In the Chicago Tribune yesterday, Monica Eng described her experience witnessing the slaughter of a (fresh, organic) pig, cow, chicken, fish, and crab. Her instinct was right—our distance from the source of the meat we consume does affect our lives—but she misinterpreted its import. Gruesome details mostly filled the piece, like:
Whitey is hoisted into the air with his heart still beating. His carotid artery and jugular are severed by hand and he dies of blood loss over a barrel. The steer is then processed by strong, skilled men who wield knives like artists, efficiently removing head, skin and organs before the carcass moves into the cooler.
This is vivid but irrelevant: Being horrified by animal slaughter is the luxury of distance, not the problem itself. The real problem with the distance between the cow and the perfectly uniform ground beef we pick up in the meat aisle is our inability to oversee the steps in between. The vast majority of cattle are force-fed corn (a byproduct of corn subsidies), which, as natural grass eaters, leaves them susceptible to E. coli and other bacteria. Farmers have to inject their herds with steady doses of antibiotics to keep them healthy as a result. Ranchers pack cattle in feedlots, sloshing in their own excrement. The resulting meat is fattier.
We have labels that should help, such as “organic” and “grass-fed,” but the boon in profit these words signify has leeched their meaning: “In the case of beef, ‘organic’ can mean ‘raised in confinement and given organic corn,’” Corby Kummer writes in The Atlantic. And “some meat producers use ‘grass-fed’ to describe animals that are raised in pens on industrial feed, including corn, and finished on rations of grass in feedlots far from home.” A thoughtful meat eater doesn’t have to watch the blood pour out of Whitey’s neck to make eating beef “okay.” But she does have to examine with a sharp eye where Whitey is coming from and how, and distance obscures that process.