Yesterday, Oprah spent her entire show discussing the treatment of the animals we raise for meat in this country. No wilting flower, Oprah did not shy away from discussing a subject that got her into a lot of hot water in the late 1990s, when she was sued by cattle ranchers for food disparagement when she admitted during the period of fear surrounding the early outbreaks of mad cow disease that she was “stopped cold from eating another burger.”
Back then, she didn’t have the eloquent ammo provided in Michael Pollan’s New York Times Magazine letter to the next commander-in-chief on Sunday, which focused on the perils of letting growth be the single factor in running the food system: “When a single factory is grinding 20 million hamburger patties in a week or washing 25 million servings of salad, a single terrorist armed with a canister of toxins can, at a stroke, poison millions. Such a system is equally susceptible to accidental contamination: the bigger and more global the trade in food, the more vulnerable the system is to catastrophe. The best way to protect our food system against such threats is obvious: decentralize it.”
On Oprah’s program, the issue at hand was the upcoming vote in California on Proposition 2, a referendum on changing the way laying hens, pregnant sows and veal calves are kept in confinement. A reformed eater of the standard American diet, Oprah has discussed issues of health on her program before, such as earlier this year when she ate a vegan diet for three weeks to lose weight. At the beginning of the program, she stood before her audience and presented visual representations of the current standards in confinement: six hens to a cage not large enough for any one to open its wings, a six foot long sow in a seven foot block with no room to turn around, and a calf in a similarly small paddock. The debate was on. We would be presented with both sides of the argument, and Oprah would refrain from bias, even though she stated that we are “the measure of how we treat the weaker among us,” twice.
Lisa Ling was on hand to talk about the videos at both caged and cage-free chicken operations, and confined and free-range pig farms. At both, we witnessed smaller “caged” operations, run by families who insisted that Proposition 2 was the kind of legislation that could put them out of business. They argued that they just didn’t have the space or money to retrofit their barns to fulfill this obligation. A representative speaking against Proposition 2 stated that the results of this bill passing would be less available food. Should Proposition 2 pass in November, these fears of mid-sized operations need to be eased. At the free-range farm, space was plentiful, and the animals seemed to fulfill the romantic vision farming holds in our consumer minds. The most interesting moment, arrested by a commercial break before it could come to fruition, was when the free-range pig farmer reached out to the confinement operator and said that he used to think that putting the pigs free to roam outside would be too hard, that they would be cold in the winter or would be difficult to breed and maintain. But that now he has come to realize that it just isn’t so. I really hoped Oprah would let him go on, but the schedule of daytime television was set in stone.
Back from the break we were on to veal calves. Apparently no confinement operator would let Oprah’s cameras on the premises, because they used fuzzy footage taken in the most horrible conditions imaginable by an activist: calves that could not stand up, that had never even learned to walk, and were chained by the neck to their paddock. It was reminiscent of the videos released last year of the California slaughterhouse that set in motion a change it the public thinking about the treatment of the animals we eat. As a contrast, Oprah’s camera crew visited a free-range cattle farm in Wisconsin, where calves were raised on their mother’s milk with the other cows, distinguished only by a tag on their ear that they would be sold as veal calves. For a contrasting view, a representative from the veal processor’s union argued that Proposition 2 was unnecessary, because producers were already moving in that direction. To that I ask, then why oppose it?
The fact that the argument has reached Oprah’s stage is telling for where we will continue to see this discussion going forward. As she reaches on average 14 million viewers per program, we can assume many new people have been brought into the fold, and have been given images of where our food comes from to turn over in their mind. What Proposition 2 might lack in assistance for small factory farmers to make the transition could be gained in the seven years before the implementation of the law. While not perfect, Proposition 2 calls for the humane treatment of the food we eat, something that was practiced up until we laid the foundation for industrial agriculture. We have been detached from these truths about where our food comes from for too long, and whether Proposition 2 passes or not, the argument for changing the way we farm, and specifically, raise the animals we eat in this country has gone mainstream.