I got an email yesterday about “a disturbing undercover video showing sick and injured pigs being dragged, beaten, pushed with forklifts and shocked with electric prods by workers to get them onto slaughterhouse kill floors.” I’m glad I didn’t see it as the whole thing disturbs me enough. I’m not a vegetarian, although for about a year and half Mrs. R. and I decided the only meat we would eat was fish (that’s when I discovered I liked fish; for most of my life I thought I didn’t and never ate it). The occasion for that meatless except for fish interlude was reading a long New York Times article about slaughterhouses. Slaughterhouses don’t seem to have changed much since the day when Upton Sinclair pulled back the curtain in his novel, The Jungle, a soap opera about the plight of the immigrant working class. The book dealt only peripherally with meatpacking houses (I used to use the book in teaching, so I know it well), but like Sinclair’s book and the Progressive Era public, the NYT article hit me in the stomach even though it was aimed at my brain. It provided me with a vivid picture of a gigantic industrial killing machine that revolted me. We’re no longer vegetarians (I know many vegetarians would say we never were). It turns out I like to eat meat (not something I’m proud of, but a fact nonetheless) and a meatless diet didn’t have enough gastronomic variety for us (I know, I know; when it comes to being plied by vegetarians I’ve had my arm twisted by the best and seen countless recipes that looked delicious, but it still isn’t enough. We don’t eat much meat. But we do eat it.)
Anyway, back to the undercover video. It’s not the first one and it’s a major public health issue. The animals that have to be forced to the slaughter are often the downer animals, the ones too sick to march to their own deaths. They then get into the food supply. So my email correspondent, from Farm Sanctuary (which describes itself as the nation’s leading farm animal protection organization, which it might be but I had not heard of them) was letting me know they were petitioning President Obama to issue stricter regulations:
Most recently, the organization?s work led to President Barack Obama?s announcement of a new USDA rule that bans the slaughter of cattle who become downed at any time for human consumption. While acknowledged as being a step in the right direction, the group remains determined to win legal protections for downed pigs and all other farm animals.
More than seven years ago Congress told the USDA to issue regulations to prevent the abuse of downed pigs and other animals, but the agency has failed to comply. As a result, downer pigs ? an estimated 100,000 to more than 900,000 a year ? continue to be subjected to intolerable cruelty. (farmsanctuary.org)
It’s not just downer pigs but the industrial raising of hogs under conditions where virulent disease can arise. For any pathogen the balance between transmissibility and virulence favors transmissibility, but if a pathogen can be transmissible and virulent that’s a bad combination and that’s exactly what industrial farms provide: the ability to pass on a virulent pathogen before it kills its host. We know the current pandemic flu virus has entirely swine genetic components, although some of those components had been in human and bird viruses further back in time. We are passing disease back and forth. The emergence of highly transmissible human pathogens out of livestock is not theoretical, it is actual. We are lucky this has not yet happened in industrial poultry operations with the highly lethal bird flu virus, H5N1.
I’m not a vegetarian, but I strongly support efforts to make the farming of animals that wind up on my dinner table more humane. It’s good for public health, if you want a non animal rights reason (for the record, I don’t think animals have rights, but they do have interests, one of which is not to be treated cruelly). And maybe by the time my grandchildren are my age we can make “meat” in some tissue culture vat. I’d be glad of that. Then their generation will look back on us and ask, “How could they have done those things?”