Eating Veal and Other Lesuirely Pursuits

June 20, 2007

My housemate eats veal like it’s going out of style. He makes schnitzel (yes, he is German) and boils up veal ravioli as a snack. You heard that right – tortured baby cow ravioli. I mean it’s one thing to eat veal, it’s another thing entirely to eat it in a form where another meat would work just as well (I hear a blend of minced pork and chicken is virtually indistinguishable from minced veal). I have nothing against meat eating, god knows I do it often enough. What I do have problems with is making life hell for the animals before we eat them for Sunday dinner.

Increasingly, people like my housemate are in the minority. The growing consensus is that the process by which veal is cultivated is unnecessarily cruel. Here’s the kicker though – the multitude of people who wouldn’t even dream of eating veal (people who would rather eat tofurky than indulge in veal) would still eat factory farmed meat.

Here’s the thing. To many people, farming calls to mind sunny picture book images of Old MacDonald in his backyard, scattering feed for the chickens while the lone cow chews cud in the background and the pig plays in the mud. It’s idyllic, it’s clean, the animals all have cute, anthropomorphic smiles on their faces. If and when the killing of said animals are broached, it’s Old Yeller style – a two barrel shotgun pointed at the head behind the barn. Quick, clean, easy. Have a BLT (I like mine with balsamic vinegar reduction, horseradish, garlic aioli and avocado).

Truth is, unless the meat is marked otherwise (and costs several times what the meat at your local supermarket costs), our meat doesn’t come from quaint family farms. Instead we get meat from factory farms! Yay! Or not.

Factory farms process way more animals than space should be able to accommodate. Pigs are kept in cages so small that they are unable to turn around or lie down. In their boredom they start chewing on anything they can, and since metal is not particularly chewy, they bite whatever bits of other pigs they can reach, typically the tails. Since this is a problem for the “farmers” they remove teeth and tails, without sedatives or painkillers. That would just slow down the process. Wait, let’s go back to the first point for a second – what’s the other animal that is kept in a cage too small for natural movement? OH RIGHT! VEAL! Now where were we?

Battery cage chickens are lucky to get a space the size of a standard letter sized paper (that’s slightly smaller than a sheet of A4 paper for those non-Americans) and often die of starvation or dehydration as a result of not being able to get to food or water located inches away from their crippled form (getting trampled, atrophied muscles and having various body parts trapped by the cages are common occurrences). They also get the tips of their beaks sheared off (because, like pigs, they peck at each other due to the stressful conditions). While that doesn’t sound like a big deal at first blush, the beak is incredibly sensitive (chopping it off causes chronic pain) and is used by the chicken to explore and interact with its world.

Still, one could argue that these are animals. For all intents and purposes, the harm done to them must be weighed against the demand from humans for cheap meat. Afterall, meat is the most convenient source of complete protein. Sure, and if that’s your stand, there is little I can say otherwise. However, there is something missing from the standard “But factory farming is teh cruelty!” argument – the environmental impact of having that many animals in that small an area.

Animals poop. Lots of animals = lots of poop. In the type of farming most people think of (cows in a field waiting to be called home) poop really isn’t an issue. The cows do what they have to do in the fields, it returns to nature and nourishes the soil. When you concentrate your cattle into a tiny space (ala feedlots, where the cattle are so densely crowded that the land is packed and barren from all the hooves trampling it) there is nowhere for the manure to go. Current US legislation only requires that the waste (all animal waste) be stored in “lagoons” – giant artificial holes in the ground. The resultant air pollution from having these uncovered pools of shit renders the surrounding areas all but uninhabitable. Which is very unfortunate for the people who happen to be living there. Moreover, heavy rains and seepage into the ground contaminates groundwater, polluting the rivers and destroying fish habitats.

The other problem with having animals crowded together to the extent that grass cannot grow underfoot is that we end up having to feed them. We end up feeding them grain, which requires fossil fuel to produce. So we have turned a solar powered cow (grass only needs the sun and the rain) into another fossil fuel dependent machine:

Chances are, though, any meat eater will come out on the short end of this argument, especially in the United States. Take the case of beef. Cattle are grazers, so in theory could live like the grass-fed lamb. Some cattle cultures—those of South America and Mexico, for example—have perfected wonderful cuisines based on grass-fed beef. This is not our habit in the United States, and it is simply a matter of habit. Eighty percent of the grain the United States produces goes to livestock. Seventy-eight percent of all of our beef comes from feed lots, where the cattle eat grain, mostly corn and wheat. So do most of our hogs and chickens. The cattle spend their adult lives packed shoulder to shoulder in a space not much bigger than their bodies, up to their knees in shit, being stuffed with grain and a constant stream of antibiotics to prevent the disease this sort of confinement invariably engenders. The manure is rich in nitrogen and once provided a farm’s fertilizer. The feedlots, however, are now far removed from farm fields, so it is simply not “efficient” to haul it to cornfields. It is waste. It exhales methane, a global-warming gas. It pollutes streams. It takes thirty-five calories of fossil fuel to make a calorie of beef this way; sixty-eight to make one calorie of pork[1].

Well, but what’s the environment but something we as masters of our domain should (as is our birthright) exploit?! Uhh, sure. Ok. There are a number of things wrong with that statement (like where does responsible stewardship come in?) but I’ll take it head on. The incredible stress placed on animals by the intensive farming practices force the use of subtheraputic antibiotics – antibiotics that are mixed in with their daily feed to prevent disease that would otherwise ravage the stock. The animals are guaranteed to become sick under the conditions they are kept in and so they are medicated preventatively (even farmed fish, think about it for a sec, we’re putting antibiotics into our waters). The best part about this is? One of the few antibiotics that the infectious agents that affect humans are still largely NOT resistant to (hey! You have three tries at guessing at what scientists blame for the increasing numbers of antibiotic resistant bacteria!) might soon be approved for use (by the FDA) in the cattle we eat. Congratulations.

And don’t even get me started on factory farmed crops (no seriously, I won’t get into it this post, but maybe you should do a little Googling yourself).

It’s simple. If you won’t eat veal on ethical grounds, then you want to think twice about eating foods that come off factory farming (including dairy – did you know that veal comes from male milk cows?). The same ethical problems that crop up when it comes to veal come up for every other animal that is intensely farmed. You don’t have to go vegan (there are a legion of problems with modern crop farming methods, but don’t get me started), but you might want to look into eating more ethically farmed meats. Sure it’s going to cost a lot more, but not that long ago meat was not a daily indulgence, even in the first world. If you have to become a part-time veggie to afford more ethical lamb chops, it’s not the end of the world. Instead, I’ve discovered that this is one of the best ways to discover new ingredients and cooking methods.

For more information, check out these books (they are all very accessible):

[1] From “The Oil We Eat: Following the Food Chain back to Iraq” by Richard Manning


One comment

  1. Just found something related to the shit holes you mentioned.

    Methane gas from a dairy farm’s manure pit in Virginia was enough to kill 5 people.


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