Thursday, January 18, 2007

Shitburger w/ Large Lies, Part 4

I love women's shoes. They're hot. But a few nebbish dorks around the office occasionally grouse that women "shouldn't be wearing open-toed shoes, because of OSHA regulations!" OSHA my ass. Never wildly impressed with the organization, after reading Fast Food Nation, I am thoroughly disgusted with the agency. Not because there aren't good people in there, but because the organization itself has been two-ball castrated by the meatpacking industry! One example among far too many: OSHA fined National Beef for negligence in the deaths of two workers. The fine? $960.

Next time I hear someone in our posh office bitching about women's shoes and safety, I'm gonna go ballistic: "FORGET about the damn shoes at the office! There are meatpackers in Greely, Colorado who REALLY need OSHA's help! They don't have TIME to worry about stubbed toes! THERE ARE PEOPLE DYING!"

And there are. Meatpacking went from a high-skill, high-wage, unionized manufacturing job to low-skill, low-wage, at-will employment for immigrants, seemingly overnight. And that transformation has helped to make it one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States.

Colorado, with the help of large agribusiness corporations, has codified what many meatpacking injuries are worth, if a worker is willing to sign a waiver that denies him the right to ever sue or even to seek a second opinion about his medical condition. A finger? $2,200 to $4,500, depending upon which one. An arm? $36,000. And "serious permanent disfigurement about the head, face, or parts of the body normally exposed to public view" entitles a worker to a maximum of $2,000. No paid leave, no medical benefits, just a permanent disability and a one-time payout if the employee is lucky.

In the end, who really pays for this travesty? We do! Because these decent people end up living on public assistance. To me, this is literally human sacrifice, subsidized by taxpaying citizens, for the purpose of providing a low-cost, unhealthy meal to ignorant consumers.

I love the chapter title, "What's in the Meat." It's horror/comedy at it's best. Like Shaun of the Dead or Bio-Zombie. So just what is in the meat? The story is macabre before the animals are even slaughtered. Cows are fed rendered chicken and pork waste. Chickens and pigs are fed rendered beef waste. Incidentally, cats and dogs eat cats and dogs. It's in their food. I didn't know that. I suppose I should have, but I didn't. Anyway, the cows, being ruminants, must be heavily dosed with antibiotics in order to survive this diet. Add to all of this a hefty cocktail of hormones to speed growth, maturation, and muscle development. That beast is ready for the kill! Better living through chemistry!

Off to the slaughterhouse. Beef cattle usually stands around in gigantic feed lots, wading in their own piss and shit for days until they get lead in to be killed in an assembly-line fashion. Now, I happen to think that the animals I eat should still be treated with some reverence. But even if you don't feel that way, consider that from a bottom-line perspective, it probably would be better if an animal about to be made into food wasn't covered in feces.

The assembly line goes at breakneck speeds, and poorly-trained, overworked, underpaid workers pull the entrails out of the carcasses as quickly as they can. One error and shit is everywhere. The shit doesn't have to be there. To wit: when the beef being processed at these slaughterhouses is to be shipped to the European Union, the lines are slowed to ensure a lower contamination ratio. The EU has virtually eliminated fecal contaminants from their meat supply, and they prefer to import as little shit as possible.

Incidentally, guess where the worst of the worst meat ends up? In our schools, being fed to children. The USDA buys it at cut-rate prices, after the prime beef is picked over by the fast-food companies.

I could go on about E. coli, Salmonella, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (aka Mad Cow Disease), and other contaminants, but the title of this four-part series pretty much sums it up: if you are eating ordinary ground beef from grocery store or from a fast food chain, you are quite literally eating shit.

The industry doesn't want to do what the EU does: slow production lines and implement widespread microbal testing at all stages of processing and handling. Instead, they want to "cold pasteurize" the meat. "Cold pasteurize"? What the hell is that? It turns out that this is what the Beef Industry Food Safety Council wants to call "irradiation."


So what about Richard Linklater's film version? I must confess I saw the movie first. I thought it was fairly well-made; it struck me as slightly preachy and disjointed, but informative and very grim. It was a clever idea to take a work of non-fiction and weave a narrative around the information.

Linklater succeeded in this endeavor by building a multi-threaded story around an ensemble, in the spirit of Syriana or Traffic. Except that the characters populating this tale are much closer to us. Terrorism and the drug trade don't affect as many Americans as fast food. Though it lacks the raw data that gives the book its devastating punch, the film's finale is as bleak as it is real.


Earlier in this series of essays, I talked about Schlosser's comment that informs the book. He said that there was nothing inevitable about the way American food production is today. And in other parts of the world, they are doing something about it. Germany, ground zero of the industrial revolution, no longer believes that an industrialized food system is in the best interests of people or the environment. They are legislating to de-industrialize food production, mandating that 20% of farms are organic by 2010.

Now that's something hopeful. I'd like to see the U.S. take a step or two in that direction. But we have to start somewhere. So skip the fast food. Buy small, buy local, buy organic. Eat slow food.


Manda said...

Well done Sammy! You've peeked my interest even more. Now I must read the book. Thank you for sharing your review.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Since March of 2006, my partner and I have been vegetarians. One of our primary motivations has been a desire to do what we could to reduce cruelty to animals. Knowing what I now know, I realize that the meat industry is also the perpetrator of incredible cruelty against the humans who live near and work in their plants.

For the last twenty years of his career as a research chemist, my father worked as the director of research at Eastman Gelatin, the primary producer of the gelatin that is used to make Kodak film. As part of his work, he regularly toured the meat-packing plants from which Eastman Gelatin purchased the cow and pig bones and hides used to manufacture their gelatin. Every time dad went on a tour of one of these plants, he would go vegetarian for months at a time. My dad is a Republican, a Bush-supporter, and a conservative Christian, and his bouts of vegetarianism were not motivated by ideology. He just couldn't bring himself to eat meat after seeing how it is produced.

I have since discussed with my Dad some of the spiritual ideals that might motivate one to become a vegetarian. They include the very Christian notion of stewardship of God's fragile creation, concern for the poor who are exploited by industrial meat production and the international system that sustains it, not to mention compassion for helpless animals who don't have the ability to protect themselves, along with a general reverence for life. (I'm glad you used that word--reverence--in your essay, Sam!) My dad, Bush-voting conservative that he is, agreed, after together we thumbed through a few scriptural texts that highlight the responsibilities we humans have for the web of life that surrounds us. He even quoted a few scriptures in support of vegetarianism that I didn't know about! You don't have to be some vegan hippie living on a commune to find the spiritual values we all need to create a more humane and responsible world--for ourselves as well as for God's other creatures.

Years before my partner and I went vegetarian, we made (and kept) a vow never again to eat at a fast food restaurant. Gradually over the years we reduced our meat consumption, until, just before our decision to stop eating meat all together, only 2-3% of our calories came from meat. We occasionally gather flak from friends who taunt us about leather furniture that we sit on and leather shoes that we wear. Our respons to that is: Perfectionism is the enemy of the good! Take concrete steps now. You don't have to make drastic changes in your lives. Even moderate changes can have a huge impact. Any reduction of meat consumption will have a positive impact.

Knight of Nothing said...

Thank you for your comments, John. I'd be interested to know which scripture passages advocate vegetarianism. Some of the most strident anti-enviromentist, anti-vegetarian people claim that the Bible gives them license to dominate and subjugate nature. It is edifying to know that they might have missed something from their own scriptures.

For my part, though I respect vegetarians, I am not an advocate personally. I am against over-consumption and exploitation in all forms, and the beef industry is a disturbing example of those two evils run rampant.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

As you know, I'm not a dogmatic vegetarian. I'm not against the eating of meat, per se. But I think animals need to be treated in a humane way, and as you've pointed out, the meat industry currently doesn't do that. Some folks I know choose only to eat meat from free range animals, etc. I think it is debatable whether that really solves the problem.

Part of the problem is, there's just too darn many humans in the world right now to feed meat to everybody on the planet in an ecologically sound, humane way. Again, looking at it from an ecologically sound point of view, the truth is we simply can't eat at the top of the food chain when there are 6 billion people--with 2 billion more on the way by the end of this quarter century. So part of my decision to become a vegetarian is also just a pragmatic response to the situation in the world today. If we were living in conditions that prevailed 150-200 years ago, I'd say eat up. Eat all the meat you want! Not now, not today.

Clearly this is a personal choice. I believe there are other responses that could be just as responsible as being a vegetarian. As I said at the end of my last essay, extreme responses are not necessarily called for. But becoming a vegetarian is, I think, a very good response to this problem.

As for scriptures... Genesis 1:29-30: "And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so."

This passage pretty much says, the "meat" God intended man to eat is "every herb bearing seed... and every tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat." God created man to be vegetarian... There's nothing in there about man eating animals. Note that God gives animals "green herb" for meat. The entire animal creation, including man, was intended to eat plant life, not each other.

This notion that prior to the fall, humankind and animals all lived together in harmony is a recurring biblical vision. The idea is that human sinfulness changed the world into a place where nature is "red in tooth and claw," where animals (including humans) prey upon and eat each other. This is not what God intended.

When God returns at the end of time to restore the paradisaical order of things, to reestablish the "peaceable kingdom," nature will return to the idyllic state originally created in the Garden of Eden: "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea." (Isaiah 11:6-9)

Since my dad is a Mormon, he pointed out to me that Joseph Smith may have had a similar vision in which ideally, humans would live in harmony with animal life and would eat only the fruits of the earth. Check this out, from the Mormon "Word of Wisdom" which establishes the dietary code Mormons should live by: "And again, verily I say unto you, all wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man--Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving." Then after saying that it is permissible to eat meat, there is a curious addendum: "And it is pleasing unto me that [meat] should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine." In other words, while men are permitted to eat meat, God would prefer that they do not eat it, that they resort to eating meat only when famine, winter, or other extreme conditions make it unavoidable. (See Doctrine and Covenants section 89.)

Most Mormons ignore this text--they pay more attention to other parts of this same section that prohibit the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other stimulants. But an attentive Mormon who reads this text in context with Genesis and Isaiah might reasonably decide that vegetarianism is more consistent with God's plan for the world than eating meat.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

OK, here's part two, some more biblical perspectives on diet/vegetarianism.

Most folks are, of course, aware of kosher laws, which prohibit the eating of certain kinds of meat altogether (such as pork or shellfish). Kosher laws also require that those meats we do eat be prepared in certain ways. Today, this includes ensuring that animals who are slaughtered for meat are disease free and are slaughtered in a humane, painless way. Kosher law specifically forbids Jews from meat which has been "torn." In fact, the Jewish word for non-kosher food--"treyf"--literally means torn. (See Deut. 12:21 and 14:21.) Obviously, the reason kosher-observant Jews can buy only kosher meat is not because there is anything magical about kosher meat, but because the vast majority of meat produced by the American meat industry does not meet these minimal (and very reasonable) standards of ensuring that meat is disease-free and prepared humanely.

But this gets more interesting when we look at specific situations in scripture. Consider, for example, the situation of the "Hebrew children," Daniel and his companions Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. In Daniel chapter 1, when Daniel and his companions are taken into captivity in Babylon and are brought into the court of the king of Babylon, they are told that they must eat the king's meats and drink the king's wine. Daniel begs the eunuch in charge of their diet not to force them to eat the king's meat, but instead to let them eat "pulse," a diet consisting of grains and beans or lentils. The eunuch is afraid that Daniel and his friends will be less healthy than the other slaves of the king if they do not partake, but he reluctantly agrees to give them "pulse." After ten days, Daniel and his friends are actually stronger and healthier than those who ate Babylonian meats and wines.

The book of Acts documents concern in the early Christian church about eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. At the Council of Jerusalem, Christians were specifically enjoined not to eat such meats.

Both the Daniel story and what we know about the early Christian community from the book of Acts reflect an ethic of being concerned about where your food comes from and how it is made--and refusing to eat it when it does not meet certain standards.

By biblical standards, the eating of meat is problematic in a way that eating vegetarian food is not. It is impossible to eat a strict vegetarian diet and not be kosher. There are no kosher rules restricting the preparation or eating of grains, legumes and vegetables. There are LOTS of rules regulating the eating of meat. It certainly seems that one moral of the Daniel story is that when appropriate meats are just not available, a vegetarian diet is the correct choice.

BTW--If our society observed the Jewish (and Muslim) prohibitions against eating pork, one of the WORST and most abusive sectors of the meat industry would be eliminated. There is even some speculation that one reason ancient kosher law prohibited the eating of pork is because pigs eat too much and shit too much to be an ecologically fit food choice. Anyone who has read any account of modern industrial pig farming knows only too well how true this is.

ChildCareGuy said...

By the end I had trouble remembering that I was reading about "Fast Food nation". I confused it with the more recent (?) movie "Supersize Me".
Including the graphic with each chapter would help us memory impaired old folks.
Your essay is fascinating and informative. I have read other similar exposes'. I suspect that most of this criticism is fair and reasonably accurate.
In my opinion people are addicted to poor quality food, addicted in the sense of being unable to stop; willing to lie, cheat and steal to keep the supply of bad food flowing; and especially good at lying to themselves about what they are doing and the harm done.
My personal compromise with eating meat broke down when I invited my girl friend to live with me. She is not an environmentalist, and she is highly carnivorous. Before her entry, I ate vegetarian at home and ate meat as offered when at work or on social occasions.
I still buy only grass fed beef, which I feel does help. John is 100% correct about his "Diet for a Small Planet" concern with being able to feed everyone meat. We can feed more people per acre when we eat vegetarian.
I believe that almost everyone knows how to eat well, and that almost everyone chooses to ignore what they know is best, because bad food and fast food are overwhelmingly attractive to 99% of us. End of story.