April 28, 2013

Is There Such a Thing As Humane Slaughter?

There is no honor in raising animals just to eat them.

The new magazine, Modern Farmer, debuted last week. Its content is aimed at farmers, foodies and those with an interest in the connection between our food, our planet and how we eat.

In it is an article entitled “This Is What Humane Slaughter Looks Like. Is It Good Enough?” It details the practices of Prather Ranch Meat Company, one of the first ranches to gain Certified Humane Raised and Handled approval.

If meat is certified this way, it means it meets the “Humane Farm Animal Care program standards, which includes nutritious diet, without antibiotics or hormones, animals raised with shelter, resting areas, sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors.”

The article follows the author’s visit to the ranch and examines questions around slaughterhouse practices in the context of Prather—possibly one of the most humane slaughterhouses in existence.

It provides background on Temple Grandin’s role in changing how we slaughter cows, and discusses the Humane Slaughter Act, which was passed in 1958 with the intent of decreasing suffering of livestock during slaughter. The law says that animals need to be unconscious prior to their slaughter so as to not suffer. In the cattle industry, this is generally done by stunning the animal by injecting a metal bolt into its brain.

In theory the law is promising. However, it’s not often enforced.

Prather however, prides itself on following the law as precisely as possible. At the end of the article, the author concludes that “Prather doesn’t just give cows the best life possible, but the best death possible.” Three weeks later, this is his justification for eating a burger made with Prather beef.

Though the author has concluded there is nothing wrong with eating said burger, I’m not convinced.

Any healthy animal that is killed before its time does not experience “the best death possible.”

The current state of humane slaughter is just another way that we try to make ourselves feel better about doing what we know is wrong.

The concept of humane slaughter, an oxymoron in its own right, is one with which I struggle. I’m thankful that there are people who are working to change the factory farm system, and who, while still needlessly killing animals, are at least trying to do so in a way that respects the animal.

But is respect enough?

What about honoring the life we are taking?

There is huge hypocrisy in this country regarding the sanctity of life. Many adamantly defend the preciousness of life and are against abortion because it takes away a being’s right to live.

We say killing is wrong yet continue to kill needlessly in war. And we have no problem eating meat three times a day from an animal that had either very little life or desperately low quality of life.

Why do we honor some types of life, but not others?

Life is equally sacred and precious no matter whose it is—whether that of yours, mine, a spider’s or the cows, chickens and pigs we consume every day.

There is no honor in raising animals just to eat them. Such a system doesn’t leave room for connection—to the animal, to our past, to the earth. There is no acknowledgment of how our food came to be and no gratitude that it did so.

If we gave thanks to that animal for its gift of nourishment, if we connected to it, to the planet it grazes and to the natural cycles of everything, maybe I could get behind people who want to eat animals. Maybe it’s different to eat an animal who has lived its life, who has bathed in the sun and smelled the rain and felt its essence.

But that’s not what we do in this country. Instead, we’ve taken over nature in a violent way. We raise animals for the sole purpose of being our dinner.

We demand that they be there. And be there now.

Our definition of humane is skewed.

To have meat be humane would mean that the animal lived its full, sweet life. It existed for its own sake, in its own right, and not because someone somewhere wanted steak for dinner. It was allowed to do its thing the way we like to be allowed to do our things. And then, many years later, it died.

I am often accused of being too idealistic, and told that it’s not possible to have a system that works this way, that there would never be enough meat to feed everyone.

But if we as a country could get away from our mindset of “more is more” and listen to our bodies, and our planet, we would see that we don’t need to eat as much meat as we do. Some of us don’t need to eat it at all.

Sixty years ago no one ate meat for three meals a day or even every day. Sixty years ago, factory farming didn’t exist in its current state.

We’ve molded and changed nature to fit our whims and fancies.

But our whims and fancies are misguided. They are disconnected from nature, and from its inherent goodness.

The concepts of humane slaughter and humane certification are more about us than about the animals. They are a way for us to feel better about what we are doing. I think most of us agree that factory farming is wrong. But finding a way to kill more nicely so we can feel less guilty is just as wrong.

It’s not humane to take an otherwise healthy life before its time, for no other reason than satisfying a personal preference.

If we insist on doing this, then we need to come up with a different name for it.

Rendering an animal unconscious before we kill it might be better than just killing it, but calling ourselves merciful and compassionate because we do so is incorrect.

There’s nothing merciful or compassionate about breeding animals for our own purposes. And there’s nothing honorable about it either.




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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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