Getting to Know Meat: An Essay In Progress



Below is a draft of an excerpt of an essay I’m currently writing on what it means to connect with meat. Any and all feedback is welcome. –jm

We’re constantly urged by food reformers to “connect with our food.” This imperative resonates widely. It underscores our collective effort to know our farmers, frequent their markets, and even get dirt under our overly manicured fingernails. The prophets of this creed–Wendell, Michael, and Slow Food USA (among others)–have achieved remarkable success inspiring the hearts and minds of a fast paced, fast food nation. There’s no denying that the benefits that have ensued–notably, our deep skepticism of industrial food–bode well for the future of the American diet. These people and such organizations deserve to be on stamps.

At the same time, though, when it comes to connecting with “our” meat, our trusted reformers, perhaps overly wedded to an audience that doesn’t want to be told “no,”   have ducked and run. Specifically, they’ve failed to confront the troubling paradox that the closer we connect with meat, the more we disconnect with the animals that provide it.

To appreciate this argument two things must happen. First, strip away all the rhetoric buffering consumers from the cold reality that meat requires the killing of a sentient being that does not want to die. We must cut to this core because “connecting” with meat essentially has nothing to do with words and everything to do with action–one action above all others: slaughtering the animal. Second, envision three concentric circles with a dot in the middle. The circles represent the means of slaughter–from outside to inside: the industrial abattoir, the mobile slaughter unit, and the do-it yourself killing. The dot in the center is an animal. Say, a pig.

Let’s start with the outer circle: the abattoir. The industrial slaughterhouse might seem to be the epitome of disconnection. This is certainly true for consumers. Our meat comes shrink wrapped and bloodless. The killing is effectively erased–there is no face on our plate. But draw the animal back in. Rarely noted in the common observation of consumer disconnectedness is the fact that the slaughterhouse is actually the site of unfathomable connectivity for the human workers who are, when you get right down to it, the closest to our meat supply. We often characterize the quest to know thy food as an elitist endeavor. But in reality the most intimate connection between humans and the meat we eat transpires between voiceless slaughterhouse workers and the animals they‘re paid to kill.

The consequences of this close connection to food can be extremely grim.  Slaughterhouse workers are not only exposed to an unusual array of physical threats, but the psychological dangers inherent in their work are severe. As one former abattoir employee put it:

The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll. If you work in the stick pit [where the hogs are killed] for any period of time that let’s you kill things but doesn’t let you care. You may look a hog in the eye that’s walking around in the blood pit with you and think, “God, that really isn’t a bad looking animal.” You may want to pet it. Pigs down on the kill floor have come up to nuzzle me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them–beat them to death with a pipe.

The side effects of this connectivity to the meat we eat are not at all surprising: domestic violence, social withdrawal, drug and alcohol sedation, and anxiety. It was perhaps in a vain attempt to avoid these pitfalls that the former employee quoted above distilled his experience down to a chilling truth: “I can’t care.”  Thus we have the ultimate outcome of connecting with our meat on the industrial level: profound psychological detachment and, in many cases, deep psychological despair.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

2 Responses to Getting to Know Meat: An Essay In Progress

  1. emily says:

    When they say “connect with your food” and then move on to discussing animals, i miss the point at which we’ve defined animals as food. Why are they food? Should they be food? Most of the arguments i hear for eating meat come directly from the huge government subsidized marketing of factory farming. I feel that this connection must really be pointed out — the words they are saying are coming straight from the misinformation that allows factory farming (and therefore the point you’ve made again and again, that any production will eventually become factory-level production and factory-level inhumanity).
    Here in Oakland, we’ve watched the justifications made by slaughter-hobbyists shift from “it’s better than factory farming” and “I’m connecting with my food” to “it’s my cultural expression” to now “it’s a basic human right.” A human right for dominion over the creatures we share the earth with? A human right to relinquish your humanity?

  2. Provoked says:

    I may be coming from left field, but on the point about getting to know your “food”, your meat, your animal – I’m always disturbed by the idea that it’s kinder to snuff a happy life as opposed to a miserable one. In a bizarre way, these small niche facilities are almost more devious in their betrayal to the consumer and the victim.

    In no way am I supporting factory farms! And I do believe that any meat supply/demand will eventually degrade itself to an industrial scale. As Emily in the post before me observes the justification become more relaxed in incremental stages, till it finally becomes the base desire for flesh that it was in the first place.

    All the pretenses of giving the animal a “good life” whether it was in a warehouse cage or a rolling pasture, placates those who want to continue the ruse. But either way the reality is the same – Neither wish to die. And probably the “free range”, contented being least of all. So what is so good about any “connection” to meat? Obviously none.

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