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7/14/2005

The darkest place in the universe

I don't think I've brought it up in this forum before, but the way that animals are treated by the meat industry is absolutely horrific, and one of the most important issues of our time. You don't have to be a believer in 'animal rights' or a supporter of PETA to recognize the extraordinary cruelty of the way most animals raised for food are treated. The problem isn't so much the fact that animals are killed for food; it's the fact that they are forced to live lives of torture. Being slaughtered is a merciful end to the suffering.

Two facts give me some reason for hope, though. One is that there is some indication that concern for animals can cross party lines. George Will's column in Newsweek is about Matthew Scully, a former Bush speechwriter who wrote a book called Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, arguing that ending cruelty to animals is a moral imperative for all of us, even - or perhaps especially - for Christians who look to the Bible for moral guidance. He also wrote a recent article for American Conservative entitled "Fear Factories: The Case for Compassionate Conservatism—for Animals." And recently Rick Santorum garnered praise from the Humane Society and PETA for co-sponsoring a bill with Dick Durbin aimed at cracking down on puppy mills. Of course, this may be due to Santorum's predilection for canine-love, but still.

Seriously, though, if you're not familiar with what goes on in factory farms, you can read about it here. A sample:
GAIL EISNITZ HAS STRUGGLED for the last fifteen years to compel the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to enforce the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA), the forty-five-year-old federal law requiring humane handling of animals killed in federally inspected slaughterhouses.

...Eisnitz was working as an investigator for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in 1989 when she received a tip from a USDA slaughterhouse inspector about conditions in a Florida cattle plant. The man said he had personal knowledge that the plant was skinning cattle while they were still alive ... Eisnitz traveled to Florida, where she frequented bars that swelled with slaughter workers at the end of each shift. She listened to their stories about what was going on inside the plant. What she learned propelled her on a long, lonely journey through the American slaughterhouse, which she describes as "the darkest place in the universe."

...

She learned about cattle slaughter plants where cattle were hoisted upside down, the lower part of their legs snipped off, their thighs and bellies cut open, and their skin stripped from their legs up to their necks, all while the animals were still conscious. She investigated pig slaughter plants where inadequately stunned and fully alert animals were dragged through tanks of scalding water, kicking and struggling until they drowned. From coast to coast she recorded accounts of animals being trampled, dragged, and shocked with electric prods placed in their mouths. At plant after plant workers told her that this sort of treatment was business as usual in the slaughter industry.

...Eisnitz organized a Washington, D.C., news conference, during which one former and one current USDA inspector told reporters they had frequently witnessed plant workers dismembering still-conscious animals in order to keep fast production lines moving.

...Chicken slaughterhouses currently shackle birds while they are conscious and then drag their heads and upper bodies through an electrified water trough called a stunner. Because of concerns for carcass quality, the voltage is often intentionally set too low to stun, and the birds are simply immobilized enough to keep them from thrashing about as their necks are cut. Some birds are still alive when they are plunged into scalding tanks for defeathering ... chickens qualify as "the most abused animals on the face of the planet."
Liberal or conservative, there's no denying that such cruelty is simply unacceptable. It's good to see that this issue is starting to get a little recognition from members of both parties.

Another reason I see for hope comes from the possibility that we might be able to grow meat without using animals! This article, via The News Blog, describes the latest developments on this front:
Paper Says Edible Meat Can be Grown in a Lab

Experiments for NASA space missions have shown that small amounts of edible meat can be created in a lab. But the technology that could grow chicken nuggets without the chicken, on a large scale, may not be just a science fiction fantasy.

In a paper in the June 29 issue of Tissue Engineering, a team of scientists, including University of Maryland doctoral student Jason Matheny, propose two new techniques of tissue engineering that may one day lead to affordable production of in vitro – lab grown -- meat for human consumption. It is the first peer-reviewed discussion of the prospects for industrial production of cultured meat.

There would be a lot of benefits from cultured meat,” says Matheny, who studies agricultural economics and public health. “For one thing, you could control the nutrients. For example, most meats are high in the fatty acid Omega 6, which can cause high cholesterol and other health problems. With in vitro meat, you could replace that with Omega 3, which is a healthy fat.

“Cultured meat could also reduce the pollution that results from raising livestock, and you wouldn’t need the drugs that are used on animals raised for meat.”

...cultured meat could appeal to people concerned about food safety, the environment, and animal welfare, and people who want to tailor food to their individual tastes,” says Matheny. The paper even suggests that meat makers may one day sit next to bread makers on the kitchen counter.

The benefits could be enormous,” Matheny says. “The demand for meat is increasing world wide -- China’s meat demand is doubling every ten years. Poultry consumption in India has doubled in the last five years.

With a single cell, you could theoretically produce the world’s annual meat supply. And you could do it in a way that’s better for the environment and human health. In the long term, this is a very feasible idea.”

Matheny saw so many advantages in the idea that he joined several other scientists in starting a nonprofit, New Harvest (http://www.new-harvest.org), to advance the technology.
Who knew there was a journal called 'Tissue Engineering'?

There would no doubt be considerable opposition to this technology, if and when it develops to a point where traditional meat could be mostly replaced. Some people won't like the 'Frankenstein' aspect of it, but the thing is that the meat industry is beginning to experiment with genetically modifying animals themselves.

Regardless of such concerns, the amount of suffering that factory farms add to the world is so enormous that if we could basically eliminate it in a blink of an eye by replacing animals with 'cultured meat', we would be morally required to do so on any reasonable calculation. A world where people could eat meat without animals having to endure the torture of factory farms would be a better world. Again, ending this unnecessary suffering, especially if it can be done at a minimal cost to human beings, is a goal that should transcend traditional political divisions.

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