitting on our couch with our Amy’s All-American Vegetable Burgers. Between bites, he pointed out that Eating Animals may be the tipping point for this issue (at least in our demographic), and that there are doubtless many others with similar questions, frustrations, and struggles. “I think it’s a blog,” he said. “And I think you should write it.”
So here we are, somewhere in cyberspace, exiled from Ithaca. In truth, I don’t know if I can affect change at the co-op—or even in my own life. More to the point, I don’t know if anyone can make a difference for factory-farm animals. But I do know that exile is easier when shared. Please join me on the journey and let me know what you think.