The opening words of the film sound eerily like the classic introduction to Twilight Zone episodes I hungrily devoured on YouTube during my days as a tired undergrad. The narrator begins:
The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000. But the image that's used to sell the food is still the imagery of agrarian America. You go into the supermarket and you see pictures of farmers- the picket fence and the silo and the 30s farmhouse and the green grass. It's the spinning of this pastoral fantasy. The modern American supermarket has on average 47,000 products. There are no seasons in the American supermarket. Now, they're tomatoes all year round, grown halfway around the world, picked when it was green and ripened with Ethylene gas. Although it looks like a tomato, it's kind of a notional tomato; I mean, it's the idea of a tomato. In the meat aisle, there are no bones anymore. There is this deliberate veil, this curtain, that's dropped between us and where our food is coming from. The industry doesn't want you to know the truth about what you're eating. Because if you knew, you might not want to eat it.
If you follow the food chain back from those shrink-wrapped packages of meat, you find a very different reality. The reality is a factory- it's not a farm; it's a factory. That meat is being processed by huge, multinational corporations that have very little to do with ranches and farmers. Now our food is coming from enormous assembly lines where the animals and the workers are being abused. And the food has become much more dangerous in ways that are being deliberately hidden from us. You've got a small group of multinational corporations that control the entire food system. From seed to the supermarket, they're gaining control of food. This isn't just about what we're eating. This is about what we're allowed to say, what we're allowed to know. It's not just our health that's at risk - the companies don't want farmers talking. They don't want this story told.Wait, what's this they're saying? I questioned. What do they mean that our animals are being produced on a factory?
The film introduced me to the idea of factory farming. Unbeknownst to me, who had imagined that steers and cows were being raised on farms and ranches across America and then shipped to slaughterhouses, where they were humanely slaughtered (after all, I've attended two Shechitas), the reality could not be further from my wishful thinking.
It all harks back to our over-production of corn, a fact explored at great length in The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. In short, our government changed the way in which farmers would be compensated for certain crops, especially corn. Now, farmers are compensated for each bushel of corn they sell, and rather than the government holding it back in a national granary to keep from flooding the market (which would lower prices), they do flood the market with it. This to the point that farmers in other countries can be put out of business and out of work due to the fact that it is cheaper to import American corn than it is to buy corn produced by farmers in the native country.
Now that we have a surplus and overabundance of corn, we must come up with uses for it. Luckily, scientists have come up with many uses for it in our food (corn syrup, various 'gums', corn, cornstarch and so forth). But they've also had the bright idea of trying to tamper with either God, evolution or both by deciding to feed it to animals who do not naturally eat it, and who are not cut out for eating it. Enter the idea of CAFOS (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), otherwise known as factory farms. CAFOs are feed lots where animals live under cramped, packed-in conditions, standing and sleeping in their own manure, where they are fed food that is naturally bad for them and which they can only keep down due to the cocktail of antibiotics we give them.
Before we talk about why we are feeding corn to cows even though their stomachs are not built to digest it, let's talk about how cows have traditionally interacted with the land. To put it in Pollan's words:
The coevolutionary relationship between cows and grass is one of nature's underappreciated wonders; it also happens to be the key to understanding just about everything about modern meat. For the grasses, which have evolved to withstand the grazing of ruminants, the cow maintains and expands their habitat by preventing trees and shrubs from gaining a foothold and hogging the sunlight; the animal also spreads grass seed, plants it with his hooves, and then fertilizes it with his manure. In exchange for these services, the grasses offer ruminants a plentiful and exclusive supply of lunch. For cows (like sheep, bison and other ruminants) have evolved the special ability to convert grass- which single-stomached creatures like us can't digest- into high quality protein. They can do this because they possess what is surely the most highly evolved digestive organ in nature: the rumen. About the size of a medicine ball, the organ is essentially a twenty-gallon fermentation tank in which a resident population of bacteria dines on grass. Living their unseen lives at the far end of the food chain that culminates in a hamburger, these bacteria have, like the grasses, coevolved with the cow, whom they feed.
Truly, this is an excellent system for all concerned: for the grasses, for the bacteria, for the animals, and for us, the animal's eaters. While it is true that overgrazing can do ecological harm to a grassland, in recent years ranchers have adopted rotational grazing patterns that more closely mimic the patterns of the bison, a ruminant that sustainably grazed these same grasses for thousands of years before the cow displaced it. In fact, a growing number of ecologists now believe the rangelands are healthier with cattle on them, provided they're moved frequently. Today, the most serious environmental harm associated with the cattle industry takes place on the feedlot.
So then why is it that steer number 534 hasn't tasted a blade of prairie grass since October? Speed, in a word, or in the industry's preferred term, "efficiency." Cows raised on grass simply take longer to reach slaughter weight than cows raised on a richer diet, and for half a century now the industry has devoted itself to shortening a beef animal's allotted span on earth. "In my grandfather's time, cows were four or five years old at slaughter," Rich explained. "In the fifties, when my father was ranching, it was two or three years old. Now we get there at fourteen to sixteen months." Fast food, indeed. What gets a steer from 80 to 1,100 pounds in fourteen months is tremendous quantities of corn, protein and fat supplements and an arsenal of new drugs.
~pages 70-71You're probably curious what exactly cows are being fed, then, aren't you? Here's what they get: a mash-up of corn, liquefied fat (carted in from the nearby slaughterhouse), protein supplement (consisting of molasses and urea). Oh, and antibiotics, because their stomachs are not made to digest corn and thus they get sick while eating it. These antibiotics consist of Rumensin (buffers acidity in the rumen), Tylosin (a form of erythromycin which lowers the incidence of liver infection).
But hey! At least it's not as bad as it was. We used to feed cows to cows because "rendered bovine meat and bonemeal represented the cheapest, most convenient way of satisfying a cow's protein requirement (never mind these animals were herbivores by evolution)" (73) and we only stopped (in 1997) because we figured it was causing mad cow disease. And actually, the rules still permit "feedlots to feed nonruminant animal protein to ruminants. Feather meal and chicken litter (that is bedding, feces and discarded bits of feed) are acceptable cattle feeds, as are chicken, fish, and pig meal" (76).
Pollan writes that "most of the health problems that afflict feedlot cattle can be traced either directly or indirectly to their diet" (77). Apparently it is the norm for the cows to be sick to some extent- the issue is just that they don't get 'too' sick per one Dr. Mel Metzin, the staff veterinarian at one CAFO called Poky. Here's what can happen to cows fed corn:
1. Bloat- "The fermentation in the rumen produces copious amounts of gas, which is normally expelled by belching during rumination. But when the diet contains too much starch and too little roughage, rumination all but stops, and a layer of foamy slime forms in the rumen that can trap gas. The rumen inflates like a balloon until it presses against the animal's lungs. Unless action is taken promptly to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down the animal's esophagus), the animal suffocates" (77-78).
2. Acidosis- "Unlike our own highly acidic stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn renders it acidic, causing a kind of bovine heartburn that in some cases can kill the animal, but usually just makes him sick. Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw and scratch their bellies, and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, rumenitis, liver disease,and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to the full panoply of feedlot diseases- pneumonia, coccidiosis, enteroxtoxemia, foodlot polio" (78).
3. Death- "Cattle rarely live on feedlot diets for more than 150 days, which might be about as much as their systems can tolerate" because "over time the acids eat away at the rumen wall, allowing bacteria to enter the animal's bloodstream. These microbes wind up in the liver, where they form abscesses and impair the liver's function. Between 15 percent and 30 percent of feedlot cows are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers" (78).
It turns out that when we eat corn-fed beef, we harm ourselves as well. First, "modern day hunter-gatherers who subsist on wild meat don't have our rates of heart disease" (75) and second, E. coli and other bacteria thrives in feedlot cattle (40% or more carry it in their gut) and when we eat contaminated meat, can cause us to die within a matter of days.
But even aside from our concern for ourselves, what about the animal? This is, after all, a living, breathing animal- God's creation- not an automobile. And this animal is living in a place without grass, packed into small spaces with thousands of others, standing and sleeping and walking around in tons of its own manure, is fattened up within an incredibly small amount of time while suffering all kinds of painful illnesses due to its diet, and then it is finally killed. In short, this animal is tortured in order to become our hamburger. (And this is to say nothing of the environmental issues caused when it comes to getting rid of and siphoning off the waste and manure produced at these CAFOs).
And compared to chickens (the majority of which live in total darkness in crowded cages where they peck at each other, impale themselves on the wires, defecate on other chickens or might be debeaked so as not to harm the others, never seeing the light of day or being allowed to walk around) or pigs (who live in gestation crates, which thank God are being phased out), these cows have a grand life.
(If you only watch one video on this issue, watch the one about pigs living in gestation crates - it will bring tears to your eyes.)
Here's the part that directly concerns you if you are a Jewish person: צער בעלי חיים, inflicting pain on animals.
I am not a vegetarian, nor do I intend to become one (because thank God, there are alternative meat sources available that allow me to eat animals that have not been tortured in the process of becoming meat). But I wonder whether there are halakhic implications when it comes to profiting directly from a system which absolutely tortures animals. Throughout Tanakh, we are taught to treat animals with respect. We are only permitted to eat animals due to the debt that they owe us because Noah saved them from the flood; original man and woman were vegetarians. We must cover an animal's blood (Leviticus 17:13), assist with the unloading of an enemy's beleaguered donkey (Exodus 23:5), and must allow animals to rest on the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:9). We cannot muzzle an ox to stop it from eating as it works the field (Deuteronomy 25:4). And all these laws, and other laws that are elucidated elsewhere (such as the need to feed your animals before you yourself can sit down to a meal) do not even touch on the stories that show us how to treat animals.
Our nation is a nation of people who treat animals kindly and justly. Yes, they profit from animals, and they even eat them, but they do not destroy their lives wantonly and they do not deliberately cause them suffering. Abraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe and David are all shepherds. Rachel is a shepherdess, and Rebecca offered to water the camels of the servant of Abraham. The story we tell of how Moshe first encountered God at the Burning Bush shows his kindness to the little lamb that had run away from the flock. Elijah owes a debt to the ravens who come to feed him. Jonah owes his life to the large fish that sheltered him. There is the story of King Shlomo and the palace of bird beaks, where the hoopoe teaches him compassion and kindness.
We are taught that one is not allowed to bring a sacrifice to God when the animal for the sacrifice was purchased with stolen money (or when the animal itself was stolen). On the other hand, there are other places (such as by Kilayim), where we ourselves are not allowed to combine plants together to create a new species, but we are allowed to eat what results if someone else who is not a Jew creates it - for example, a strawberry apple, or an apple pear. What I wonder is this: to which situation is the current practice more similar? Are we forbidden to profit (and to eat) animals that have been tortured in direct violation of Tzaar Baalei Chayim, or is this considered a lamentable practice, but since we ourselves are not directly responsible, it is still halakhically permissible?
Leaving that question aside, the question for you to consider is: what can you do? There are several campaigns underway. Here's what you can do in your own life to help.
1. Get informed! You can learn more at Food Inc- Take Part
2. Eat less meat- join the movement for Meatless Mondays
3. Become an ethical omnivore and eat ethically raised meat (pasture-fed or free range). Kosher options include Grow & Behold and Kol Foods
4. Consider becoming a vegetarian or a vegan
In Proverbs 12:10 we are instructed, "A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal; the mercies of the wicked, are cruel." I cannot think of a more obvious application for this axiom than the current CAFO practices. The 'mercies of the wicked' such as giving the animals antibiotics so that they can survive the assault on their stomachs caused by corn- are still cruel. And to be righteous is to choose not to block out that knowledge, but rather, to make decisions about meat (whatever they may be) in an ethical fashion.