Connecting with Our Food, Disconnecting with Ourselves
November 14, 2011 8 Comments
We’re constantly urged by food reformers to “connect with our food.” This imperative resonates widely. It underscores our desire to know our farmers, frequent their markets, and even get dirt under our fingernails in the quest to understand where food comes from. The prophets of this creed–Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and Slow Food USA (among others)–have inspired a fast paced, fast food nation to slow down and be deliberate about what we eat. There’s no denying that benefits have ensued, and that they bode well for the future of the American diet.
At the same time, though, when it comes to connecting with meat, our trusted reformers, perhaps overly wedded to an audience that won’t be told “no,” or perhaps too busy to muck around with thornier questions about animal sentience, have ducked and run. Specifically, they’ve failed to confront the troubling paradox that the closer we connect with meat, the more we actually disconnect with the animals that provide it. In so doing, one could argue that the food movement, in urging us to get close to the animals that provide our food, is actually undermining one of its most potent and enduring messages.
To appreciate this argument requires doing two things. First, strip away all the rhetorical fluff buffering consumers from the hard reality that all meat requires killing a sentient animal. I say this not to be melodramatic or sensationalist. It’s just a fact. We must cut to the core of the slaughter because “connecting” with the animals that feed us essentially has nothing to do with words and everything to do with action–one action above others: turning a live animal into a dead one. Second, for the sake of this article, it helps to 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. Let’s say a pig (maybe the guy pictured above).
Proceeding from these premises, start with the outer circle: the abattoir. The industrial slaughterhouse is frequently portrayed as the epitome of disconnection. This is certainly true for consumers. The dirty work is outsourced. Our meat comes to us shrink-wrapped and bloodless. For the consumer, the suffering is effectively erased–there’s no face on our plate. But draw the animal back into the picture–cut to the slaughter– and everything suddenly changes.
Rarely noted in the common observation of consumer disconnectedness is the fact that the slaughterhouse is actually a site of unfathomable connectivity. The connection just happens to be experienced by workers who are, when you get right down to it, the closest to our meat supply. We often characterize the quest to know our food as an elitist endeavor. But in reality the most intimate and sustained connection between humans and meat transpires between largely voiceless slaughterhouse workers and the even more voiceless animals they‘re paid to kill. And it happens on a truly foreboding scale.
The consequences of this connection can be emotionally acute. Slaughterhouse workers are not only exposed to an ongoing battery of physical threats, but the psychological weight of their work erodes their well being in quietly tragic ways. 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.
The negative impacts of this connectivity to the meat we eat aren’t especially surprising: domestic violence, social withdrawal, drug and alcohol abuse, and severe anxiety, to name only a few. It was perhaps in a vain attempt to avoid such pitfalls that the employee quoted above distilled his workaday experience down to this chilling comment: “I can’t care.” Thus we have the ultimate outcome of connecting with our meat on the industrial level: profound psychological detachment and/or deep psychological despair. This is the outer circle of carnivorous hell, and its cycle of slaughter spins while keeping consumers at a safe distance, cravenly allowing others to connect for us.
Jump inward to the next circle, where we might expect matters to improve. This leap forward brings us to local farms (read “sustainable” farms). Most local animal farms, it should be noted, send their animals to an abattoir to be slaughtered alongside animals that were fattened in a factory farm. The marketers never tell you this. That said, a comparatively rare, but increasingly common, way of slaughtering animals is the mobile slaughter unit. MSUs are USDA approved slaughterhouses-on-wheels that travel to small farms marketing so-called “humane” meat. The MSU would seem to achieve the goal of helping compassionate carnivores better connect with our meat, thereby fulfilling our promise to know our food.
Geographically speaking, there’s no question that critical distances are shortened. With an MSU we are, as consumers, literally brought closer to the definitive act. There’s also no question that the animals slaughtered in an MSU are mercifully spared the notoriously horrific experience of transportation to the abattoir. This is a notable welfare improvement, not to be ignored.
Nonetheless, the mechanics of the crucial moment–the ultimate connection to the animal that feeds us–remains, for all intents and purposes, just as foreign to consumers as in the industrial abattoir. One of the few people to study these devices, the geographer Kathryn Gillespie writes that, in an MSU, “the actual process of slaughter is very similar [to mainstream slaughterhouses] and is not held to any higher standards than the process outlined in the federal regulations for humane slaughter.” She quotes one MSU butcher as saying, “It functions the same as any livestock facility, except it is much more condensed and put on wheels.” Furthermore, one imagines that, with a mobile butcher killing about 24 animals a day, the complex interplay of emotions between butcher and beast would be even more pronounced than in the abattoir.
It’s easy to miss the point that proximity doesn’t equal knowledge. In their concerted effort to shield us from the hard reality of slaughter, the purveyors of “happy meat” do little disabuse us of our false sense of connectivity to animal products we consume. In fact, they encourage it. They do so (in part) by marketing their meat as free ranged, organic, “natural,” grass-fed, or cage-free–all of which are ultimately visual cues (rather than accurate assessments) turning our attention to select aspects of an animal’s life cycle. These suggestive descriptions obscure the slaughter through what Gillespie aptly calls “aesthetic disconnection.” We’re presented with images of the idyllic life, images that manipulate the story of how the animals lived, but we too easily overlook the fact that these images are carefully constructed by the very farmers economically interested in our patronage. They’re preaching to our choir, and we’re singing “Amen”! As a result, the slaughter itself remains just as hidden as if it took place in a rural Kansas abattoir. Any connection made between consumer and meat at this stage is thus little more than a cynical triumph of effective advertising.
Finally, the third, and most intimate, circle: the self-slaughter. As readers of my posts here well know, there’s a small but intrepid cohort of do-it-yourselfers who are raising and slaughtering their own animals. A common reaction is to praise their willingness to face the brutality of the slaughter. These brave homesteaders are, after all, inching as close as one can get to the animals that will provide their food. But the implications of their intimate acts of violence have yet to be fully explored. Go back to the outer circle and recall the poignant reaction of that poor slaughterhouse worker: pigs would nuzzle him, he would think about their worth as live beings, and then he’d kill them (once with a lead pipe). These were animals that the worker had no hand in raising; nonetheless, the emotional toll was still powerful. “I can’t care,” was the only way he could cope. So, back at the inner circle, I’m left with a question: is there any reason to believe that an individual (usually inexperienced) who is not a psychopath wouldn’t feel a similarly sharp tug of pain in the face of unnecessary slaughter–slaughter, moreover, of an animal that he observed, nurtured, raised, and maybe even loved as a household member?
I’ve spent more time than I care to mention reading the accounts of backyard slaughterers and I can say with confidence that people who slaughter their own animals are deeply conflicted about killing an animal for food they do not need. For the most part, these homesteaders appear to be sensitive people who otherwise abhor suffering. Even the most seasoned and steeled foodies can go wobbly in the face of slaughter. Consider one experienced chef’s account of killing an animal for the first time (as told to Food and Wine): “I first harvested an animal—an adult goat and two kids—eight years ago . . . It’s a whole mix of emotions—fear, hate, joy, awe—all the big ones. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, holding this baby goat in my arms and petting him until he died, trying to make him comfortable. Did I cry? Yes. Do I cry every time I harvest animals? Yes. I cry every time I talk about it.” (Note the use of the word “harvest.”) It seems no great leap to argue that those who inflict this kind of fate on innocent animals, no matter how many times they claim they’re “getting to know their food,” will in fact psychologically dull themselves to the full moral implications of slaughtering live animals for food that we don’t need.
The fact that humans and our ancestors have always killed animals to eat–the most common response I get to these sort of arguments–matters none. Humans are constantly evolving, and much of that evolution is moral and emotional. Modern civilized life vehemently adheres to a set of standards that aim to minimize violence, maximize happiness, and reduce suffering. The fact that our ancestors did not always have the opportunity to pursue these goals should never occlude the fact that we now have a rare opportunity to do so. Part of that task, I would submit, is to take one more leap, a bold and heroic leap, from the inner circle to the dot in the center–the pig–and nuzzle that pig and tell her we care about her and that we want to get to know her as the beautiful animal that she is. Not as food.
If we did this, we’d be doing something much more valuable than getting to know our food. We’d be getting to know ourselves.