Having a Cow
It’s telling that the photographs accompanying Ted Conover’s report on working in an industrial slaughterhouse [“The Way of All Flesh,” May] show only living animals and the nearby town. Slaughterhouses are not places we want to see; and, more important, they are not places the meat industry wants us to see. With this fact in mind, state legislators across the country have done the industry’s bidding, introducing bills criminalizing the photographing and video recording of factory farms and slaughterhouses.
“Ag-gag” laws were passed in Iowa, Missouri, and Utah last year. In Nebraska, where Conover worked undercover as a Food Safety and Inspection Service meat inspector, the state legislature is currently debating one. This legislation has a chilling effect on whistle-blowing and on reporting like Conover’s. Last month, prosecutors in Utah charged a woman for filming a slaughterhouse from the side of the road. The charges were eventually dropped, but the law remains on the books. It’s important that activists and journalists — whose work has exposed horrific animal cruelty, led to criminal charges against the industry, and prompted the largest meat recall in U.S. history — be protected from criminal prosecution.
Conover claims that the cattle on the kill chute I designed for the Cargill beef plant where he worked were scared, but according to his description, the animals are calm. The odor he recalls is caused by the volume of cattle, not by their fear. Frightened cows would have been bellowing and thrashing because of rough handling and excessive electric prodding. The kill chute is designed to reduce the animals’ suffering; it would have been Conover’s responsibility as an FSIS inspector to enforce the Humane Slaughter Act and to protect the cows from any worker abuse.
Professor, Colorado State University
I once worked in a slaughterhouse investigating ways to reduce occupational overuse injuries such as the hand pain and swelling that Conover describes. One line worker told me the pain caused by the repetitive work was so great that he couldn’t wipe after using the toilet. The real problem, it turned out, was not the knife, which we were working to redesign, but the excessive speed of the line. Needless to say, this hasn’t changed in the twenty-three years since I conducted my research.
Conover’s report took me back to the smell of blood and fear on the kill floor. Once, while I was working in the factory, a meat worker in a fit of laughter embraced me. On the way back to my office, my colleagues gave me strange looks. When I saw myself in a mirror, I realized why: I had been baptized with blood and fat, which had stuck to my hair and streaked my face. I looked like an extra from a Tarantino movie. I felt honored, but I no longer eat beef.
Conover’s report doesn’t mention the most important reason for raising livestock outside factory farms — soil conservation. Cropping systems with grazing animals and perennial plants most closely resemble the historical ecology of our cropland, and they’re the most efficient. The impetus for change in confined-feeding operations won’t arise from beeves’ best interest but instead from consumers’ self-interest. Raising livestock in their more accustomed habitat is the best way to address the problems of compromised soil and the threat to public health posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
R. J. Ottaviano
Roger Barker’s efforts to understand how humans conduct themselves in specific cultural, social, and physical settings [“Our Town,” Ariel Sabar, Criticism, May] inaugurated an important academic field — environmental psychology. Like Barker, environmental psychologists study the influence of context on individual behavior and attitudes, and conduct their research outside the laboratory. Sabar’s article captures a nostalgia for the Oskaloosa, Kansas, of yore, where life’s predictability normalized its joys and sorrows. But we no longer live in the simple world documented in Barker’s field notes. Settings do not determine individuals’ actions as strongly as they once did, because our environment doesn’t contain our activities so much as place them in an ever-broadening matrix. As such, environmental psychology doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but embraces other academic disciplines, like policy and design, and allows them to shape its scholarship.
Professor, CUNY Graduate Center
New York City