The Cruelest Cuts

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the intersection of animal and human rights, and when I logged on yesterday morning, I noted that the folks at the Ethicurean had already beaten me to the punch about a series in the Charlotte Observer called The Cruelest Cuts, talking about the treatment of workers in the poultry industry. If you read (or watched) Fast Food Nation, you’ve probably thought about this issue at some point, especially if you followed up with a rollicking weekend reading Nobodies, a book about slave labour in the United States.

The Ethicurean is a natural site to draw attention to an article series like this, since the site is dedicated to talking about sustainable, organic, local, and ethical food, and the treatment of workers is very much bound up in the cost of our food, both literally and metaphorically speaking. I really recommend checking out The Cruelest Cuts, because it is very good, and very extensive. There’s a lot of information in there and it will be growing all week, and if you’re up for a laugh, you can read the response from a profiled manufacturer, which made me chuckle in that dark, sardonic way that I’ve been doing a lot lately.

I’ve been thinking a lot about meat consumption in general lately, because I don’t think that eating meat is ethical or environmentally sustainable, and yet I eat meat and animal products. It’s an awkward place for me, because I think it’s wrong and I do it anyway, and it makes me feel like a hypocrite when I try to think about environmental issues and ways in which I could play a role in making the world a better place to be, for both humans and animals. I at least try to source my meats locally, which is some compensation, but not compensation enough.

Reading this series reminded me that meat consumption isn’t just wrong from an environmental* and ethical** standpoint, it’s also questionable from the standpoint of human rights. Now, obviously, this isn’t the case with all meat, but meatpackers have been notoriously abused since the era of industrial meat began, as anyone who has read The Jungle knows.  Working in a meat processing plant is dirty, harsh, grinding work, and most processors are focused on the bottom line, not on the health of their workers.

The fact is that illegal labour keeps our food supply cheap. And that really, really sucks. As anyone who buys at a farmers’ market knows, the cost of real food raised by humanely treated workers is high, and some people find that cost unacceptable, because they aren’t thinking about the hidden cost of that $.99 avocado, or the $1.50 eggs at Safeway.

The article series talks about the issue of immigrant labor in a way which I think is extremely intelligent and well thought out. One of the things discussed is the simple fact that plants hire illegal workers because they are less likely to complain and to report violations. Even if you don’t give a fig for workers who are being exploited (and if you’re reading this site, I doubt that), you should care about what this means for your food. When workers cut themselves on the production line and the production line doesn’t stop, guess where the blood ends up? When workers are told to think about the bottom line and the bottom line only, how many downer cows enter the food supply? It’s not just illegal to slaughter downer cows because we feel bad for the cows, people, it’s because downer cows are a potential vector of a number of diseases, including Creutzfeld-Jakobs.

Exploiting workers isn’t just wrong from an ethical standpoint, it’s also wrong from a food safety standpoint. And expect to see a lot more exposes like this in the coming months; I think the American meat industry is cracking wide open, and we’re going to be seeing some ugly truths this year. Maybe enough ugly truths to encourage people to think about going vegan, or to lobby for serious changes in our food supply. I’m really glad to see the Ethicurean talking about this issue, because I think it’s a dirty little truth in this country. We all know our food comes from exploited workers, and we don’t do anything about it. Here’s hoping that’s about to change.

*Why is meat wrong from an environmental standpoint? Well, the generation of meat is extremely inefficient. If protein is your main concern, protein containing legumes, grains, and nuts could be grown in a fraction of the space used to raise animals. Meat production has led to mass deforestation in places like Brazil, and as the developing world is learning to seek out the Western lifestyle, the demand for meat is skyrocketing, leading to even more pressure on the world’s already limited wild space. Raising herd animals like cattle is also hard on the land, as cattle contribute to erosion and a host of other environmental problems. Not only that, but animal products need to be shipped somewhere for sale, thanks to our increasingly centralized methods of meat production, so meat comes with a pretty hefty carbon footprint. And that’s not counting the, ahem, greenhouse gases that are, er, emitted by meat as it is raised. There are lots more reasons, of course, this is just a brief overview.

**I understand that this is somewhat debatable, as not everyone thinks that eating animals is wrong. (I obviously don’t, because I do it and I’m not a total psychopath.) However, I think most people could agree that abusing animals is wrong, and if you buy commercial meat, there’s a good chance it was abused during its short and miserable life. Same goes for eggs and dairy. This is one reason I try to buy locally sourced meat from farms I know, to be assured that the animals I eat at least enjoyed their lives before my appetite truncated them.