When I became a vegetarian 21 years ago, it was for purely selfish reasons. I hoped to ward off heart disease, which was striking members of my family. I gave little if any thought to the ethics of meat, even though I knew full well where pork chops and hamburgers came from. I had grown up down the road from small farms where Hampshire pigs and Black Angus cattle were routinely fattened and shipped to market for slaughter.
At some point, a couple of straight-edge kids told me about veal, which immediately raised my consciousness of animal welfare. Yet I don't generally preach about vegetarianism. At family dinners, I bring a veggie dish and place it on the table without comment. Some of my best friends, including my husband, are avid carnivores. But I can imagine eating meat only under dire circumstances, the same scenarios under which I would eat a human being.
It was through this lens that I watched the documentary American Meat. Although the film isn't a brief for vegetarianism, it is a well-researched, compelling indictment of factory farming, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations, CAFOs, in which pigs and chickens, in particular, are warehoused in dim, crowded and suffocating conditions—a cross between an 18th-century slave ship and a 1930s mental institution.
Ninety-nine percent of the meat you find in a grocery store comes from CAFOs, yet as American Meat illustrates, there is no legitimate argument—even economic ones—to be made in favor of them. Even if you, like Iowa farmer Chuck Wirtz, want to stake your belief in the Old Testament figment that God created animals to be dominated, CAFOs are hell on the environment and human health. They consume enormous quantities of fossil fuels that contribute to global warming: natural gas and electricity to cool and heat the chicken houses, gasoline to transport the livestock thousands of miles in trucks—a stressful, ghoulish final trip for the animals.
Land is cleared for growing corn and soybeans to feed cattle and pigs, which expel methane gas. Waste lagoons pollute the air and water. Because the animals are so tightly confined, they often fall ill, and to combat that, agribusiness juices them up with antibiotics and hormones, some amount of which winds up on your plate or in your glass.
The industrial model is profitable only for a few huge farms and for agribusiness giants. These companies, such as Pilgrim's Pride, own the animals raised by farmers and can ruthlessly put them out of business—leaving them millions of dollars in debt. That happened locally when Townsend closed its Siler City plant and severed its contracts with farmers.
In fact, the industrial model is profitable because agribusiness is propped up by meat's prime proselytizer and propagandist, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which doles out upward of $15 billion annually to factory farms in the form of subsidies. Without this crutch, American Meat argues, CAFOs would likely go under.
Politicians are complicit in this corporate arrangement. For example, in 2007–08, former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, a Democrat representing the Second Congressional District, including Chatham County, received $15,000 in campaign contributions from the N.C. Cotton Producers Association. Not coincidentally, cotton is the top federally subsidized crop in the state, bringing in $1.5 billion from 1995–2010, according to USDA data aggregated by the Environmental Working Group.
The antidote to this brutal industrial model, and its economic, environmental, health and ethical transgressions, is a new generation of small, conscientious farmers. Their pigs, cows and chickens are humanely raised and frolic in verdant pastures—until their throats are slit.
This is where American Meat briefly falls short. A discussion of vegetarianism is certainly beyond the scope of this film—and a series of gratuitous bloodlettings would either offend or desensitize the audience—but cutting from a romanticized shot of a smiling, "welfare-approved" pig to one of sausage links frying in a skillet omits a crucial step that we need to see: The pig must suffer and die and someone has to kill it.
Thirty-three seconds of the 84-minute film are overtly devoted to this reality: A farmer stuffs a live, albeit stunned, chicken headfirst into a metal cone and then cuts its throat. (According to Animal Welfare Approved standards, animals must be stunned and "be insentient to pain" before slaughter.)
The disconnect between understanding the food on your plate and how it got there is what Jonathan Safran Foer, in his book Eating Animals, terms "forgetting." Feminist Carol Adams, who wrote The Sexual Politics of Meat, calls it "erasure." Once carved, seasoned and broiled, the animal becomes erased from our consciousness, the cruelty an abstraction we forget.
American Meat explores the disconnect via a woman who raises backyard chickens, but acknowledges that she couldn't eat them, even though chicken is her favorite meat. She raised her chicks and watched them grow, she says, unlike the chickens that supplied the thighs and drumsticks she buys at the supermarket. "I never had to deal with those chickens," she says.
(It's the same familiarity that makes us recoil from slaughtering and eating our pets. President Obama recently signed a bill that essentially re-legalizes commercial horse slaughter. Many opponents make the thin distinction that it's cruel to kill horses, but not cows or pigs. Proponents counter that without slaughter, cash-strapped owners would neglect their horses and leave them to starve in barren pastures. That may be true, but in that case, animal shelters, home to neglected, abused dogs and cats, would be endless buffets.)
The issues of meat-eating, farm animals and their slaughter are so fraught because of our ethical inconsistencies. I'm no saint: A failed vegan, I have a weakness for grilled cheese sandwiches and black leather shoes. The ethical balm for conscientious meat-eaters, whom author Michael Pollan calls "selective omnivores," is that on small farms, animals are healthy and antibiotic-free and humanely raised and slaughtered—if such a thing exists. Meat from these farms receives the coveted, feel-good stamp of "Animal Welfare Approved" by the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute.
But even humanely raised meat can mask reality. Robert Klessig, a Wisconsin farmer, ran a CAFO for a decade before returning to small-scale farming. He calls CAFOs "a concentration camp for calves," so imagine the surprise when he reveals he sells his surplus humanely raised cows to industrial farmers. If you follow his analogy, Klessig serves as a German checkpoint guard, arbitrarily deciding who dies in a miserable fashion and who dies in a less miserable fashion.
The ideas of dominance and equality—a focus of The Sexual Politics of Meat—also run subtly through this film. Joel Salatin, who runs a small farm in Virginia where his animals roam outdoors, criticizes the CAFOs' treatment of animals and takes pride in the benevolence he shows his own. "Nobody asks if the pig is happy," he says of the industrial farmer. Yet Salatin, who clearly loves his animals, still owns them. He determines when they will be killed—without asking their permission.
Farmer, writer and critic Wendell Berry has said that in our food choices we farm by proxy. You can elect not to eat animal products, but if you must eat them, American Meat excels at demonstrating that other choices exist. There is another way. By the end of the film, even Wirtz has a change of heart—he thought it would be more profitable to sell humane, organic meat. For this farmer, ethics and economic self-interest converged. But would his chickens agree?