What Food, Inc. Can Teach Us About How We Treat Animals

Last week The Humane Society of the United States co-hosted a screening of the film Food, Inc. for policymakers in Sacramento. It was a lively and engaged crowd representing the gamut from vegan activists to staunch carnivores, and it seemed every one of them learned something from Food, Inc. Alice Waters, Martin Sheen, Elise Pearlstein (the film’s producer) and the two most powerful state Senators brought cache and insight with their post-screening panel.

Dave Murphy’s great review of Food, Inc. the other day was spot-on and HSUS urges everyone to see it. Its fundamental aim is to expose the rampant abuse of power that has resulted in an inefficient, polluting, degrading, cruel, and unhealthy food system in America.  To add to Dave’s commentary, I wanted to offer the perspective  of someone who works daily to address the torturous conditions that 10 billion animals raised for food routinely each year endure.

About a third of the film’s footage features feedlots, confinement facilities, and slaughterhouses. In an artful and effective way, images flick quickly from living animal to dead animal to carcass to giant vats of flesh. In so doing, the film challenges the cognitive dissonance so many people live with: identifying and empathizing with individual animals while eating others.

One scene sticks out in this regard and generated an interesting discussion at the Sacramento screening. Both the film and Michael Pollan lionize Joel Salatin, who at his Polyface Farms in Virginia, is shown raising many of his animals in what most people would consider the “old-fashioned” way – outdoors, in small herds, with species-appropriate feed. And certainly Salatin’s methods seem far preferable to how most farm animals are raised. But the film also shows a matter-of-fact Salatin and crew performing an outdoor slaughter of a number of chickens. As he chats amiably to the camera, Salatin and his co-workers grab flapping and screaming birds, cut their throats while they’re fully conscious, and then de-feather and dismember the carcasses.

As was the case the two other times when I watched this scene with an audience, I looked around to see that the vast majority of the crowd reacts viscerally: grimacing, covering eyes, wincing, looking away. As Salatin and his workers engage in these fundamentally violent acts, the audience (mostly meat-eaters) becomes uncomfortable.

It’s in this space that Food, Inc. has the biggest opportunity to impact the lives of the 10 billion animals – nearly all of whom endure far more suffering than Salatin’s chickens. If we cannot accept our role in the process that turns living, breathing animals into commodities to be slaughtered and sold, we may want to consider whether our dietary choices really reflect our values.

At the film’s close, a number of individual actions are proposed for filmgoers who will definitely be hungry for change. But only one of those encouragements has the potential to positively affect all of the ills the film highlights: reducing our consumption of animal products.

  • Pollution? Giant cesspools of liquefied manure are a significant threat to air and groundwater quality. The fecal waste produced by a single industrialized pig operation (500,000 animals) exceeds that generated by the residents of Manhattan (1.5 million people).
  • Food safety? Nearly 70 percent of antibiotics produced are fed to animals raised for food, contributing to the growing problem of human antibiotic resistance. Further, there is simply an irresolvable tension between raising and killing billions of animals in only a handful of plants each year and ensuring proper traceability and food safety assurances.
  • Global warming? According to the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, animal agriculture is responsible for the largest contribution of any sector to global warming – more than transportation.
  • Water conservation? Huge amounts of water are utilized in producing meat: According to the EPA, 400 gallons to make a single pound of chicken, for example.
  • Mono-cropping? The majority of corn – 60% by some estimates – produced in this country is consumed by animals raised for food.
  • Human hunger? We’re feeding animals the food that starving humans need desperately. It takes 6.5 pounds of corn for a pound of pork.
  • Worker safety? Slaughterhouses are among the most dangerous workplaces. Low pay, repetitive work, the potential for injury, and the poor conditions are driven by the need to kill as many as 32,000 animals a day, as the film reports one Smithfield pig slaughter plant does.
  • Rural communities? According to the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, “[t]he family-owned farm producing a diverse mix of crops and food animals is largely gone as an economic entity… and rural communities have fared poorly. Industrialization has been accompanied by increasing farm size and gross farm sales, lower family income, higher poverty rates, lower retail sales, lower housing quality, and lower wages for farm workers.”
  • Animal cruelty? Factory farming and the institutionalized cruelty it involves is driven by the numbers. There’s no way we can continue to eat the same number of animals without something akin to the current system – brutal, dehumanizing, and inherently cruel.

The most effective choice we can make right now is to reduce our consumption of animals. And it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. It is great to stop eating animals altogether, but every meal counts. And it’s not just The Humane Society of the United States on board with this idea: writers such as the New York Times’ Mark Bittman and Pollan advocate reduction as well, with Bittman’s new book describing his “vegan until dinner” strategy.

A new PSA for Food, Inc. featuring NBA star and vegan John Salley was unveiled at the Sacramento screening, and appears now on our web site. I spent perhaps too many words here saying what he sums up best, “Skip the meat, eat some veggies. You are the consumer, you have the power. Vote with your fork, three times a day.”

12 thoughts on “What Food, Inc. Can Teach Us About How We Treat Animals

  1. Feeding food to animals that people desperately need? The problem isn’t one of not enough food, the problem is that too many people can’t afford the food that’s available. The connection you’re trying to make just doesn’t work in real world economics. Instead, we should stop forcing the world’s poor into growing commodity crops and encourage them back to the old ways of growing substinence foods they can use to feed themselves.

  2. Squandering resources by funneling grain through animals so that we can then eat those animals’ flesh seems offensive to those who don’t have enough to eat. It’s true that there are many reasons hunger exists, but it’s also true that eating grains directly is far more efficient than feeding grains to animals and then eating the animals.

    More to the point, we don’t need to eat animals. Vegetarian eating is just as healthy — and likely healthier — than a meat/egg/dairy-centered diet. Since it’s a matter of choice, each of us can choose kindness of cruelty and not take these animals’ lives.

    Free vegetarian recipes are available at http://www.VegRecipes.org

  3. Ahh, the wounders of TV. Through editing anything can look bad! Unfortunately Food, Inc. only shows the side that vegan activist want the public to see, and stretch (and even lie) about the truth to do so!
    I will only address one of the points here, but all of them are very biased. Yes, we feed corn to farm animals. This is not the corn that most consumers would buy, this is field corn, its alot harder and does not tast like sweet corn. Ither than corn bread, muffins, and a few other uses field corn must be processed in order for us to eat. Farm animals effeicently convert hay and corn into a form that we love – meat!

  4. no movie can tell you what you need to know about where your food comes from. visit a soybean farm for a few days, then visit a farm like polyface for a few days, and consider which one you’d rather have next door.

  5. Just so you know, I saw this movie, (it’s a film-not tv) and listened to a discussion with the director for an hour. I’m not vegan, although I don’t eat dairy because it makes my allergies/asthma much worse. I eat meat in small amounts because that just makes my belly feel better.
    So-
    Pretty much everyone knows that field corn is for animals. The point is that if we didn’t use those fields for field corn, we could be growing food for humans in the same space. The average American needs to see where their food comes from, since most people are so far removed. My first CSA farmer fed 60 families with only two acres, plus she also had extra to sell at two farmer’s markets.

    I hope people will also become concerned with the “meat” served to school children every day. It made me very glad that my son would never eat a school lunch. And how long will we continue to let children die from ecoli?

  6. Much of this is troublingly oversimplified. Tell me of a single ecosystem that is self-renewing without animals in it. Animals are a vital ingredient in healthy ecologies. So if if read some of the comments acurately what we are saying is that we should get rid of the animals so that we can all drive more? The animals were here before cars. Think about it. Besides there are other ruminants besides cows and sheep. What about the deer, the antelope, the bison? Do we kill them all off too so that we can drive more?

  7. If you are familiar with the works of Pollan and Schlosser at all, you would know that they are not vegans.

  8. Pingback: JUNE GARDEN & HOMESTEAD | Little Homestead in the City

  9. I eat local, sustainably produced meat and dairy products, produce most of my own vegetables, and keep laying hens on a mini-rotational grazing system in my suburban backyard. I cook 99% of all the meals my family eats from scratch. That should tell you where my inclinations and views lie.

    I have yet to see the film. However, I do wonder about the motivation behind the making of this film. No argument: feedlot operations are a horror and a moral/environmental travesty. But when a place like Polyface Farm is lumped in with big ag because they don’t slaughter their chickens with Zen reverence or an intravenous drip to calm the birds before dispatching them – you’ve lost my sympathies.

    Life is valued by quality, not quantity. No one reading these words has any guarantee that they’ll be here to read them tomorrow. Salatin’s animals have X good weeks or months of life, and one bad morning or afternoon. How many of us can say the same? Life doesn’t promise any creature that the end will be a painless or happy occasion, particularly if said creature is wild. A wild songbird died in my backyard a few days ago from a prolapsed uterus. Was that a better death than the Polyface chickens had?

    Salatin’s domesticated animals are raised for human consumption, provided with wholesome feed, protection from predators, and the ability to express their full range of natural behaviors. So now Polyface is to be criticized over the last few moments of those animals’ lives? Spare me. Show me a better method of killing a few hundred animals at a time on a regular basis, or just admit that this is 100% pure radical vegan propaganda.

  10. Kate – The from what I’ve read Food, Inc doesn’t lump Polyface in with BigAg, in fact to promote Polyface as an ideal. Pollen’s work is supposed to feature prominently and he is decidedly for ethical meat eating. The original review on Civil Eats by Dave Murphy seems to be much more well rounded than this one.

    This particular blogger is affiliated with the HSUS, which is a decidely pro-vegan organization. The HSUS does have some involvement with the movie, but so does Slow Food USA, Heifer International and Sustainable Table, all whom support livestock rearing for food purposes in the manner you describe.

  11. Pingback: chowmama | Weekly Digest

  12. Thanks for posting the link for Food, Inc., coming out in theaters June 12, in San Francisco, New York City, and Los Angeles(other play dates available here: http://www.magpictures.com/dates.aspx?id=3e3938d1-b785-4286-9ae0-8eb5952f1480)! You can watch the trailer here:

    http://www.youtube.com/v/c2sgaO44_1c&hl=en&fs=1

    There is also a book companion to the movie, Food, Inc. available at Amazon.com. The book explores topics that were discussed in the movie, such as the industrialization of our food supply and the benefits of local and organic eating. Food experts including Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan, and Anna Lappé, take these topics to another level through thirteen fascinating essays, some of which have been written especially for this book. Check it out!

    Shannon Matloob
    Participant Media