Deconstructing meat

Theoretical Titillation

I once suffered from a meat-induced existential crisis. The climax of this crisis occurred when I ate dinner with a friend at the mall inside of the Powell Street BART Station. I chewed a ball of Panda Express orange chicken in my mouth, my stomach filled with more guilt than all of the MSG and preservatives in my meal combined. My friend sat across from me eating fried shrimp and chicken atop a large scoop of steamed white rice, but unlike me, he didn’t seem fazed at all. The surrounding buzz of the shoppers surrounding added to my nausea, but I continued chewing the glob in my mouth.

A month ago, I abandoned my two-year vegetarian diet after my friends and family convinced me that I wasn’t eating healthily enough. And it was true. Colonies of half-opened chip bags, mountains of instant ramen bowls and twisted candy wrappers invaded my desk. They were foods that gave me instant gratification and fit my meager budget (although vegetarian staples like chickpeas and black beans are nutrient-rich and fairly cheap).

I segued back into my former omnivore lifestyle with a pescatarian diet. After a few days, I moved past seafood. At first it was easy; I could detach myself from the animal. But then it wasn’t. As silly as it seemed, my meaty meals challenged my moral premise. I often woke up full, more from shame than from the meat itself. If I ate seafood the night before, I spent my mornings considering the water pollution offset by overfishing and farming fish. On a more emotional level, I thought about the fish and their fish lives, drifting in water only to be caught and eaten. I thought about what made me entitled to eating another sentient being. What was it about being human? Did my willpower snap in half under the weight of what others told me was simply natural for me to engage in?

I stopped eating meat when I started college. On a sticky summer day, I came across Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” as I ventured into my hometown’s main library. My eyes were glued to the book for an entire day. It certainly wasn’t the best book that I had ever read, but it stirred something inside of me. With each page I read, the ball of indignation in my gut clenched tighter as Foer described the intersectional political injustices of factory farming — intensive animal farming that maximizes agribusiness profit. The book detailed more than just a discussion on animal cruelty — it carefully examined how meat consumption affects meatpacking workers, public health and the environment. Drawn to Foer’s political arguments, rather than ethical ones, I became a vegetarian.

Comprising hard data analysis and statistics, political facts pertaining to meat consumption and production are straightforward. From my personal experience, they also tend to be more effective rhetorical leverages against eating meat. For example, workers’ rights issues undeniably exist within the meatpacking industry, a fast and hazardous workplace where profits soar and workers are disposable. In some American slaughterhouses, more than 75 percent  of workers are not native English speakers. Many workers are undocumented immigrants, earning about $9.50 per hour to work in factories where they are exposed to sharp knives, conveyer belts and slippery floors — in fact, the U.S. Department of Labor considers meatpacking to be one of the most dangerousoccupations, with one of the highest workplace injury rates.

Hardcore individualists might be skeptical of positive rights in the workplace based on the premise that people are entitled to quit and find better jobs. But even the libertarian theorist Milton Friedman himself would grudgingly concede with the negative “neighborhood effects” meat production poses to public health and the environment. Friedman himself uses the example of a polluted stream in “Capitalism and Freedom”: Someone who pollutes a stream forces others to exchange good water for bad, but it’s not feasible to avoid the exchange or enforce compensation.

The environmental effects of meat production are heinous. A 2009 study found that four-fifths of the deforestation across the Amazon rainforest could be linked to cattle ranching. The Environment Watch Group estimates that growing livestock feed in the United States alone requires 167 million pounds of pesticides and 17 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer each year across some 149 million acres of cropland, which contributes greatly to the release of greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals into our atmosphere. Furthermore, in addition to heart disease, overindulgence in meat consumption also means vulnerability to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, found in 81 percent of turkey and 69 percent of pork in supermarkets. If that hasn’t grossed you out yet, about half of poultry products sold in major supermarkets are contaminated with feces. According to the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine, contaminated poultry causes 1.5 million illnesses, 12,000 hospitalizations and 180 deaths annually.

Last week, I returned to my vegetarian diet again. Suffice to say, the return of the tofu was anticlimactic. I did it mainly for personal ethical reasons rather than political ones. It’s difficult to say if my political reasons are personal or vice versa because there is so much slippage between the two constructed spheres. I am well aware that naturalists will continue to tell me that my choice is foolish or goes against the wheels of progress. I am also well aware that my abstinence from meat isn’t going to dismantle an economy that heavily relies on meat production, even if I am repulsed by its patterns of exploitation and environmental degradation. More practical, ameliorative (though still difficult) fixes exist out there, like sustainable technology and critical Food and Drug Administration regulations. Still, in the vein of thinkers like Dr. Chad Lavin, I would advise anyone compelled by the political utility of vegetarianism to critically consider their personal relationship to their food — and how the structures of labor and politics are inseparable from more personalized experiences of identity and power.

Contact Stacey Nguyen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @staceytnguyen.