Eating Low: A New Paradigm

It's easy to disassociate the meat that you cook with the living animal it came from. This happens to me, even though as a professional cook I prepare meat almost every day.

Someone once said to me that if you visit a slaughterhouse you'd never eat meat again. I've never visited a slaughterhouse but I did work for a short period with a butcher who was a veteran of such a place. He had spent five years on the  "killing floor" and it showed in his eyes. He'd relate horror stories in such a matter of fact way. He talked about petting the animals and looking in their eyes briefly to calm them before taking their life (a nervous or stressed animal supposedly yields tough meat). He drank whiskey after work. A lot.

I am not a vegetarian, but I do have a distinct memory of the first time that I was repulsed by meat. I was visiting in-laws at their 100-acre homestead in the rural Midwest. It was summer and oppressively hot, but the scenery was beautiful; cows and goats roamed freely on the land. I stood in the shade drinking a cold beer as the host shaped burgers in his hands and placed them on the grill. He handed one to me on a roll. It was rare and a little blood dripped out onto my hand as I bit in. It tasted good. Then, as if I were in a Stephen King movie, I noticed a group of cows about 20 feet away staring at me as I ate. Their big marble-like eyeballs looked directly at me. It was a little too close to the source; I felt sick to my stomach.

That said, I have to admit to being something of a hypocrite. Like many Americans, I am aware of the health and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet, yet I still eat meat; not much but some. Some of the meat I eat is a result of my profession -- as a cook I have to taste and season the foods that others order. But this is also a cop-out, since I eat meat mostly because I enjoy it.

Now chew on these statistics:

According to the USDA, total per capita meat consumption in the U.S. (red meat, poultry and fish) was 194 pounds in 2001, which is 16 pounds more than Americans consumed about 20 years ago. The types and amounts of food a person eats affect not only their own health, but also have direct implications to society as a whole. For every pound of beef produced cattle must consume over four pounds of grain. Frances Moore Lappé notes in her book,  "Diet For A Small Planet" that for every 8-ounce steak consumed there could be a roomful of people fed on grain. According to the British world hunger group VegFam, a 10-acre farm could support 60 people if they grew soybeans; 24 people if they grew wheat; 10 growing corn -- and only two if they used the land to raise cattle.

To take this in another direction, the sheer volume of food that is fed to these animals doesn't just get consumed, nature takes its course and it gets excreted too. And this is very bad for our environment, say People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA states that animals raised for food produce more than a billion tons of waste a year, and much of this waste ends up in rivers and streams. A runoff of animal waste, for example, contributed to a 7,000-square-mile  "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico; a dead zone can no longer support aquatic life.

Disease-infected meat seems to be a daily occurrence in the news, and we have known the health risks of a meat-based diet for years. So why then do we continue to eat so much meat? Because it's ingrained into our culture, and much of this meat consumption is a result of fast food.

Fast food meals are, of course, primarily meat-based ... or at least something that was once meat. This, in my opinion carries a double whammy, because not only has fast food changed the way our country eats it's also changed what our country grows and how it's grown. Besides, fast food is just plain bad for you on many levels.

Many believe that fast food is contributing to the demise of the family meal. There was a time when families ate together everyday (sitting around a table, not a television). Eating communally is form of family bonding; eating on the run or while staring blankly at the tube is not. And eating food from a Styrofoam container while sitting in a hideously colored plastic booth in a florescent lit room is not exactly dining. Habitual consumption of fast food is not only bad for you physically and environmentally, in this writer's opinion it's also bad for you psychologically.

Eric Schlosser states in his best selling book,  "Fast Food Nation," "Americans now spend more money on fast food -- $110 billion -- than they do on higher education. They spend more money on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music -- combined."

Because of the great need to produce enough meat for fast food, animals are now being raised on  "factory farms." The intent of a factory farm is to raise as many animals as possible in the shortest amount of time and in the smallest amount of physical space. Because overcrowding is a perfect environment for disease, animals on factory farms are often fed and sprayed with huge amounts of pesticides and antibiotics, much of which remains in the animal and is passed onto the consumer in the form of chemically contaminated meat.

Fast food and factory farming has also drastically changed traditional farming methods and independent farms, and quite frankly this has pissed some farmers off.

In 1999, for example, the small farming community of Millau, France, was outraged when they learned that McDonalds was planning to open a restaurant in their village (this was aggravated by the then recent hike of import duties America imposed on locally produced Roquefort cheese), so they organized a protest rally at the half-built restaurant. Some of the farmers went so far as to dismantle the restaurant and drive through town with it on their trucks, like a float, while crowds cheered.

Leading the protest was José Bové, a local sheep farmer and activist. He and fellow farmer, Francois Dufour, chronicle this in their book, "The World Is Not For Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food." I once listened to a radio interview with Monsieur Bové. It was dinner time and in closing the interviewer asked him what he was going to eat for dinner that evening (keep in mind that he lives in southwest France, a region famed for foie gras and duck confit). He replied with one word:  "Carrots."

OK, you say, enough. Fine. I'm not standing on my soapbox preaching (I still eat meat, remember); I'm just passing along information. It's just that we all have choices. When you make a choice to stop or reduce meat consumption for health reasons that's a personal one, but when you make a choice to do it for environmental reasons that's global. Eating low on the food chain uses much less energy and natural resources than that of a meat-based diet. Where you choose to eat on the food chain determines the amount of resources necessary to sustain your diet, and  "eating low" is easier than you may think. Going meatless a few times a week -- or even once a week -- can be beneficial. Imagine the impact if the entire country went meatless for even a single day.

Will I continue to eat meat? I'm not sure, but probably in smaller amounts than I already do. One thing is for sure -- after researching this article I'll never look at a hamburger the same way again.

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