A classic James Taylor tune “Up on the Roof” starts with this line: “When this old world is getting me down, and people are just too much for me to take.” In the song, he climbs up onto the rooftop of his apartment building to “chill out” (in modern parlance) from the stress of daily living.
I feel the same way after spending even a short time surfing the Web and sampling some of the “dialogue” people share about livestock production, meatpacking and the health and safety status of our food supply.
Only climbing onto the roof of my house, even though on a clear day you can gaze upon a panorama of the snow-capped Cascades Mountains, isn’t much of a cure for the overdose of ignorance and vitriol about meat and poultry production that’s dished out online every day. You think farm animals get “loaded up with antibiotics, hormones and chemicals,” as one blogger asserted? The load of crap floating around in cyberspace is enough to bury even the most knowledgeable consumer in an avalanche of misinformation and exaggeration.
Here’s a sampling (and it doesn’t even matter which websites they’re from—there are hundreds from which to choose):
› “For those of us who love a crispy slice of bacon but also care about the impact of our food choices, eating meat can be a very complex issue. Just for starters, there’s the thorny ethical question of animal welfare to consider, [and] you probably know that industrial meat production is bad for the planet, [including] deforestation/desertification and the pollution caused by large slaughterhouses and processing plants. My current solution? Buy locally and sustainably raised meat from farmers markets, [like the] Union Square Greenmarket in New York City.”
Comment: Farmer’s markets. That’s great. Now, stop going to your local supermarket—but not just for meat from those horrible factory farms, but for EVERYTHING. Because all of the staples people routinely purchase at the grocery store, including beverages, snacks, produce, breakfast cereals and dairy products, come from large “industrial farms” and big corporate agri-business operations. Even the “sustainably produced” vegetarian novelties favored by so many “enlightened” consumers use commercially grown, genetically engineered (gasp!) soybeans as the primary raw material. Small and local is terrific, but does anyone really think that the 12 million people in the tri-state area around New York City could all travel to some farmer’s market to buy all of their food? And even if they could, wouldn’t the ensuing transportation nightmare be “bad for the planet?” Just asking.
› “If you love your hot dogs and hate polar bears and rainforests, health and safety reasons should be convincing enough for anyone to stop eating meat processed in a factory environment, because if you eat it, you might DIE [writer’s CAPS].”
Comment: Yes, whenever I bite into a hot dog at the ball game or maybe at a backyard barbecue, I like to imagine that way up north, a polar bear is lying dead on an ice floe somewhere. And then, when I’m deciding whether to have another, I whet my appetite with thoughts of an entire tribe of native people in the Amazon Basin being wiped out, one by one. Because, of course, every time a pig is born in Iowa or North Carolina, a cute little polar bear cub gets croaked.
› “The speed of meat packing lines is unsafe. It’s unsafe for the workers on the line and it contributes to food safety problems. Injuries can range from repetitive motion injuries to cuts with a knife to serious injuries like hands being caught in a machine. Not only do injuries to workers occur, but food safety is compromised as well.”
Comment: If one could time travel back to ancient times—like, the 1980s—the conditions you’d see in a meatpacking plant would be very different from what exists today. As a rookie editor covering the industry back then, I traveled to many a plant, writing stories about dozens of companies, large and small. Working conditions were more dangerous; animal abuse wasn’t exceedingly rare; employee turnover did reach astonishing rates; and food safety wasn’t near the priority for plant management that it is today. You know why? Because most of the smaller plants—you know, the ones activists love to romanticize—are out of business, that’s why. Thanks to HACCP and OSHA and USDA, the bar on food safety and working conditions has been raised significantly, and virtually every single plant where I once cringed at the treatment of animals (and people) is closed up, shut down and long gone from the industry. But you’d never know that from the simplistic ranting that goes unchallenged daily in the blogosphere.
Which brings me to a consideration for anyone who benefits from, is supportive of or who can at least appreciate the benefits of modern food production. How do you counter the tidal wave of ignorance that gets churned up each day online? The same way all the misguided and thoughtless “insights” that bloggers create gets disseminated: One person at a time.
Next time you’re traveling, next time you’re sitting next to somebody at a sporting or cultural event, next time you’re in line at the supermarket or some other retail store, try engaging the person next to you on the subject of meat production and meat-eating. Get a dialogue going, only steer it in the direction of feeding six billion people, of maintaining affordable food, of managing limited resources of land, water and energy and of providing an abundant food supply that has abolished the periodic food shortages that once plagued humanity.
See if you can’t share a conversation that’s a little more enlightening than the ones which too many people share online each day.
That’s how you handle it when people are just too much to take.
Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator