Vegetarianism vs. Mindful Meat Eating

The images are nauseating, nothing short of horrific. Cows bucking and bellowing, clearly conscious on their way to being slaughtered for meat production. Chickens de-beaked so they won't peck each other to death in the tight cages in which they're raised. Pigs confined to pens so small they can hardly move.

These and other nightmarish scenes from the meat industry have been reproduced on television and in books and articles; they've been passed orally from friend to friend, activist to audience. One way or another they get into our heads and once there, they're hard to forget.

Anyone who takes them seriously -- and, really, who wouldn't? -- soon starts to wonder how to respond. I can switch to eating "humanely raised" meat, which comes from farms that try to give each of their animals a more pleasant life; or I can give up meat altogether. Both responses come from a similar starting point, the urge to do one person's admittedly tiny part to drive down the retail demand for meat that has the industry working overtime to generate the supply, resulting in inhumane conditions for animals.

But neither one is the ideal, unilateral response. Humanely raised meat is still meat -- the animals still had to be put to death, even if they lived comfier lives relative to those of animals raised on factory farms. And because the number of humane farms and demand for their products is still quite small, meat from them is expensive.

Going vegetarian is just as mixed a bag. For the huge majority of people living in our meat-eating culture, a vegetarian diet is not easy, convenient, or -- to some -- even satisfying. And, giving up meat keeps me from putting my grocery dollars behind humanely operating farms and potentially boosting their share of the market.

Walking the Line, Making the Choice

Like so many other dilemmas in contemporary life, this one has no solid, simple answer. Clearly, the way one person responds to the cruelty of the meat industry depends a lot on individual history, emotions, and spirituality. Weighing the possibilities against one another amounts to jumping into a pretty significant philosophical debate that almost inevitably ends in a tie.

It's an ambivalence that runs deep for many people. Take these two, who although they land on opposite sides of the line, both eagerly support people who make the other choice:

Marla Rose is a co-founder of the Chicago chapter of EarthSave, a national organization that advocates veganism as an environmental solution. With her husband, she also operates Veganstreet, a business that promotes vegan products. She's unapologetic about being on the no-meat-at-all side: "Killing an animal even under the auspices of humane treatment is a contradiction of terms that I can't get beyond," she says. "But still I can applaud anyone who is doing some things to make life a little more comfortable for animals living in captivity."

Michael Appleby is vice-president of the farm animals and sustainable agriculture unit of the Humane Society of the United States, and the author of a 1999 book called "What Should We Do About Animal Welfare?" Not a vegetarian but an eater of "very little meat," Appleby believes that "most people who are actively concerned about the treatment of animals will continue to eat meat nevertheless. They think it will continue to be appropriate to keep farm animals, but ideally we should give them a better life and a humane death. And yet we understand that the vegetarians may be going further to reduce suffering."

Taken together, these two people's attitudes turn the ambivalence into balance, an approach that incorporates everybody's effort, no matter how small, to counter the suffering of meat animals. "You just want people making informed choices," says John Robbins, the noted vegetarian activist (who is actually vegan), EarthSave International founder and author of several books including last year's The Food Revolution. "You want them to understand the choices they have made and be comfortable with them."

The Humane Society's unofficial slogan on farming fairly encapsulates the balanced approach that, Appleby suggests, ultimately will prevail and change the nature of the meat industry: "We say, 'There should be fewer farm animals, kept better,'" he notes.

That they should be kept better may be the more urgent half of that formulation. Most observers of the brutal conditions in factory farms and slaughterhouses say it's largely because of Americans' huge appetite for meat -- 69 pounds per person per year, on average -- that farm conditions are what they are. Enormous feedlots that house thousands of animals, research on how to clone chickens of standardized sizes and other frightening developments all rise out of the seemingly unquenchable hunger for meat. (Although per capita consumption is below what it was few decades ago, quick population growth swamps that change.)

"Yes, the law requires that animals be fully unconscious before they are dismembered, but because of the line speed in the plant and the pressure to process animals in volume, it is not happening," says Bradley Miller, national director of the Humane Farming Association, based in San Rafael, California. "We have taken sworn affidavits from workers inside meatpacking plants that show that five to 25 percent of the animals are butchered while still fully conscious."

The group's lead investigator, Gail Eisnitz, documented much of the atrocity in her 1997 book Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry. It was part of a wave of anti-meat publicity that included Oprah's trial in Texas and other Mad Cow madness, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' various ad campaigns, and other public discussion of the troubles with meat that eventually prodded one of the world's largest meat buyers, McDonald's, to align itself with humanely raised meat animals.

McDonald's: A Leader in Animal Welfare!?

Two years ago, the Oak Brook-based hamburger chain announced that it would only buy meat and eggs from farms that met certain conditions. Among them were that hens must live in larger cages and must not be subject to "forced molting," a process that speeds up a hen's cycle of egg production by withholding food from her for five to seven days. McDonald's also insisted that slaughterhouses be audited to verify that they uphold established humane standards. (A McDonald's public relations officer did not offer company executives to be interviewed for this article.)

The move by McDonald's, which Appleby calls one of the most significant steps toward better animal welfare this country has seen, "started a domino effect," says Terrie Dort, president of the National Council of Chain Restaurants. "Burger King and Wendy's followed McDonald's," and soon the smaller and medium-sized members of her Washington, D.C.-based group were telling her, "'We need to get involved, too,'" she recalls. "'We want standards for the whole industry so there won't be anyone playing off one company against another.'" Working with the Food Marketing Institute (which represents grocery retailers), the chain restaurant group called in the major associations of pork, chicken, egg, and beef producers and worked out standards, finalized last summer. "We did not create our own standards, we strengthened the producers' standards," Dort says.

Rose downplays the impact of the new standards -- "they gave hens four more inches of space in the cage," she points out -- but Appleby sees it as the kind of incremental change that gradually accumulates into revolutionary change. "We are disappointed that the guidelines have relatively few concrete advances," he says, "but we welcome them because those guidelines recognize that animal welfare is important and provide a basis for future improvement." They don't ban forced molting, for example, so they come in below the bar set by McDonald's; and although they increase the cage size for laying hens, he notes, "Europe is moving to having birds have a nest box and a perch and loose nesting material. We want that here, eventually."

"Eventually" is the key to so much of this problem. Change has to be slow and steady when it is about transforming a basic human function like eating. "Some people can leap across a chasm, but some people need stepping stones or a bridge," says Robbins, who, even in light of his staunch anti-meat stand, believes a mass switch to eating vegetarian would be a lot harder to sell than a mass switch to humanely raised meat -- even though his preference would be vegetarianism.

People have been eating animals for thousands of years, of course; asking them to stop abruptly is like trying to put the rain back in the sky. But the system of meat production has only become so brutal to animals in the past century or so, beginning during Chicago's late 19th-century heyday as hog butcher to the world, when meat-packing first became centralized and industrialized. By 1958, conditions were so appalling that Congress passed the Humane Slaughter Act, requiring among other things that animals be "insensible to pain" before being slaughtered.

But that is the only major piece of legislation governing the treatment of farm animals, and it dates from a time before the rise of centralized factory farms, notes Alice Slater, president of the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, based in New York City. Severely cramped cages and pens, heavy use of antibiotics, volumes of manure that choke the land's carrying capacity -- "these all came later with the factory farms and are out of control," she says.

The impulse to go vegetarian when we are made aware of the sickening conditions on factory farms is strong, but Slater and others say it may send the wrong message. By supporting meat producers who provide more humane conditions for their animals -- open grazing areas instead of confining pens, comfortable nesting boxes and nest materials -- consumers lead the way for suppliers. They vote with their dollars, effectively shifting the weight of the market away from factory farms.

"If the farmer who is giving his pigs the best life he can is not supported by the consumer, then there cannot be any growth in that sector," Appleby says. "If everybody who is concerned about inhumane conditions stops eating meat, the farmers who are trying to be humane can't succeed. Support the people who are trying to do the best they can."

A problem lies in determining who is trying and who is simply good at marketing. Dort, from the chain restaurant group, makes no bones about what motivated her membership to get on the issue: "There is no doubt that there has been a lot of pressure put on these companies by an activist community, but there is also consumer research that [showed] consumers were not going to stop eating meat because of it," she says. "They wanted to be reassured. They didn't want to be told that animals were being treated cruelly."

In other words, the public wants reassurance: Please, Mr. Burgermeister, tell us that the PETA billboards aren't true!

"Yeah, 'Just don't point that stuff out to me' is what they were saying," Dort suggests. "And, 'Oh by the way, some of that stuff in the slaughterhouse is gross. Try to minimize it.'"

It's not only the big mainstream marketers that may be playing games on the issue. Robbins says that some supposedly good guys, companies that sell products from animals raised in better conditions, exaggerate just how well their animals are treated.

Horizon, the nation's leading organic dairy, irks him with its logo that depicts a smiling cow leaping through the sky. "Their products are organic -- that means the feed they give their dairy cows is grown organically -- and that's a good thing," he says. "But this business about a happy cow is a crock, because the vast majority of their cows are kept in dry feedlots and never see a blade of grass in their lives. The grain is brought to them; they never graze. You go on their Web site and search the words 'pasture' or 'meadow' and nothing comes up. It's really kind of unhappy for the cows."

An egg company in California called Happy Hen Egg Ranch uses similar tactics that irritate him: "The carton has a picture of a smiling hen in a field looking up at the sun. Something is being implied there about how the birds live there, but I visited the ranch and the birds are in cages. The cages are a little larger from the industry norm, but still it's a far and painful cry from what is implied by that picture."

A Means to an End

That's enough to make a person who's sitting on the fence, vacillating between humanely raised meat and vegetarianism, suddenly see the picture differently, more cynically. But Robbins, Appleby, and several others all say the important thing to do is first take a conscious step to improve the lives of meat animals.

Whichever step it is, "it will help at least some animals," Appleby notes. "The large majority of the population are not going to turn vegetarian tomorrow...even vegetarians must be concerned for how the animals that are still kept in agriculture are treated. They can't say, 'because I'm vegetarian this is no longer an issue for me, this is someone else's worry. Because, of course, the animals are still being kept by society. The effects on the environment are still there.'"

Robbins tells a story to illuminate the point: A small boy wanders onto a beach that is littered with countless starfish stranded there by an enormous storm. He starts to pick them up one by one and carry them back to the water. An older man walks up and says to the boy, "What are you doing? Can't you see that there are thousands of starfish for miles and miles on this beach? Helping a couple of starfish doesn't matter."

The boy listens to the man, then picks up another starfish and carries it to the water. He looks at the man and says, "it mattered to that one."

Dennis Rodkin is a Chicago-based writer and a 20-year vegetarian.


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