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Class of Nonviolence - Lesson Eight - Essay 4

Diet for a New America

By John Robbins

As the sun dawns across North America every morning, the wave of slaughter begins. Each day in the United States nine million chickens, turkeys, pigs, calves and cows meet their deaths at human hands. In the time it takes you to have your lunch, the number of animals killed is equal to the entire population of San Francisco.

In our "civilized" society, the slaughter of innocent animals is not only an accepted practice, it is an established ritual.

We do not usually see ourselves as members of a flesh-eating cult. But all the signs of a cult are there. Many of us are afraid to even consider other diet-style choices, afraid to leave the safety of the group, afraid when there is any evidence that might reveal that the god of animal protein isn't quite all it's cracked up to be. Members of the great American Steak Religion frequently become worried if their family or friends show any signs of disenchantment. A mother may be more worried if her son or daughter becomes a vegetarian than if they take up smoking.

We are deeply conditioned in our attitudes towards meat. We have been taught to believe that our very health depends on it. Many of us believe our social status depends on the quality of our meat and the frequency with which we eat it; and we take it for granted that only someone who "can't afford meat" would do without it. Males have been conditioned to associate meat with their masculinity and quite a few men believe their sexual potency and virility depend on eating meat. Many women have been taught that a "good woman" feeds her man meat.

Our cultural conditioning tells us we must eat meat and at the same time systemically overlooks the basic realities of meat production. We've been indoctrinated so thoroughly that it has become the ocean in which we swim. Our language is so disempowered by euphemisms and clichés, our shared experience so weakened by repression, our common sense so distorted by ignorance, that we can easily be held prisoner by a point of view beneath the threshold of our awareness.

Only yesterday I was in a market which proudly proclaimed their chickens were "fresh." And here all along I had thought they were selling "dead" chickens. I suggested to the manager that he might be able to clear up any confusion on the matter in the minds of his clientele by changing the sign to read "freshly killed chickens," but he didn't seem overly grateful for my suggestion.

Piercing the Veil

What, then is it like for someone if, for a moment, he somehow manages to pierce through this veil of repression? Well, it can be downright shocking and can stir up a great deal of confusion and disturbance. Henry S. Salt gives us an account of his experience in his book, Seventy Years Among Savages.

"…and then I found myself realizing, with an amazement which time has not diminished, that the "meat" which formed the staple of our diet, and which I was accustomed to regard like bread or fruit, or vegetables - as a mere commodity of the table-was in truth dead flesh the actual flesh and blood of oxen, sheep, and swine, and other animals that were slaughtered in vast numbers."
The meat business depends on our repressing the unpleasant awareness that we are devouring dead bodies. Thus we have refined names like "sweet-breads" for what really are the innards of baby lambs and calves. We have names like "Rocky Mountain Oysters" for something we might not find quite so appealing if we knew what they really were - pig's testicles.

Our very language becomes an instrument of denial. When we look at the body of a dead cow, we call it a "side of beef." When we look at the body of a dead pig, we call it "ham," or "pork." We have been systematically trained not to see anything from the point of view of the animal, or even from a point of view which includes the animal's existence.

In Alexandra Tolstoy's book, Tolstoy, A Life of My Father, she tells of a time her aunt came to dinner, and her father chose to burst the bubble of repression by which she kept herself isolated from the truth about her diet:

"Auntie was fond of food and when she was offered only a vegetarian diet she was indignant, said she could not eat any old filth, and demanded that they give her meat, chicken. The next time she came to dinner she was astonished to find a live chicken tied to her chair and a large knife at her plate.

"'What's this?' asked Auntie.

"'You wanted chicken,' Tolstoy replied, scarcely restraining his laughter, 'No one of us willing to kill it. Therefore we prepared everything so that you could do it yourself.'

Apparently, Auntie was appalled at the thought of killing the animal she wished to eat. Like most of us, she did not enjoy being reminded where meat actually comes from. Most of us are willing to eat the flesh of animals, but dislike the sight of their blood, and prefer to think of ourselves, not as killers, but as consumers.

It has often been said that if we had to kill the animals we eat, the number of vegetarians would rise astronomically. To keep us from thinking along such lines, the meat industry does everything it can to help us blank the matter out of our minds.

As a result, most of us know very little about slaughterhouses. If we think about them at all, we probably assume and hope that the animals enjoy a quick and painless death.

"Meat-packing plants" as slaughterhouses are euphemistically called, are not exactly the most pleasant of working environments. Just being surrounded by death and killing takes an incredible toll on a human being.

The turnover rate amount slaughterhouse workers is the highest of any occupation in the country. The Excel Corporation plant in Dodge City, Kansas, for example, had a turnover rate of 43 percent per month in 1980 - the equivalent of a complete turnover of its entire 500-person work force every two and a half months.

One meat producer described a typical meat-packing plant atmosphere:

"Earphone-type sound mufflers help mute the deadening cacophony of high-pressure steam used for cleaning, the clanging of steel on steel as carcasses move down the slaughter line, the whine of the hide and tallow removers, and the snarling of a chain saw used to split carcasses into sides of beef here on the killing-room floor.

"The killing room - is filled with animals, minus their hooves, heads, tails and skins, which dangle down from an overhead track and slowly make their way past the various stations of the various slaughterhouse workers like macabre pinots.

"The animals (have) their throats -slit, and then- with tongues hanging limply out of their mouths- their bodies are unceremoniously hooked behind the tendons of their rear legs and are swung upon into the air onto the overhead track, which moves them through the killing room like bags of clothes on a dry cleaner motorized rack. Once bled, their hooves are clipped off with a gigantic pair of hydraulic pincer. They are then beheaded, skinned--and finally eviscerated."

Amidst this carnage, workers in blood-spattered white coats and helmets are in constant notion, removing cattle legs with electric shears, skinning hides with whirring air knives, disemboweling animals with razor-bladed straight knives. The floors are slick with animal grease and the air is thick with stench.

It is a terribly difficult atmosphere in which to work. According to U.S. Labor Department statistics, the rate of injury in meatpacking houses is the highest of any occupation in the nation. Every year, over 30 percent of packing-house workers suffer on-the-job injuries requiring medical attention.

The same attitudes which determine policies in factory farms govern decisions in slaughterhouses, and these are not attitudes of compassion for the animals. A leading poultry producer discussed the philosophy underlying his endeavors in the trade journal Poultry World:

"I am in this business for what I can make out of it. If it pays me to do this or that, I do it and so far as I am concerned that is all there is to say about it."
The industry chooses the cheapest possible methods of killing. They do not purposefully choose to be brutal and sadistic. It just works out that way.

The "captive-bolt pistol" is one of the most effective methods of stunning cow, pigs, and other animals unconscious prior to killing them. Unfortunately, however, the cost of the charges used to fire the thing is enough to deter many slaughterhouses from using it. You must wonder how much money is saved thus, at the cost of forcing the animal to be fully conscious when killed. I've become somewhat accustomed to the industry's callousness, but I was still stunned to learn the savings amount to approximately a single penny an animal.

How They Taught Us

I am sitting in elementary school. The teacher is bringing out a nice-colored chart and telling all us kids how important it is to eat meat and drink our milk and get lots of protein. I'm listening to her, and looking at the chart which makes it all seem so simple. I believe my teacher, because I sense that she, herself, believes what she is saying. She is sincere. She is a grown-up. Besides, the chart is decorated and fun to look at. It must be true.

Protein, I hear, that's what's important. Protein. Lots of it. And you can only get good quality protein from meat and eggs and dairy products. That's why they make up two of the four "basic food groups" on the chart.

That day at lunch I feel like doing something good for myself and the world, so I spend the 10 cents I have left of my weekly allowance for another carton of milk.

Now I am an adult, and looking back, I know my teacher had all we could handle to keep control of the classroom and teach a few basics. When teaching aids were given to her that helped get the class's attention, and helped ease her burden, she was grateful. Not for a moment did it occur to her to wonder about the political dynamics that lead to the development of those aids. Neither she nor any of us little kids could have imagined that the pretty chart was actually the outcome of extensive political lobbying by the huge meat and dairy conglomerates. Nor could we have imagined the many millions of dollars which had been poured into the campaigns that produced those pretty chars. My teacher believed what she taught us, and never for a moment suspected was she being used to relay industrial propaganda.

Our innocent and captive little minds soaked it all up like sponges. And most of us, as planned, have been willing and unquestioning consumers of vast amounts of meat and dairy products ever since. Even those few of us who have come to experiment with vegetarian diet styles are often still haunted by the voices of our teachers and the lessons of those charts. When things aren't going well, a voice in the back of our minds whispers: "Maybe you aren't getting enough protein."

Step Right Up, Step Right Up

Of course, just because the concept of the "basic four" food groups was promoted by the National Egg Board, the National Dairy Council, and the National Livestock and Meat Board, doesn't mean it is necessarily false. Just because there were hucksters in our classrooms doesn't mean the hucksters lied.

But it does mean their motives were a little less pure than we thought, and their "concern" for our education a little more self-interested than we knew. It might cast a shadow upon the wisdom of unquestioningly accepting the "truths" we were taught. I might mean, for example, that we should consult sources of information less biased than the Egg Board, or the Meat Board, or the others who applied so much political and economic pressure to get those nice pretty charts to say what they wanted them to say.

Roger Williams, the biochemist and nutrient researcher who has probably contributed more to our understanding of biochemical individuality than any scientist alive, suggests that the range of protein needs among people may vary as much as fourfold. Interestingly, a fourfold range is just the span covered by the extremes of current scientific thinking. For if we top off the highest figures to make room for the extra protein needs of the most extreme cases, we have a spectrum ranging from two and a half percent at the low end up to ten percent at the top. Science tells us that the protein needs of the vast majority of people would be easily met within that range.

Nature, it seems, would agree totally. Human mother's milk provides five percent of its calories from protein. Nature seems to be telling us that little babies, whose bodies are growing the fastest they will ever grow in their life, and whose protein needs are therefore at a maximum, are best served by the very modest level of five percent protein.

What If We Need a Whole lot?

But what if we happen to be one of those people whose biochemical individualities are such that we need a whole lot of protein? What if we are at the high end of the spectrum? Don't we need to eat meat in order to get enough? And if not meat, don't we then need eggs or dairy products?

Even in fact, we were at the very top end of the spectrum in terms of our protein needs, needing to derive a full 10 percent of our calories from protein, unless we are trying to live only on fruits and sweet potatoes, vegetarian foodstuffs easily provide for our protein needs. If we ate only brown rice, and if our biochemical individualities required the maximum of protein, then, or course, we would fall a little short. But if we do nothing more than include beans or fresh vegetables to complement the rice, then our protein needs are easily and well satisfied without recourse to any animal products. This is true even in the most extreme case, where our protein needs are at the very highest end of the spectrum.

If we ate nothing but wheat (which is 17 percent protein), or oatmeal (15 percent), or pumpkin (15 percent), we would easily have more than enough protein. If we ate nothing but cabbage (22 percent), we'd have over double the maximum we might need.

In fact, if we ate nothing butt the lowly potato (11 percent protein) we would still be getting enough protein. This fact does not mean potatoes are a particularly high protein source. They are not. Almost all plant foods provide more. What it does show, however, is just how low our protein needs really are.

There have been occasions in which people have been forced to satisfy their entire nutritional needs with potatoes and water alone. I wouldn't recommend the idea to anyone, but under deprived circumstances it has been done. Individuals who have lived for lengthy periods under those conditions showed no sight whatsoever of protein deficiency, though other vitamin deficiencies have occurred.

You might think that with the growing wave of evidence indicating saturated fat and cholesterol as killers of more Americans than all the wars in our nation's history combined, the meat, dairy, and egg industries would be hard-pressed to maintain control over our food and nutrition policies. But the cards are stacked. They may not have interests of public health on their side, but their lobbying groups and political action committees are well financed, batttle-hardened veterans of political in-fighting. Opposing them are scientists and medical researchers whose skills don't lie in the political sphere, and who have little financial backing compared to what the industries provide their representatives. The fight is far from fair.

"As a rule, scientists and medical researchers make poor players in the complex game of special-interest politics, although they often think otherwise. They are not well endowed with the stamina, patience, and shrewdness that this game requires, and deep down they view it as an anti-intellectual activity beneath their scholarly dignity. Even when organized into illustrious professional groups they shrink from combat and bloodletting. This is more a reflection of the unsuitedness of their training and temperament to the political arena than is a mark of weakness of conviction."

On one side of the battlefield stands a formidable and experienced alliance of meat, egg, and dairy producers, with their purchased political and scientific allies. On the other side stands a relatively unorganized collection of independent medical researchers, underfinanced public interest and consumer groups, and the handful of political leaders who are willing to endure the sizable risk of an unpopular stance.

In this battle, the industries who sell us foods high in saturated fats and cholesterol have produced multimillion-dollar public relation campaigns, telling us brightly of the "incredible, edible egg," saying that beef is "nutrition you can sink your teeth into," and reassuring us the "milk does a body good." They do not mention that these foods clog our arteries, and promote heart disease and strokes.

Of course no advertising mentions the disadvantages of the products it promotes. But time and time again these industries have drawn the ire of consumer groups, the courts, and medical researchers for their flagrant disregard of fact.

Stillpoint Publishing, Walpole, NH


This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202/537-1372