03.21.12: how it happened {part II}

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."


Rachel (heart of light) said...

So I am following these posts with interest, but have no real contributions to make. 

I feel a bit like an ostrich, I guess. I know that things are terrible and I make these tiny, futile steps (pricey meat from WF! potentially cage free eggs!) at modifying and then feel like an ass. But I can't really figure out what to do with it. 

We actually grew up in a mostly veg household, for financial reasons, but we ate meat at least once a month. And then we all went vegan at home for a couple years when my sister transitioned. 

But when it comes down to it, I do really poorly as a vegetarian and even worse as a vegan, even when I'm eating everything else I'm supposed to be eating. I don't need much meat, but I do so much better with some. And that feels like a cop out, deciding that how I feel and what I want is more important than how other animals feel. But there it is. 

I would like more transparency in our food system. I have no ethical issues with eating animals, but I do have issues with animals being treated inhumanely while they are alive. Which makes me think I should be focusing on very careful sourcing and allocating a much larger portion of my budget to those things, so that I can support a better system. But sweet jesus, trying to figure out what to buy is difficult and then I get discouraged and shelve it and tell myself I'll figure it out another day.

There. All my food guilt, over explained. And mostly to say that I'm glad you're finding peace with what you're doing and I wish I were doing a better job. 

evencleveland said...

Like Rachel, I am following these posts with interest. I will say that I find JSF so off-putting that knowing his position on this subject makes me want to go out and buy Hormel products. 

Rob S. Parham said...

I applaud your enthusiasm and drive on the issue. However, I cannot even begin to relate to the logic/emotion that causes the enthusiasm, passion, and drive. I'll keep reading, maybe I'll figure it out.

kidchamp said...

but that IS a contribution! i think what i liked so much about eating animals is that it was such an inclusive way of talking about animal welfare issues. JSF's personal take aside, he's basically saying, "i know you want to do the right thing, but you're being misled about what that really entails, and if all of us - herbivores, vegetarians, omnivores, whatever - got together and decided to stop blindly supporting big agriculture (which is horribly cruel to animals, is making us progressively sicker, and is lethal for the environment), they would no longer be able to do what they do they way they're doing it." why do our taxes help cruel people make bad food? why do we let our legislators let factory farmers get away with mislabeling their food so that people like you and me THINK we're making the right choices? 

i read recently that whole foods's certification programs are supposed to be pretty good (not really related, but they're also cracking down on what "organic" means on non-food labels in their stores as of a month or so from now - it's an interesting step, one that's forcing a number of companies to reformulate and/or relabel their products), and i'm going to look into that in detail - i sort of have to, as it's easy to buy eggs from the cute cheesemonger and, like, make a frittata with just veggies, but at some point i'm going to want to buy crackers.

i have no real idea what i'm doing here by posting this stuff, but 1) i like the idea that figuring this stuff out in open water might be useful to other people and 2) for maybe the first time, i'm inspired to proselytize a little bit; as JSF pointed out, convincing just one other person to go veg essentially doubles the impact of your whole lifetime's abstinence. also, i'm kind of flying blind on this ethical consumerism stuff, and it's really helpful to be able to figure it out via conversation. thank you, truly, for being here. 

kidchamp said...

i'll be interested to hear what my friend jacob has to say about eating animals once he's finished with it; he's on your side with JSF (i was largely indifferent - i read everything is illuminated so long ago that i hardly remember it, and i crap on all of brooklyn with such gusto that i don't have reserves for the extra-deserving). surely if i can be liberal in spite of hollywood en masse, you can shun the little blue devil-cans, S!

kidchamp said...

this is where agent omar factors in, rob.

Lisa said...

Again, I'm happy you are so clear and so sorted out.

megan said...

Perhaps less polemic (haven't read the JSF yet), but well-researched and helpful is What to Eat by Marion Nestle.

babyjo said...

well, here's your 'just one other person'. 

kidchamp said...

@megan: i'll pick it up as well - thanks! research is the biggie.

@jo: oh no! your marriage is going to be so complicated!

babyjo said...

yea, we are probably going to continue to have discussions/arguments about this for awhile.  putting nearly everything you've blogged about to the side for a sec, i did kinda sorta pull the rug out from under the guy.  he's an artist who makes work about food - he loves it more than anyone i know, weird as that is to say, but you know what i mean - and his wife tells him she's restricting her diet in a major way.  the best thing i think i can do right now, in an attempt to keep both parties happy and fall in line with our respective beliefs, is to know where the animal products/meat comes from, what's in them/it, and buy the best that we can find.  as we're in l.a., i don't think that will be incredibly difficult for now.

kidchamp said...

i guess the upshot is that he loves to discuss food, as well, so your respective theories will give you a lot to work with?

as you know, joe both eats fish and wears leather at present; the leather thing doesn't really come up, but my occasional inability to be a good sport about his interest in sushi is an ongoing problem. i don't really know if i should be a supportive spouse about it, even though it brings him great joy, at least for now; should i just encourage him to go out for it with friends who love it like he does? should i be trying to convert him, since i think eating it is wrong and it's especially environmentally destructive? this stuff with spouses demonstrates rather pointedly how change has to be incremental. 

Abby said...

I'm not a habitual commentator, but since you're sticking your neck out a bit with these posts, I wanted to say that I am enjoying them.

I'm currently a very low-level animal product consumer, and due to some other really major dietary restrictions I think that is where I'll stay for a while. This issue does nag at me, though. Right now I live in a country that treats its farm animals quite well, so that is a good thing. Leather is a whole other question, and my consumption of that seems to have gone up a bit since moving to Europe. I try to shop second hand, though that doesn't solve the issue of the message that one sends.

The more I research about US food labelling, the more I realize that it's a free for all.

anonymous said...

I think I'm confused now. Might you explain with a few more words?

Rob S. Parham said...

that was me by the way.

kidchamp said...

i'm hoping omar will convert you, i'm saying. 

celia said...

Ok, i'm going to try this again WITHOUT erasing before i hit "post".

As a staunch meat-eater (and once vegetarian), I have to say that I'm loving thses posts. Surprised? Joe and I always find ourselves snickering at each other when we hear someone waxpoetic about "organic" foods because sadly, it's just another one of those user-friendly FDA terms (cage-free, farm raised, etc..) that truly means absolutely nothing. The regulations on livestock in this country are sad at best. JSF's claim that "cage-free" simply refers to chickens that are not kept in a cages is 100% correct. Wooden crates, however? Totally cool. All that being said, I firmly believe that one cane be a responsible carnivore. Is it easy? Mostly, not. Is it worth it? Absolutely. 

One of the main reasons we decided to move to the bay area was that our way of eating, our "lifestyle", was/is much easier to accomplish here. Here, nobody looks at you funny when you ask your grocer what orchard his apples come from, or your butcher what his meats are fed. Here, consumers want to know that information, and purveyors are happy to share. We buy a good 90% of our meats and animal byprodcuts from a farm in Point Reyes that we can VISIT and SEE that the animals are, in fact, "free range". They may not always have what I'm looking for in stock, but I have to admit that I enjoy it that way. A butcher shop that has ribeyes until the cows come home (no pun intended) is not a butcher shop I am interested in. Sure, we PAY for the quality we get and although it's not the most economical of choices, I am MORE than willing to sacrifice many other things for the quality of food I bring home to my family, to MY CHILD. 

Truth be told, although I honestly feel I put in a valiant effort, I am not perfect. I still eat in restaurants, and ocassionally I buy ground veal to add to my meatballs. I'll always continue to eat out, but it's going to have to be baby steps for the veal. Oh, and giving up the filet o' fish? Now, that shit was hard.

Great posts, Lauren. I think the main point is to be aware of and accountable for the businesses we choose to support.

Rob S. Parham said...

I don't think he will. The three dogs before him didn't. The calves, piglets, and lambs on the farm didn't. The deer that I have taken from the open woods to my plate within a day haven't. I just don't see meat as something that is or is not ethical. I'm awaiting part III and any that follow to see if I can understand, even if we don't agree.

kidchamp said...

i was kidding, rob. i can tell you right now that you probably won't; i'm structuring this as an informative rather than a persuasive series, and for the most part, the information is re: animal welfare, not how i personally feel about animals (or why i became vegetarian, &c). if we're not working with the same premise - that animals deserve to be treated humanely - then we're unlikely to reach the same conclusions, you know? 

kidchamp said...

I think the main point is to be aware of and accountable for the businesses we choose to support.


One of the main reasons we decided to move to the bay area was that our way of eating, our "lifestyle", was/is much easier to accomplish here. Here, nobody looks at you funny when you ask your grocer what orchard his apples come from, or your butcher what his meats are fed. Here, consumers want to know that information, and purveyors are happy to share.

it's actually kind of shocking to me that southern california wouldn't be getting with the program and catching up with northern california in that regard. i guess it's easier to access farmland from where you are than where you were (which was downtown LA, right?)? 

it doesn't surprise me, on the other hand, that you care about this stuff, given that you and joe care so much about what you consume and what you serve others. on perfection...it's a point, but i don't think it's the point. feeling that one has the right to eat animals AND that one has the responsibility to do so sustainably and without cruelty is certainly, as you demonstrate, possible; i think too many people feel that if they can't or won't give up meat, they might as well toss all ethical considerations out the window. at the risk of sounding woo-woo, i think stifling one's merciful tendencies is self-harm.

kidchamp said...

dietary restrictions are nothing to sneeze at; i was going to say when rachel made her point below that it's much easier for some people to give up animal protein than it is for others, and while that still involves deciding to prioritize one's own comfort, it can be rough. i wish the supplemental solutions were better; we've had some spooky issues with "vegetarian" eggs (i.e. from chickens fed flaxseed to bump up their omega-3 output) which taste fishy. blech. 

Rob S. Parham said...

got it. Thought this was going to go from a 'this is why I did' and end as a 'you should too' kind of tale. Agree.

kidchamp said...

you are many things, rob p, but you are not low-hanging fruit. 

Rachel (heart of light) said...

Just to update ... this gave me a little extra push to look into my options again (for relatively-local meat raised in a way I can support) and they are much better than last time I tried! I have four or five options on the table + a few recommendations from a local friend and I'm about ready to bite the bullet and figure it out. Having a house would make this easier, since a chest freezer appears to factor prominently into sustainable meat purchases.

On a much smaller step - I finally researched bananas properly and decided that the EARTH bananas that are only 20 cents more per pound than Dole are well worth it and not just hyped. Tiny sustainable steps, right? 

kidchamp said...

whoa - i didn't even think about the logistics of meat storage, but that sounds intense. good for you for biting the bullet! 

that's where i am, next; the third installment in this series is going to be about how i handle feeding the cats (a/k/a how i handle buying meat). could be a sidebar about buying kielbasa for family christmases.

tiny steps.

Rachel (heart of light) said...

My very serious friend goes about this by personally meeting and picking out a happily pastured cow (sorry - steer, I guess) that will provide meat for the year. And then everyone in the house eats from that, including the pets! So yes, they make their own pet food, from cruelty free stock. 

Needless to say, I will not be there any time soon, but I am endlessly impressed by their commitment.