“Every week, millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors, or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers."
~Scott Bronstein, “A Journal-Constitution Special Report—Chicken: How Safe? First of Two Parts,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 26, 1991.
Learning where my food comes from is a big part of my mission to find the good in food. However, it isn't always fun—especially when it comes to meat. Lately, I've been learning a lot about factory farm meat (conventional) vs. family farm meat (sustainable). And I often debate how to present this information on my blog. On the one hand, to me, it is a very important part of this project. On the other hand, I understand that not everyone is ready to know these things. And the last thing I want is for my blog to be preach-y or to gross people out.
Having said that, I will try to focus on my personal thoughts and reactions to what I learn, and skip all the truly gory details. If you want to read more about something, I'll give you the resource so you can learn for yourself. Deal?
...and moving on.
As an omnivore, learning the truth behind the burgers and bacon you so dearly love can be hard to swallow. Mostly because choosing the greater good over a great steak is a personal challenge that is harder for some people than others.
The first time I questioned my meat-eating ethics (which were not actually ethics-based, but taste-based) was, surprisingly enough, last November when I saw an episode of the Fox TV series “Bones” in which they investigate a death at a chicken factory and, in the process, discuss some rather unsavory common practices. This was the first time I heard the term “de-beaking.” And it really freaked me out. So much so that I vowed only to eat free-range chicken and eggs from that point forward.
But my love for spicy chicken wings and diner eggs was stronger than my love for the chickens I had never met. And about a month later, I was enjoying some amazing "family recipe" wings at my writing group’s holiday party.
Then, in early January, I watched the documentary “Food Inc.” I cried for the chickens being carelessly mass-produced in the factories, and I had to look away when it showed pigs being shocked to death in a slaughterhouse. However, later that month, I couldn't bring myself to pay $16 for a very small pastured chicken at a local foods market, so I found one of unknown origin for $2/lb elsewhere.
But eventually the facts started to outweigh my desire for cheap meat. The clincher was Jonathan Safran Foer's book, "Eating Animals." The information was so powerful that it ruined my appetite for days. Now, don't get me wrong, I haven't gone vegetarian. But I can't continue eating the way I have in the past, either. So for now, I'm on the path to being what Michael Pollan calls a "selective omnivore." It's not easy. Sustainable meat is in some cases very expensive, and in others inconvenient. And telling myself I won't ever eat a Big Mac again makes the memory of their taste even more tempting.
But I'm doing it. It's the very beginning of establishing food beliefs for myself. And it's a gradual process. I started by identifying the meats/foods that are easiest to substitute with family farm sources. Pastured (or free-range...but ideally, pastured) eggs, cheese and milk simply require a few dollars more than what I'm used to spending. Giving up factory chicken essentially means giving up my favorite cheap meals, since I most often ate chicken in ethnic restaurant dishes (Indian, Mexican, Chinese). This method falls in line with an article I read a few weeks ago by David Kirby called "6 Baby Steps Toward a More Sustainable Animal Diet." It's a really helpful set of guidelines for beginners. It lacks the hard-nosed facts that I've found most convincing in my own research, but it also lacks the guilt that comes along with those facts. So we'll call it a gateway article. It's worth checking out if caring about your meat is something that's been on your mind lately.