November 4, 2008 will be best remembered for the historic election of Barack Obama, but it was also a day when Californians voted their gut and their appetite.
With the passage of Proposition 2, over 63 percent of California voters cast ballots in favor of a higher standard for the treatment of animals raised for food. The new law will phase out caging practices that prevent the state’s farm animals-primarily chickens—from lying down, standing up, turning around or extending their limbs, by 2015.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, I wondered how it would turn out. Basically consumers were being asked to pay a little more for the comfort of knowing that farm animals were treated a little better.
For many this accounting is not so easy. Most of us unconsciously practice a double standard regarding the treatment of animals. We adore and spoil our pets, but we also love our steaks and fried chicken. Farm animals will be killed no matter what, so most of us simply choose not to think much about them.
Historically, before the industrialization of meat production, butchers, cooks and eaters expected to know more about the animals that would become their chops and roasts. Many understood that how animals were fed and raised determined the quality of meat, milk, and eggs. As urban eaters became distanced from farm production over the past century, this understanding was gradually lost, and the very idea of knowing about food production seemed to become irrelevant.
But things have changed over the past ten years. America’s eaters have become increasingly aware of problems with animal agriculture-a trend that dramatically peaked last spring with the largest beef recall in America’s history, triggered by an undercover video of a sick, “downer” cow being cruelly prodded straight into the meat supply. This vivid image reinforced consumer perceptions of a disturbing pattern of disregard for public and environmental health and for worker and animal welfare.
Today’s industrial animal factories are some of America’s biggest polluters, contaminating water and emitting more greenhouse gases than the transportation sector. The enormous scale of animal agriculture-with, for example, a single facility housing hundreds of thousands of chickens—has exponentially increased the potential risk for pathogens to harm pubic health. And the corner cutting and cost cutting of industrial scale producers has edged out smaller regional farms and polluted rural communities.
In the past, these problems have been regarded as unpleasant but necessary tradeoffs for the cheap and ample meat and eggs Americans have come to expect. However, rising consumer interest in local and organic foods and growing awareness about environmental and public health issues related to industrial meat production have drawn that conventional wisdom into question, compelling many to look for better ways of doing things.
Earlier this year the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (an august and diverse panel, including former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, former Kansas Gov. John Carlin, former president of the Western Montana Stockmen’s Association Dan Jackson, and other food and agriculture notables) released a report that examined the effects of industrial animal agriculture in four crucial areas: public health, the environment, rural economies, and animal welfare. The report charts an impressive blueprint for reform.
California’s Proposition 2 followed up on one of the Pew Commission’s animal welfare recommendations to phase out the “most intensive and inhumane production practices within a decade to reduce risks to public health and improve animal well being.”
Beyond its meaning for farm animals, the vote for Proposition 2 clearly signifies that urban consumers are no longer comfortable taking the resigned out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach that has long sanctioned unsavory industrial animal production practices.
For too long, America’s urban consumers paid scant attention to how their meat was produced, but the passage of Proposition 2 makes it clear that meat consumers don’t want to be clueless anymore.
What do you think? Leave us a comment.
Ann Vileisis is the author of Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get it Back, which was recently recognized as a Finalist for the Connecticut Book Award. Visit her website.