o, egg mcmuffins. to say that they were my favorite thing about mcdonald's would misrepresent things a bit; let's say that they're healthier than most other menu items and a rare break from meat on an otherwise vegetarian-unfriendly menu.* they were the one thing i liked about driving someone to the airport (or having to go to the airport) for a crack-of-dawn flight. i have a fond memory of walking through belfast's deserted city centre to buy a bag of them for joe and me early one morning on our honeymoon. that was a weird honeymoon.
i have a gloomier memory of the last egg mcmuffin i had (or tried to have), a few years later, at the train station in philadelphia. was it at the beginning of the food-documentary craze? had i recently read fast food nation? i know that in that plastic booth at that moment, lurid, recently-absorbed details of standard factory-farming practices like debeaking (a procedure in which a heated mechanical blade removes a laying hen's beak so that, in theory, she can't peck neighboring birds and can be confined in a smaller space) came back to me, and the feeling of nonspecific angst most of us already associate with fast-food restaurants was suddenly keen and quite particular. it was common knowledge (this was a few years ago) that factory farms produced mcdonald's egg supply, and i knew what factory farmers did to laying hens; that is, i knew what had been done to the hen that produced the egg i intended to eat. as when i realized i had to stop buying leather, i knew at once (and once and for all) that i was done.
or was i? i stopped eating egg mcmuffins, obviously, and i stopped purchasing eggs which weren't clearly labeled "cage free," "free range," "vegetarian," "humanely raised," and/or "organic" - or all of those. a few months ago, my office had me research a brief nutritional piece on what those labels actually mean. surprise: they're trade descriptions, which means that the USDA doesn't regulate them. at all. if they choose to do so, farmers can apply to organizations such as the nonprofit humane farm animal care to be "certified humane" (you can read what those standards mean for different types of animals here). as for the others - that's where jonathan safran foer and eating animals come in.
The USDA doesn't even have a definition of free-range for laying hens and instead relies on producer testimonials to support the accuracy of these claims. Very often, the eggs of factory-farmed chickens—chickens packed against one another in vast barren barns—are labeled free-range. ("Cage-free" is regulated but means no more or less than what it says—they are literally not in cages.) One can reliably assume that most "free-range" (or "cage-free") laying hens are debeaked, drugged, and cruelly slaughtered once "spent." I could keep a flock of hens under my sink and call them free-range.
(jonathan safran foer, eating animals)
You won't get buildings with 3,000 ["cage-free"] laying hens—it's 30,000, 50,000, or 60,000. That being said, there are people who actually quantify how much space cage-free hens have, and I think it's something like 110 square inches as opposed to 67 for those in a cage, so that's a lot more space, but draw yourself a rectangle of 110 square inches—it's not what people have in mind when they spend more of their money to buy this product. Cage-free and free-range eggs are the fastest-growing sector of the food industry right now, which says something so amazing about Americans.
[Interviewer] People want to feel good about the product they're buying.
Right. They don't taste better, and they're not better for us. People all across the country are spending more of their money on something simply because they think it's the right thing to do, and they are being taken advantage of, and that should make everybody very angry.
(JSF, in a conversation with the atlantic's jeffrey goldberg)
lifestyle modification II: eggs and dairy products should only be purchased from demonstrably humane sources.
when joe and i got back from california last week, there were almost no animal products in the fridge. we bought humanely-produced, locally-sourced groceries from a cheesemonger at the local public market: eggs, a pint of cream, and a quart of milk. they were all of exceptional quality, and they cost about fifteen bucks.
In the past fifty years, as factory farming spread from poultry to beef, dairy and pork producers, the average cost of a new house increased nearly 1,500%; new cars climbed more than 1,400%; but the price of milk is up only 350%, and eggs and chicken meat haven’t even doubled. Taking inflation in account, animal protein costs less today than at any time in history.
because of the way our government subsidizes corporate agribusinesses, and because of our consistent demand for their products, providing one's family with animal protein means either spending a substantial amount of money or accepting the institutionalized mistreatment of animals—and it often means both.
as you've probably gathered, my decisions about animal welfare are much more emotional than they are logical. truth be told, most of them have been very easy; i wasn't that interested in meat to begin with, there are plenty of replacements for leather out there, and no one's forcing me into mcdonald's. my relationship with ostensibly non-lethal forms of animal protein is much more complicated: i'll buy the straight stuff from the good guys, sure, but what about products which count them as ingredients? what about dining out? what do i feed our cats?
jonathan safran foer is a polarizing guy, to put it mildly, but you don't have to love him or his analogies (...michiko) to agree with eating animals's premise.
[W]e know that there is something that matters in a deep way about the lives we create for the living beings most within our power. Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerless, to the most distant, to the voiceless—it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one way or another. Consistency is not required, but engagement with the problem is.
watch this space.
*even mcdonald's hash browns and fries (still!) contain "natural beef flavor."