So, Mark Bittman asks the question that a lot of people surely must be thinking in the US: Should I still be eating chicken? I’m asking myself the same question — for a different reason.
The context, for Bittman, is an outbreak of salmonella which has left about 300 people hospitalised — and since not everyone with salmonella goes to see a doctor in the only industrialised country without universal healthcare, it’s strangely hard to find out how many people got ill, so maybe many thousands ill. And there are some seriously worrying indicators that this strain of salmonella could no longer be killable at standard meat-cooking temperatures. I’d like that chicken carbonised, please.
So here’s the deal. I live in a country that doesn’t have salmonella. It just doesn’t. As Bittman says, it really isn’t that hard to do:
The real solution lies not only in washing your hands but in improving production methods. As Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, who, like Slaughter, is one of our best (and only) Congressional food safety advocates, said to me, “We need to reform this system.”
The reforms are pretty straightforward. If the F.D.A. and U.S.D.A. want to stand with citizens rather than industry when it comes to meat safety, there are two necessary steps.
1. The F.D.A. must disallow the use of prophylactic antibiotics in animal production. It’s almost as simple as that.
2. The U.S.D.A. must consider salmonella that’s been linked to illness an “adulterant” (as it does strains of E. coli), which would mean that its very presence on foods would be sufficient to take them off the market. Again, it’s almost as simple as that. (Sweden produces chicken with zero levels of salmonella. Are they that much smarter than us?)
This assumes our agencies are willing to put our interests before industry’s. If they’re not, I guess the question “Whose side are you on?” has been answered.
Seen from afar, from behind the safety of sensible European regulations, these elementary and necessary precautions in food safety and public health are incredibly low-hanging fruit. But the truth is that quite a few EU countries are not so lucky. And a big reason for this, I’m told, is that for a long time, the EU required member countries to accept up to a certain level of salmonella outbreaks per year in order to protect the industry. That has since changed to the current, zero-tolerance rule.
Take Denmark as an example. To most Americans, it must seem like The Soviet Union with fairy tales, dark crime thrillers and pastries, for a long time it had a terribly regulated farming industry and industrial fowl and swine production was just horrifically salmonella-ridden. Most of the Danes I know have had that terrible week spent drinking freshly pressed electrolytes and sleeping on the bathroom tiles. But there’s hope: after finally starting to press back, and after getting new support from the EU, the infection rate per year has declined from its peak, and is now down to about the size of the current outbreak in the US.
No no, not per capita: in real numbers.
But anyway, get regulated already. Beating back salmonella is tough but it’s doable. And none of us can surely have a meat industry that accepts this kind of situation to occur regularly.
But I’m not a food politician. And that isn’t really what I wanted to talk about.
The thing is, for the past many months, and over the past year or so, I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable about eating meat. One thing is the food risks, another is the climate change policy (for most westerners, thing number one with a bullet you can do for the climate is to stop eating meat).
No, I’m having qualms about cruelty, pain and suffering. I find that after finding out much, much more over the past year than I wanted to know about chicken farming, I find that it’s become much harder for me to eat chicken. The conditions most chickens in the western world live under are quite simply unacceptable. If you have once seen them, you never forget the brutality, the suffering and the indignity of it.
But that’s not all. Because I still think chicken is delicious, I’ve been buying organic and free-ranged chicken. But I find that beyond the mere fact of the pain and suffering of factory farmed chickens, the morality of eating the flesh of animals in general has begun to impinge upon me, with my knowledge of the suffering of chicken as a catalyst for a more general realisation.
Lately, as I remove the raw chicken from the plastic wrapping, I’ve begun briefly to feel like I’m unwrapping the body of a small child. When I crack the bones to fit the chicken in the pot, I am breaking someone’s arm, just for a moment. I’m a parent to a small child myself, and feelings like that flay me.
The philosopher Peter Singer has made the argument (for instance here) that the salient question is the ability to feel pain and suffering. That it is hard to make a case for allowing suffering towards creatures just because they aren’t us. See this lecture for a longer version of the same argument:
And I find his argument hard to fault. And that leads my to some places which require uncomfortable conclusions. Rationally, as an understanding of an ethical argument, I have already made my conclusion. But I find that changing my life to put myself in line with my ethical views is hard on this point. Meat eating is a deeply ingrained habit.
But I am becoming increasingly convinced it’s one I have to break. I’ve (barely) started cutting down on meat. I’m going to be cutting down even further. And what does that make me? It makes me a man who lacks the courage of his convictions. If I am able to acknowledge Singer’s argument as valid, if I can feel the suffering of the creatures I eat, surely that requires some sort of sacrifice on my part? Am I moving myself into a position where defenses like “but it was hunted in the wild” or “it’s one of the best farms for the animals” cease to be morally sufficient for me to eat meat anymore?
Is this halfway solution not like trying to cut down on the number of people I kill? Good, yes, in general, but also definitely not good enough? Is that where I’m going: No more chicken soup, ever? No entrecôte? No salciccia? No carpaccio? For the love of God: no bacon?
Am I completely lost in space here? What do you think: is meat-eating morally defensible?