Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Eating Animals: Slices of Paradise / Pieces of ____.
The sixth chapter in the new book by Jonathan Saffran Foer

This sixth chapter of Foer's book Eating Animals, more than those preceding it, seems to have a theme: differences that matter. This can be an important concept when one talks about animal rights. Many changes could be made to the living conditions of a battery cage hen - she could be given three more square inches of living space, for example. But is this a difference that matters? Or just a thinly veiled attempt by industry to get do-gooders to shut up about animal welfare and go away, without industry having made any real change? This idea ties in nicely with one of my personal mottoes: better is not the same as good.

In this chapter, Foer visits Paradise Locker Meats, a smalltime slaughterhouse doing things in a more "traditional" way than most of the bigger houses these days. Even so, he has a difficult experience.
"It's not just because I'm a city boy that I find this repulsive. Mario and his workers admitted to having difficulty with some of the more gory aspects of slaughter, and I heard that sentiment echoed wherever I could have frank conversations with slaughterhouse workers."
This discomfort is heightened all the more for Foer by the fact that the animals being slaughtered on the day of his visit are hogs - pigs, with their intelligence and particularly gutwrenching squeal (or scream, if you prefer). The visit comes to a head when, upon leaving, the abattoir staff are just dying to share with Foer the end product of their hard labors: a slice of glistening pink ham. Foer wriggles from this predicament by playing the Kosher card (he isn't, but he sure could play one on TV). Awkwardness ensues.

If you're going to discuss pig eating, or to put it nicely "pork", there's no way to avoid the name Smithfield, leading pork producer in the U.S. Run a Google search for "Smithfield Farms pork", and among the first entries (sometimes the very first) you'll find a Rolling Stone article entitled Boss Hog: Pork's Dirty Secret. As have many others, Foer has found this article to be particularly illuminating regarding the manure "lagoons" that go hand in hand with pig factories.

As Foer points out, the pits are filled not only with animal feces but also with "whatever will fit through the slatted floors of the factory farm buildings. This includes but is not limited to: stillborn piglets, afterbirths, dead piglets, vomit, blood, urine, antibiotic syringes, broken bottles of insecticide, hair, pus"... et cetera. No wonder, then, that neighbors get upset when an industrial pig "farm" gets built nearby? The presence of these lagoons shifts from nauseating to enraging when one understands that accidents do happen, and sometimes these cess pools "spill" into nearby lakes and rivers.

Foer goes on to discuss another major concern in the raising of commercial pigs: the gestation crate. This is a contraption which confines a sow, and is generally justified by the excuse that the mother pig may crush her babies if she is allowed to move.
What defenders of such practices don't point out is that at [non-industrial farms], the problem doesn't arise in the first place. Not surprisingly, when farmers select for "motherability" when breeding, and a mother pig's sense of smell is not overpowered by the stench of her own liquefied feces beneath her, and her hearing is not impaired by the clanging of metal cages, and she is given space to investigate where her piglets are and exercise her legs so that she can lie down slowly, she finds it easy enough to avoid crushing her young.
The chapter is concluded with a brief revisitation of the plight of fish. Fish do seem to be different to most everyone - we've all met the "vegetarian" who still eats fish. Perhaps it is the land/water divide that so separates us? Philosophical quandaries aside, there are no numbers kept for how many hundreds of thousands, or millions, or maybe even billions of fish and other sea creatures are caught and consumed each year. They count for so little that we literally don't even count them.

I've always known about that thing called "bycatch" - I'm old enough to remember the craze of dolphin-safe tuna, after all - but this section held a piece of information that actually shocked me. According to Foer and his fact checkers, 80 to 90 percent of the sea creatures caught by industrial fishing operations, even those businesses considered efficient, are thrown back as bycatch! Well, I had to check that out. While I couldn't find a reliable source to mirror those numbers (other than maybe Greenpeace, but I think they're biased?) I did find an FAO report on shrimp trawling that finds an average of 85% . Ouch.

I'm unsure why this section on industrial fishing was tacked to the back of chapter 6; nevertheless, it is most certainly good information to have.

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