Do You Really Know What You’re Eating?
This morning, when I went to my university’s food court to grab lunch with a couple of friends, my friend sat down with a tasty-looking meat sandwich. I asked her, “What kind of meat is that?” It didn’t look like any meat that I’d seen commonly before, but it was clearly meat. It had little translucent white dots of fat among the pink flesh. She said that it was salami, to which my other friend asked, “What kind of meat is salami?”
All three of us paused, pondering. After about five seconds, we all looked at each other, blank-faced. I was the first to speak up. “I don’t actually know…I always thought salami was just…salami. I never thought much past it.” My friends both agreed; they weren’t aware of the meat’s composition either. I pulled out my smartphone and looked it up as we continued eating our meals. Turns out that salami, like other sausages, can be made of one or more types of common (and occasionally uncommon) meat including beef, pork, and even venison. My friends accepted the answer and kept chowing down on our respective foods, the question now behind us.
But having taken an ethics course senior year of my high school and a Critical Thinking and Writing English college course focusing on food, self, and culture this year as a freshman at Santa Clara University, I wasn’t quite finished with this question. Salami is such a common deli meat that many sandwich eaters, including me, eat on a regular basis, but some of us don’t even know what it’s made of. How could this be?
Let’s start at the beginning of my journey into the world of ethics of the food industry, back when I was still at high school in an ethics class. The class was structured to cover several common philosophical schools of thought such as Utilitarianism, Kantianism, Social Contract Theory, and others, which we would then apply to ethically consider various situations, such as factory farming and philosophical thought problems. Before this ethics class, I had known that something called factory farming existed, but didn’t know much at all about the severity and grotesqueness of the process. I had imagined a sort of factory line up that efficiently fed animals, moved them one place to another for clean, no fuss slaughter and waste disposal. Our technology in the 21st century should be advanced enough by now for that, right? Perhaps you even have such a vision such as the one I had. But upon discussing factory farming in both my ethics class in high school and the CTW class in college, I discovered how horribly misguided I was.
Factory farms are virtually nothing like I had imagined. Real factory farms aren’t clean cut at all. Animals intended for slaughter get crammed into tiny crates or barns by the tens of thousands as they gorge themselves on corn-based diets, foods that they certainly would not be eating if they were actually in the wild (“Welcome to the World”).
The killing is almost always gruesome and unsanitary, despite having precise automated machines working at full speed. One reason for this is that the machines aren’t always doing the killing. Humans are inhumanely killing animals too. Could you imagine yourself slitting the throat of a full-grown cow hanging from the ceiling? If you need some help, check out the video I watched in my ethics class, From Farm to Fridge (viewer discretion is highly advised, contains graphic images). With this knowledge of how inhumanely most factory farms treat their animals, the ethicalness of factory farms and eating meat produced by them arises. Those who oppose factory farms and support humane treatment of animals firmly believe that it is unethical to consume meat produced by factory farms. The discussion and the From Farm to Fridge video raised a question within myself: if this is how much of our meat is being produced, do I want to support this kind of animal abuse by consuming factory farmed meat?
Senior year ended, and the ethics surrounding factory farming slowly disappeared from my mind as the relaxing summer took hold of my attention. But somewhere in the back of my mind, the ethics of eating factory farmed meat lingered, put to sleep by the other circumstances of my life at the time.
How uncanny is it that the sleeping dragon would be awakened when I came to Santa Clara University and was automatically placed into the Critical Thinking and Writing course that would cover factory farming and other elements of the food industry, diving even deeper into the controversies? Fate, destiny, coincidence, whatever you might call it, it was once again eye-opening to discuss the topic even further.
Upon being in the CTW class for its two quarters, I discovered that factory farms and the food industry as a whole keeps the general public in the dark about their ethically questionable practices but continuously push for us to buy their products, which results in a certain ignorance in the every day consumer. Most omnivores wouldn’t want to eat factory farmed meat if they knew the details about its production, and would try to avoid it at all costs. They have good reason for wanting to avoid eating this overproduced meat. Because the food industry is so financially oriented, the American food industry tries to cut corners that would allow it to maximize profitability, often times at the expense of the animals’ welfare or our human health. For example, American factory farms use a massive refrigerated tank of water to cool slaughtered chickens instead of the much more sanitary European and Canadian method of air chilling. With the water method, the birds can absorb the water in which they are cooling, appropriately named “fecal soup” (Foer 135), which increases the price by the pound at which the meat can sell. The main issue with this method is the disgusting amount of bacteria and other pathogens floating around due to feces-covered birds being submerged in the same water as clean ones. This cross-contamination ultimately results in the thirty-nine to seventy-five percent of chickens still being infected with E. coli while they are sitting on the refrigerated shelf in the store all packaged up (Foer 131). Mmm, doesn’t that just sound so delicious?
I’m going to bet that you didn’t know that the majority of your chicken is produced in this manner. If you did, props to you, as you know more about meat production than a lot of other Americans. But why don’t more people really know how cruelly factory farms are treating their animals and the unsanitary processes they’re using? Maybe this has to do with the fact that the two governmental organizations that are supposed to protect us and our food, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are working with the very companies, the big meatpackers like Tyson Foods Inc. and Cargill, Inc., that they are supposed to be scrutinizing. We are now aware of circumstances where Tyson treated its animals inhumanely in order to keep costs down and “efficiency” up, but for the most part, they continue with these practices (Lutz).
As investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, author of the national bestseller Fast Food Nation says in the documentary Food, Inc., “For years during the Bush administration, the chief of staff at the USDA was the former chief lobbyist to the beef industry in Washington. The head of the FDA was the former executive vice president of the National Food Processors Association” (Food, Inc.).
These governmental agencies are supposed to control the food industry, not the other way around, as the situation so happens to be. We’re paying the government to make good decisions to keep our food safe, but this is what we’re getting? Of course, the FDA and USDA have contributed largely to the general health of our food, since there are rules and regulations that food companies making new foods have to pass in order to mass-produce their products. If humans were free to eat anything anyone produced, a lot more people would probably suffer from foodborne illnesses. But if the companies are so financially oriented, just like the factory farms are, how can we be sure that our food is genuinely safe to eat if we know that the production of meat sometimes results in meat that is potentially tainted with E. coli or salmonella? (Freston)
Maybe you say that you’ll just avoid eating factory farmed meat. A noble idea, but there’s one big problem with that: Since factory farming has been around and “succeeded” for so long already, currently ninety-nine percent of meat is currently produced by gigantic factory farms (“Factory Farming”).
If so much of our meat is produced in this way, how can we possibly get away from it? If you’re like author Jonathan Safran Foer and famous Utilitarian and vegetarian Peter Singer, then you might be thinking that the obvious answer is becoming a vegetarian. I’ll admit that was my first thought too. But like Foer acknowledges in his critically acclaimed book, Eating Animals, to many of us, myself included, meat tastes really good. But then I was presented with a moral and emotional dilemma: do I personally continue eating meat now that I know what happens behind those closed farm doors?
Upon reflection, I believe that even though ethics and the food industry forcefully push our eating habits toward the extremes of eating meat or not, we still maintain the free will to ultimately decide what we put in our bodies. Despite everything that we still don’t know about the food industry since it keeps as much as it can behind its tall metal doors, it is up to us to choose. Having taken this class, I can wholeheartedly say that my awareness and respect for food has increased significantly. A lot of effort and resources went into preparing the food that sits before me at every meal. Although I am not considering becoming a complete vegetarian at this time, I am certainly eating more mindfully when I do choose to eat meat. I eat more vegetarian meals when I am not really craving meat, so I ultimately eat less meat than I did before. I will admit that for now, I can’t seem to give up meat entirely, even knowing that it is most likely from a factory farm, but my awareness about the food industry and my respect for the animals that gave their lives to help feed my body has certainly increased. Part of me does not want to support factory farming, but the other side says that eating tasty meat is convenient and acceptable, especially on a college campus. Just as these two sides of me will fight it out indefinitely, ethics and factory farming will continue to battle head to head. Despite what those at PETA or what the food industry might be shouting at our faces, ultimately, it’s your choice what you put in your body. You are an autonomous human being. You can choose any course of action as you see fit. Whether it’s fruits, vegetables, or meat, eat up.
“Factory Farming.” Farm Forward. Farm Forward, N.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2014.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown And, 2009. Print.
Food, Inc. Dir. Robert Kenner. Documentary Addict/Food Inc. Documentary Addict. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
Freston, Kathy. “E. Coli, Salmonella and Other Deadly Bacteria and Pathogens in Food: Factory Farms Are the Reason.” HuffingtonPost.com. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 8 Jan. 2010. Web. 06 Feb. 2014.
Lutz, Daniel. “Tyson Foods and a Culture of Cruelty.” Animal Legal Defense Fund. 27 Nov. 2013. Web. 06 Feb. 2014.
“Welcome to the World of the CAFO.” CAFO – The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.
Images are cited separately.