Tuesday, April 09, 2013

How the sausage gets made

If you knew where your food came from - any of it... and why limit this to food? If you knew where anything you consumed came from, goods and services alike, the reality would not match up with the shiny packaging. That performance you get in class from an energetic instructor? It comes from your instructor lesson-planning in worn-out pajamas. That's just a fact of work, with the possible exception of whatever it is that goes on at Google. There's almost always going to be a back room (physical or otherwise) where the work actually gets done, and then the area only visible to the consumer. Thus that hallmark of innocuous unprofessionalism: the worker who assumes the consumer knows-and-cares what goes on in the back room, and who starts telling you how the central office/his supervisor requires this or that, when it has nothing to do with your situation.

This divide, in other words, is present no matter how ethically an organization is run, and no matter how noble the project itself may be. Which presents a problem when we're looking to hone on why certain endeavors might be inherently bad, or badly-run. This has kind of come up here before, when I've written about something I call squeamishness veganism. Discomfort with animal slaughter might be any number of things: 1) your conscience telling you it's wrong to kill animals, 2) your conscience telling you these particular animals are living-and-dying all wrong, or 3) you're someone whose bucolic fantasies about how any food is produced, including locally-farmed vegetables, would leave you incapable of anything that got to your plate other than via a Harvard-trained lawyer-turned-forager if you had to confront the realities. Which is why I tend to think the policing of where our food comes from should be not so much an individual-consumer concern as that of experts who can tell us how our sausage is being made, by sausage-making standards.

Which brings me to Jedediah Purdy's op-ed suggesting cameras be installed in slaughterhouses. And... it's like the GMO debate all over again. In the one corner, there are corporations being obnoxious and corporate. It's really not terrorism to report on what goes on inside a slaughterhouse. There are free-speech concerns, and it sounds like the meat industry's way off. But the industry apparently also makes the same point I did re: the gruesomeness of surgery. A strong case, and one Purdy doesn't address. The idea that simple footage - no wide-angle-lens shots of calves looking especially like Labradors (which they kind of do, and I'm totally guilty of squeamishness red-meat-avoidance, particularly after meeting some squee-inducing baby cows that live nearby), to the sound of sad music - would be unbiased doesn't make intuitive sense. If we saw video of what really happens at any workplace, we'd stop buying. Thus why reading Au Bonheur des Dames will make you not want to shop, why working at a coffee shop will (temporarily) ruin getting coffee out, etc., etc.

Perhaps it is wrong to raise and kill animals for food, and there are no doubt ways of doing so that would seem wrong even to a committed carnivore with decades of experience in the meat industry. But the video approach is basically starting from the assumption that slaughterhouses are wrong under the best of circumstances. If we see the sausage while it's still a creature not radically different from our pets, we'll stick with oatmeal, thanks. Until they start taping how that gets made.


fourtinefork said...

Thanks for pointing out this Op-Ed, Phoebe (as I would have likely missed it otherwise.)

This taps into old debates.

Historically, slaughtering got moved out of public view and from central public spaces as the old absolutely anthropocentric worldview was overthrown and there was increasing squeamishness toward meat. Adam Smith called butchery a "brutal and odious business," and William Hazlitt (and others) in the 1820s complained about those who would eat meat but wanted to know nothing of how it got to the table.

Industrial meat-- with its hygienic-looking saran-wrapped packages of disembodied parts-- further distanced us from having to realize what we were really consuming. It's not a surprise that with the interest in tail to snout types of eating, and knowing more about the animals we're eating (mocked so delightfully in a skit on Portlandia) that these issues are coming back.

Phoebe said...

All of that makes sense. But my thinking is, we're now at a distance from all production, not just that of meat. There's always on one side, the public face of whichever, and on the other, all the sweat, struggle, boredom, and nastiness that goes into producing whatever it is. Privacy, secrecy, closed doors - all of this is relatively new, right?

Is meat different? Perhaps - consumers will be pleased to see tomatoes on the vine, or to read that something was "hand-picked," or to otherwise have some feeling of connection to vegetables (however unethically those were produced), whereas the thought of someone hacking into a dead cow may well unnerve even an omnivore.

But the potential for squeamishness extends to the to-table route of even vegan items. Who knows what actually takes place at a farm, and thanks to Anthony Bourdain, we can all assume restaurant food wasn't prepared under sanitary conditions, to put it mildly.

And squeamishness seems the wrong approach for those against meat-eating to take, given that it ends up implying that those who can somehow withstand the squeamishness (see: the ex-vegetarian butcher trend) are ethically in the clear. This can be helpful if it means a turn away from factory farms and all that, but how is a lack of squeamishness about whole chicken/fish (vs the supermarket packages) helpful to animals themselves?

fourtinefork said...

Hi Phoebe,

I am thinking that this isn't new.

Meat has always (or, if I want to be safe, documented since the 17th-century) been considered a dirty business. It was a business based on trust: you, as a consumer in 17th-century England or 18th-century France or wherever, shopped from butchers you knew. I think Sidney Watt's book on the meat trade in revolutionary France addressed this issue. Similar issues of trust came up with the introduction of refrigeration and the turn toward buying pre-dismembered parts, as opposed to buying from an animal butchered locally, at the end of the 19th century in the U.S.

Outside of the realm of meat, I am also thinking about the demand for effortlessness and ease (the sprezzatura of Castiglione's courtier). Many forms of learned behavior-- table manners, dancing, fencing, even meat carving-- were supposed to appear absolutely effortlessness, although serious amounts of time and effort were spent behind closed doors mastering these activities. When people screwed up-- by dropping the meat, fiddling with a knife, whatever-- they opened themselves up to ridicule (that's the word that runs through early modern English literature; Germans veer towards seeing such behavior as disgusting).

Maybe I am being hopelessly anachronistic, but I see some parallels between a harried courtier trying to master the art of carving to impress his lord and a present-day graduate student, slaving away in her Lululemon (or Old Navy) yoga pants, in preparation of wowing students or conference attendees.

Sorry for all of this. I study some aspects of this, and so it's been on my mind!