One of the major problems I’ve always had with the food movement is the unctuous lexicon of virtue that it insidiously peddles. Conscientious consumers who frequent their farmers’ markets and read their Michael Pollan sputter an earnest dialect of righteousness designed to buffer themselves from the hard reality of animal suffering. This terminology routinely suggests a romantic form of bucolic bliss that no animal could possibly find contrary to his interests. “Family farms” producing “organic,” “free range,” “humanely raised” animal products are thus empowered to sell educated but gullible consumers a pack of palliative lies at a premium. It’s a shifty little scam.
A conversation I recently had with Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, drove home this point with a depressingly all-too-real example. UPC investigated Black Eagle Farm, a Virginia-based operation marketing itself as a “traditional family farm with a long history of treating our animals and the environment with respect.” Black Eagle further burnished its image by reminding consumers that it was “a sustainable producer of USDA organic, animal friendly natural livestock products.” This was language perfectly pitched to open the wallet and salve the conscience of the supposedly concerned foodie.
But the reality, as Davis discovered, was a farm that was practicing “appalling cruelty.” Investigations starting in 2009 revealed that Black Eagle, whose owners turned out to be absentee, denied 25,000 hens food for over a week and killed emaciated birds by, in the words of a former employer, “burning the hell out of them with CO2.” For birds who did not suffocate from the chemical blast (because they were buried under other birds), they were instructed by an employee to be dispatched in the following manner: “you just pull their heads off.”
The only reason we know about this horrific situation is that UPC happened to take a look. In most cases, the language of virtue, more often than not accompanied with an idyllic image of farm animals roaming a verdant pasture, prevails so powerfully that we think there’s no need to investigate. Words have seductive power. And, lo and behold, there are very few things more seductive than the dirty talk of agricultural pornography. Indeed, turns out even the softest core assurances, when the words are whispered in just the right way, can make otherwise enlightened consumers melt, thereby forgetting the cold truth that an owned farm animal is, ipso facto, an abused animal.