Again, I begin this with a disclosure. What you’re about to read isn’t as heavily based on research in the traditional sense (meaning, the oracle of Google and a few handy books or interviews), and instead will focus more on my personal (limited) experience with a food distribution corporation based out of the Midwest, and small-to-medium scale CAFOs & slaughterhouses (also based in the Midwest, also limited experiences).
I’m choosing this focus because, courtesy of the internet and the rest of this paragraph, we know (or can easily uncover) the stereotypes of Big Ag. We can watch PETA videos, or opt out. Likewise, we can choose to watch the recent video from Compassion Over Killing that exposed the outright animal cruelty taking place at California slaughterhouse, Central Valley Meat (which the USDA is allowing to reopen). Or not. We can continue to live our sterilized lives if we want to — and I include myself in this, although I’ve made food-consumption decisions that I pretend let me off the hook — and allow others to do our dirty work for us. Like, you know, the men and women who work on CAFOs and in slaughterhouses.
I’ll focus first on food distribution. When I lived in the Midwest, I had the opportunity to spend time in several food distribution centers — some larger than others. I’m going to focus on a large, regional distributor because 1) it’s what I remember best, and 2) it’s the one in which the person I shadowed was the most open in sharing information. I tell you this because I want you to understand that I’m presenting a very limited perspective. From there, I’ll progress to an abbreviated discussion of CAFOs and slaugtherhouses.
At the food distribution center, workers topped out at $17-20/hour, dependent on the type of work they did (forklift drivers earned the most). I want to put that out there in light of the disappearing market for good jobs, and the recent news coverage that’s seen from both “liberal” and “conservative” media outlets, and because I think it’s important for us to consider what workers make (and whether they can afford food). Notice that this is the figure at which they top out. The person I shadowed wouldn’t tell me what the average employee in the Dist Center earned. I’m guessing significantly less.
What I remember most from walking through the Dist Center headquarters: a lecture of food security (meaning, bio-security, not the right of people to have access to food) followed by walking through and past crates of vidalia onions that reached nearly to the very tall ceiling, boxes of bananas and apples, and other bulk produce. This was followed by a tour of the walk-in freezer, which smelled of spoilt milk and the off-smell of not-cleaned-up-well-enough broken eggs. There was a wall of butter. Literally. But mostly what I remember: the plastic wrapped stacks of shelf-stable foods (think: pudding, canned foods, Twinkies and granola bars, etc.). These aisles were brightly colored, stimulating, overwhelming. The forklifts shuffled food from these aisles onto the waiting battalion of 18-wheelers.
I wondered who would buy all this food.
I wondered how much would get thrown away.
I wondered if any of the food got donated, instead of thrown away.
I wondered how much of it got thrown away before it ever left the distribution center. Large boxes of discards sat on the floor — ripped boxes of cereal or dented cans. I watched a worker cleaning up a broken jar of spaghetti sauce, and my imagination winced at the thought of him slicing open his hand on a shard of glass as he lifted what amounted to an industrial-sized dustpan.
When the person I shadowed answered a question about organic food, he said the people who shopped at their stores were just plain folk, who didn’t like anything fancy. That organic foods didn’t sell very well, so they kept them in much lower supply. This is part of the problem. We, as a country, still think of organic food as something fancy. Something elite. We forget that before World War II, foods were (primarily) grown using organic methods. That the chemical companies responsible for producing chemical weaponry were integral to the rise of industrial agriculture as we know it.
I left the distribution company feeling defeated in ways I couldn’t define at the time, that I still struggle to define. The enormity of the central warehouse overwhelmed me. The quantity of food overwhelmed me. The way that food moved through the system frightened me. There were databases tracking the food that came in, and which trucks it went onto. There were bar codes on huge boxes and crates. The food itself though seemed (to me) to appear from nowhere and to disappear to elsewhere via 18-wheelers. And, from a consumer end, I knew (know) that it seems like food just materializes on grocery shelves. That’s how disconnected I am (we are) from the processes behind my food. What worries me most is that I say that as someone who had the opportunity to work in two different bakeries that delivered to stores, and for a pie company that sold direct-to-consumers. I’ve had the opportunity to harvest fruit and buy direct from farmers and buy into Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). I grew up with a backyard garden and volunteered on an organic farm. I understand, in theory, where my food comes from. Except every time I walk into a grocery store or a convenience store, I forget a little.
Which is why, in part, I want to also focus on CAFOs and slaughterhouses. I don’t say this as vegan propaganda (despite some of the links I created earlier in this post which I find horrifying) because I don’t necessarily agree with a vegan lifestyle as a way to be more ethical. There are problems with variations of vegan lifestyles — the potential for reliance on highly processed goods (i.e. – tofu, milk alternatives) or impacting long-standing cultural traditions, just to name a couple. But there are also problems — a lot of problems — with the way we get our meat, eggs, and milk. And we’ve managed to remove ourselves from much of this process. My point in this next section isn’t to make you think, “Oh my, I must immediately change my diet” (though I secretly hope you will). It’s just to expose some of the things to which I had the chance to bear witness.
Let me start with chickens. I had the opportunity to visit a laying facility. The owner had no problem with me taking pictures, and so I did. On the scale of laying facilities, this was a very small one. I don’t remember the exact size, and I can’t find that figure in my notes. But the birds were crammed tight, the air was dusty and smelled of chicken shit, and I saw several dead birds. First thing every morning, workers walk through the facility and remove the dead birds.
Other workers sort eggs, and eggs rolled past my nose from the small pens. The walls were coated with chicken excrement and feathers and I don’t know what else. I had the opportunity to walk down the aisles of chickens, and they fluttered in their cages, blew white feathers at me with flapping wings, squawked. Their eyes beaded out. I felt bad, intrusive, part of the problem. I couldn’t take my eyes off the conveyor belts of eggs, off the rows of chickens.
And then I visited a farmer who raised corn, soy, pigs, and chickens. His chickens were “free range.” This meant that they had access to the out-of-doors. He paid someone to push (yes, literally) a certain (low) percentage of them outside each day. For five minutes. This made them free range. He got a lot more money for the birds. Enter: my total disillusionment. Basically, I decided then, to never trust labels or anything else that vaguely looks like green-washing.
I also visited pig confinements, where I slipped on plastic booties over my shoes for bio-security reasons. At these confinements, I saw sow-stalls (gestation crates) and pigs with what seemed to me like pretty major injuries. I walked across slotted floors and watched filthy water rush beneath my feet toward the lagoon. I listened to a farmer talk about how he essentially “rents” the pigs from a major corporation, and as a factory farmer, has no say in the medical treatment of the animals. I heard what he didn’t say, how he’s complicit in this system because it works for him. (It works for so many of us.) He talked about how when the animals reach the appropriate weight they’re herded onto a pig-hauling truck and taken for slaughter. He spoke about this matter-of-factly, as though he couldn’t (didn’t? wouldn’t?) acknowledge that pigs are commonly considered smartanimals, that they might be able to feel pain.
The pig confinements weren’t so different from the milking facilities, as far as crowding goes. At one milking facility, the farmer spoke about sand in the stalls of pregnant cows, as “it’s like she’s at the beach,” which I found to be annoying propaganda. Apparently using sand or mattresses in the stalls of pregnant cows is pretty common because the concrete they normally stand on all the time is, for some reason, bad for their joints. Imagine. The cows were milked 3x a day. I’ve heard reports of pus (and other unsavories) in milk. These cows live for 7–8 years before being sent for slaughter. And then there are feedlots, where the cows are fattened up as quickly as possible mostly, or entirely, on a diet based in corn. You can find out a lot more on the interwebs about feedlots than I care to detail here, and if you’ve never looked into feedlot conditions you probably should. Especially if you eat meat.
And don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking organic is better.
Factory farms are factory farms. Organic factory farms might have a slightly better environmental impact. Might. They still go to the same slaughterhouses, very often, as the animals that were raised conventionally. Farm cooperatives are probably (possibly) a slightly better bet. I had the chance to visit a dairy cooperative. It seemed better — but only on the production/processing/distribution side. I didn’t meet the animals.
And basically, that’s what the production-end wants. They don’t want us to think about where the food we eat comes from. We might be averse to more foods if we really thought about it (or not, because it would seem like part of a natural cycle). We might protest for increased rights for animals or better treatment. We might change our habits of consumption.
So, let’s talk briefly (and I do mean briefly — this post is long) about slaughterhouses. I had the opportunity to visit several when I lived in the Midwest. None of the big, cruel houses that the undercover videos emerge from. And I didn’t witness an animal murder (my friend Marissa writes about this process, in some of her writing on moving from vegetarianism to meat-eating for ethical reasons). You can look up how that’s done for various animals. It isn’t pretty, and it’s often downright gruesome. The small slaughterhouses I visited allowed me to come with my camera, with recording devices. They said they had nothing to hide, that they wanted to dispel myths that arose from ignorance. They encouraged me to write about the process (that, again, I didn’t actually see). Instead, I studied the stain of blood near a drain the slaughter room, walked through the skinned corpses of animals, examined the tools of the trade. I wondered, again, who would eat all of the meat and what happened to the entrails and other “scrap” parts of the animals. I wondered how many of the animals hadn’t died on the first try.
I wondered how I could hold myself more accountable for eating responsibly. I wondered if I could ever hold myself accountable enough.