Mathine Walter

Every year since I can remember, I have made a special request for my birthday dinner.  I would ask that my mother prepare the same thing each year.  I wanted porcupines for dinner and French silk pie for dessert.  Each year she would honor my request.  The French silk pie usually came from the local Denny’s or supermarket, and she would spend the morning of my birthday preparing the porcupines.  She would combine the ground beef with bread crumbs, eggs, rice, and other spices, forming small round meatballs.  She’d add the meatballs and some stewed tomatoes to a crock pot, and set them to cook all day long.  It was a tradition I grew to love.

It was roughly 7 years ago that my favorite dish of all time vanished from my world.  I was preparing to get my SEC Licenses, and in my free time, I had started researching different diets.  I was looking into some of the latest and greatest diets on the market to help me eliminate the few extra pounds I had put on while diligently studying to take my Series 6 and 63 exams.  While researching some of these ridiculous fad diets, I stumbled across various articles online that forced me to rethink some of my cherished traditions, including my birthday porcupines.  At first, the articles I read pertained to the dangers of processed foods.  That made sense.   I already knew to avoid processed food in order to maintain a healthy diet.  From that topic, my attention shifted to the processing of foods, specifically the processing of meats.  Eventually, my focus landed on the insanitary and inhumane practices behind eating meat.  I would never be the same after that.

What started as an attempt to lose a few pounds took me down a path I never intended.  As I read more about how meat was processed in the United States, I uncovered a number of truths that were hard to overlook.  I could no longer cling to the belief that factory farming conditions weren’t that bad.  Truthfully, I had become accustomed to living in a state of ignorance concerning my food.  I told myself that conditions couldn’t be that bad, otherwise the government would have already stepped in to correct them.

I came to learn that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was not overseeing the safety of my meat like I had previously thought.  I saw serious flaws in the inspection process based on the video footage I came across.  Factory farms were filthy and unsafe.  Furthermore, the larger slaughterhouses in the United States lacked transparency and demonstrated an overall resistance toward disclosure when it came to the conditions of their facilities.  It was difficult to gather information about factory farming conditions unless it was from undercover video footage.  I discovered a general disrespect for the animals and I learned that the inhumane treatment of animals was more common than I had ever imagined on these large farms.  They were not aberrations or isolated incidents that I was uncovering.  Ultimately, my new found awareness left me changed.  Further change was inevitable.

One of the first videos that impacted me was this 3 minute undercover video shot by the Humane Society in 2008.  It was one among so many others that were similar, yet I remember it vividly, (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/undercover-video-shows-abuse-of-sick-cows/)

I recall the video resonating with me because of the cruelty it exposed, and because of the safety and sanitary issues I witnessed.  I thought about whether eating these sick, diseased, and stressed cattle could have a negative effect on me.  The next video I encountered was called Earthlings.  This full length documentary, released in 2005, left me in tears.  Earthlings exposed society’s treatment of animals and the day-to-day practices of the industrial food business.  Using hidden cameras, this documentary took 6 years to produce, due to the secrecy surrounding our meat industry.

After viewing this film, I began to wonder if these were the kinds of cows in my beloved porcupines – the truth was undeniably yes.  I was forced to realize my own complicity in the process of factory farming and in the continuation of its subpar conditions.  My acceptance of the current farming conditions was evidenced by my purchase and consumption.  I realized that I had become a part of this highly efficient and dispassionate process.

I felt confused and a little betrayed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as I continued on my quest for information.  Until that point I believed that I understood the role of the USDA.  I thought that the USDA was charged with overseeing the safety of my meat.  What I was witnessing on these videos was a clear failure to do just that.  I wasn’t able to comprehend how such oversights could take place.  After viewing this undercover footage, it was clear that I would need to redefine my conception of the USDA’s role.  I am still working on this task.  The USDA’s inspection process was not reliable as I had previously thought. I still find it unreliable.  The more I researched, the clearer this reality became.

As I continued researching the conditions of factory farming in the United States, I found that slaughterhouse conditions were extraordinarily difficult to document.  The inability to access information caught my attention immediately.  This struck me as odd in an era where information and transparency are pursued by so many.  I uncovered that slaughterhouses were not open to the public.  This seemed to be the most egregious truth yet!  Unless I wanted to earn myself a criminal conviction, I could not visit a slaughterhouse.   I hadn’t even considered visiting a slaughterhouse, until I found out that I was not able to.  All of the video I came across was either undercover footage taken by rogue employees, or video taken by trespassing activist groups.  It seemed peculiar that the operations of the slaughterhouse could not be recorded without having an investigator go undercover or someone break the law.  This remains true today with the exception of a few small, free-range farms.

The reality that most people are unwilling to face is that factory farms have overcrowded, unsanitary conditions.  These conditions cause disease, fighting, and cannibalism among animals. The overcrowding also requires heavy use of antibiotics in the feed to prevent diseases from festering and spreading among the animals. Growth hormones are used to make the animals reach slaughter weight faster.  Obviously, the faster growing the animal, the faster to slaughter, the more money there is to be made.  The suffering of the animal is not considered in this process.  Widespread use of antibiotics in these animals breeds drug-resistant bacteria.  This bacteria then spreads to humans, making it difficult to treat people with those same antibiotics because the bacteria are now antibiotic resistant.

Overcrowded, stressed animals will often cannibalize each other, especially if one is weaker, or if they are fighting over food. This is especially true of chickens and pigs.  A report from the Humane Farming Association documents horrifying conditions at a pig farm in South Dakota, where pigs literally ate each other to death.  Thousands of pigs were crammed into barns and swimming in their own raw sewage. To prevent this, farms began to use gestation crates to keep the animals contained, separated, and to prevent cannibalism.  However these 7’ x 2’ metal crates are not large enough for the pig to turn around in.  Ultimately, having to stand in the same position indefinitely drives the animal insane.  The public is ill-informed about the effects of eating meat from an animal that has been driven mad and bred under these conditions.  As of today the gestation crates have been banned by 9 states in the United States.

Sometimes animals will go through the slaughter process (sticking, skinning, dismembering, eviscerating, etc.) while they are still conscious, and kicking.  Depending on the slaughterhouse and the line speed, the process can take from 8 to 20 minutes.  All that matters to the factory farm is getting the animals to slaughter.  The bottom line for these slaughterhouses is profit.  The big slaughterhouses process several hundred to a thousand or more animals each day. During the slaughtering process, blood, feces, raw tissue matter and other contaminants are sprayed everywhere.  It’s been estimated that in the United States we slaughter 10 billion animals each year for food. Today, humans consume more meat in one day than we did in an entire year 100 years ago.  Any meat, poultry or pork bought in a supermarket or wholesale club likely comes from a factory farm.  The speed of the conveyor line does not allow for proper sanitation procedures in a slaughterhouse.  I truly believe that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarian.

The more that I learned about how meat was processed in the United States, the less inclined I was to eat it.  It was like someone had pulled the curtain back and exposed me to all of the hideous and unsanitary truths that I had insulated myself from.  I do not believe that people realize that these bits of undercover video footage actually show “business as usual” on factory farms.  Maybe they do not want to know.  This lack of awareness is rooted in society’s intentional desire not to know about facts that may lay heavily on the conscious.  Society’s desire to remain detached is evidenced by the large, enclosed, windowless sheds of all factory farms.  The industry remains opaque because we allow it to.  Once exposed to the truth, I made the decision to move to a predominantly plant-based diet.

The shift to a more plant-based diet was more challenging than I thought it would be. It took a few years to adjust, and this transition is still a work in progress.  It meant no more porcupines on my birthday.  I make some allowances and still request my French silk pie.  I learned to replace many animal products with plant products. I began using almond milk, egg substitutes, and getting most of my protein from vegetables.  I became a member of a food co-op.  The co-op delivers a box of fresh produce and other items each week for approximately $20/week.  All of the food items delivered are seasonal, locally grown, and organic.  I made a conscious decision to know where my food comes from, how it is handled, and who is handling it.   Ignorance could not prevail.

I was significantly influenced by the awareness of how the United States breeds, handles, processes, and inspects animals for food.  This knowledge, truth, and understanding forced me to abandon many of my most beloved traditions.  I believe that the sanitary conditions of factory farms are dangerous and subpar.  Slaughterhouse practices constitute inhumane treatment toward animals, and ultimately create a safety risk for humans when the product enters the market.  The utter disrespect demonstrated toward animals, and the level of meat consumption is not sustainable.  A shift back toward the traditional family farms of the past is called for, but must be demanded.  As a society, we need to re-assess our expectations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and demand accountability.  It should not be acceptable for an industry to put profit before public safety and sanitation.  The lack of transparency and disclosure as it pertains to factory farming conditions is an injustice to us all.  Yet, I believe that the world’s conscious eventually bends toward justice, and that many of these wrongs will eventually be remedied.  I find comfort in this personal belief.

About the Blogger:

Mathine Walter was born in Chicago, Illinois. She attended the University of Washington for her undergraduate education, and is now attending law school at Seattle University, where she is in her final semester. Mathine has worked in finance for twelve years.