Last night, a good friend of mine, Dr. Benjamin Abelow M.D., sent me an opinion piece that he wrote for a local newspaper in the Berkshires where he lives. It made me think about the hamburger I had eaten for lunch yesterday. Here it is:
An April 12 story in The Berkshire Eagle on the ammonia-treated hamburger filler known as “pink slime” drew attention to the integrity of our food supply. But as consumers, we need to ask a basic question: Where does hamburger come from and, ethically or otherwise, is pink slime really any worse than the meat itself?
I recently spent time with calves on a Berkshire dairy farm. The experience was unusual, in that I got to know the calves well and personally. For six months, I visited up to four times a week, in some cases starting on the day of birth. I formed close bonds with some of the calves.
I learned that calves are warm and gentle creatures with distinct personalities. When happy, they sometimes kick up their rear legs like a foal. They express affection and show courage.
I witnessed a calf standing watch over a dying mate in a cold and dark barn. I saw another calf trying to escape her tiny pen by boldly—yet impossibly—attempting to hurdle a high fence. She failed, and ended up leaping painfully, face first, into the fence. I saw another calf slowly drop to her forelegs, deliberately lowering herself into the layer of feces and mud that covered the floor of her dank enclosure. She spent several minutes trying vainly to push herself under the metal gate that held her captive. When she stood up, filth was smeared on her torso and face.
On most commercial farms, calves are permanently separated from their mothers—some are literally dragged away—within a day of birth. They pine for their mothers and their mothers pine for them. Some of the calves become despondent. More than a few die. The male calves, which have no role in a dairy operation, are shipped off. Many are reared for veal—isolated, tightly confined, utterly alone—and killed at a few months of age.
Those females who survive to maturity endure their own particular nightmare. They are artificially inseminated on a scientifically determined schedule and have their own calves repeatedly taken away. They spend most of their lives crowded together in a small, cement world. Through breeding, tightly managed impregnation cycles, special feeds, intensive milking, and sometimes artificial growth hormones, these cows are driven to produce many times more milk than they would for their own calves. Some develop mastitis or arthritis and live in chronic pain.
The intense lactation exhausts the cows quickly. In four or five years—about a quarter of their natural lifespan—their milk slows. Their purpose served, the cows are now worth more dead than alive and so are taken to slaughter. Smelling the blood of those who came before them, they are stunned with a bolt gun, have their throats slit, and are ground up for hamburger and processed meats. Yes, this is the source of most hamburger we eat: frightened, spent dairy cows who started life as gentle and playful creatures longing for their mothers.
Is the ammonia used to make pink slime any worse than the antibiotics and hormones that are often given these cows? Is the meat that we use for ordinary hamburger ultimately any less horrific than the leftover butchering scraps that are used to make the filler?
I have focused here on calves because I know them best, but the suffering of other farm animals is equally acute. Think of times you’ve accidentally stepped on the foot of your cat or dog—and how they reacted. Now think of a piglet being castrated and having its tail cut off without anesthetic—standard practice on most pig farms.
The scope of the disaster we inflict on sentient farm animals is almost beyond imagining—incomparably worse than any “tooth and claw” they might experience in nature. Each year in the U.S., over nine billion farm animals, including 150 million mammals, are killed for food. These numbers come from the USDA. The situation has much in common with slavery, with a gulag, with a concentration camp. The scale is infinitely more vast than anything humans have ever done to other humans.
Animal products are not necessary for a healthy diet. This means we do all this for nothing more important than a personal taste preference. In fact, these food preferences contribute to rampant cardiovascular disease and cancer.
If you are moved by the plight of these animals, keep feeling. Bring your behavior into accord with your empathy and your ethics. Educate yourself. Adjust your lifestyle. Perhaps you will wish to start spreading the word yourself. If you stop eating animal products, you will save dozens of feeling animals every year from intensely painful lives and terrible deaths. You don’t need to do this all at once. Start gradually. If you eat half as many animals, you will cause half as much suffering.
To learn more, watch the 12-minute film narrated by Paul McCartney at Meat.org. Or watch the equally good short video at MeatVideo.com, narrated by James Cromwell. These mini-documentaries are graphic and hard to watch but are necessary to see if we wish to understand the consequences of our diet and farming practices.
Or read a book. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer is one of many volumes on the subject that helps communicate what it really means to eat hamburger and other animal products.
Benjamin Abelow, M.D