The New York Times investigational piece on inhumane treatment at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center is what’s known as a “hard read,” filled with descriptions of animal cruelty that your mind’s eye can’t unsee.
With worldwide demand for meat increasing, and global population growing to 9 billion by 2050, the only response—other than eating less meat, which at times seems unimaginable as a government policy—is to figure out how to produce more meat with the same amount of land and animals. But is it surprising that figuring out ways for Americans to eat more meat, more easily, comes at a cost? The New York Times piece is shocking; but being shocked and being surprised are different reactions.
The article describes the Center’s work based on interviews with current and former employees of the Center and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. According to the Times, the Center uses “surgery and breeding techniques to re-engineer the farm animal to fit the needs of the 21st century meat industry.” That means developing animals that have twice as many (or more) babies per litter and “easy care” sheep that need no human supervision but will not abandon their babies in pasture. (That last experiment did not end well.)
It also means conducting tests on farm animals including allegedly starving thousands of them to death and withholding simple medical treatment for mastitis (a milking-cow udder infection that any breastfeeding human mother will tell you is ridiculously painful and relieved in a day with a pill) until the animals died.
The Times’s picture of an amoral world behind gates, where The Animal Welfare Act of 1966 doesn’t apply, is abhorrent. Look for the entire operation to change in the wake of this article. But we are a growing population of both meat eaters and profit seekers, and even after the Center improves, we will continue to face moral challenges as the intersection of those two motivations. As one self-described sheep farmer commented on the Times’s website, “It may not be pretty but a lesson learned on one farm may save the suffering on thousands around the country.”
The fact that the government is funding this with our money makes the story particularly maddening; expect a few heads to roll over the story (especially its allegations of gross mismanagement, such as when an immobilized female cow was left too long in a pen with six adolescent bulls). Whether the story will influence the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee’s decision to recommend eating less red meat and more plants, in its forthcoming document—due, perhaps not coincidentally, any day now—will be revealing. The Center’s work began decades before President Barak Obama took office, but has continued under the good-food administration’s watch.
The Times article reminds readers and eaters that the “food system” is an actual system, of people and institutions that work together to put meals on plates every day. Each spoke of the wheel—government agencies, corporations, grocery stores—serve the hub, which is the person who purchases food every day and votes each election. Knowing that individuals have power to change the wheel’s direction, which way do we want it to turn, and what are we willing to give up to move in that direction?