29 October 2009

Chickening Out, Pt 2

The reason the whole chicken thing is so significant (aside from the fact that I broke a nearly ten year hiatus on meat), is what it implies. When I was standing there watching the chickens have their throats slit with one of my neighbors, she asked why I had decided that I needed to watch the chickens die. She wasn’t the only one- a lot of people have been asking why I couldn’t just decide to start eating meat, why I had to be there to witness the blood (there’s less than you’d think) and guts and gore (which is mostly fat).

And I told her that my biggest problem with our food system is that it allows you to look away. A live, feathered chicken looks absolutely nothing like the chicken you buy in the grocery store, and it’s amazing how quickly after death they cease to look like animals and more like hunks of meat. And that’s fine- you wouldn’t want to eat it with all the feathers on- but people in our culture have the luxury of not having the faintest clue where their food comes from. And when you don’t know where your food comes from- especially when it comes in a bright and shiny package in the store- you divorce yourself not only from the knowledge of what went into the process of bringing that food to your table, but from the responsibility of choosing foods that are not only going to nurture your body, but are thoughtful, humane, and environmentally friendly choices.

In direct contrast to my afternoon standing outside in the sunshine butchering chickens, last night the college showed a PBS Frontline feature called “Poisoned Waters.” In it, journalist Hedrick Smith explores the causes of the vast amounts of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, pollution that never seems to abate regardless of how much money we pour into the problem. And he traces that pollution, unsurprisingly, back to CAFOs- Confined (or Concentrated) Animal Feeding Operations, a term more commonly used to apply to cattle, but which can also refer to chickens. The audience around me gasped at images of vast chicken sheds- often holding as many as four hundred thousand chickens in one long building. Chickens live in close, cramped quarters, usually in darkness, frightened and falling all over one another. They end their lives by being unceremoniously dumped into a truck, driven down the highway to one of the plants (plenty of ‘em down around Salisbury), and butchered on an assembly line. Stainless steel belts filled the screen- workers in gloves and hairnets and masks each making one cut, each only doing one part of the process, as fast as possible- and certainly not talking to each other. I had to lean over to the person next to me and point out the difference- our slaughter was a community event- people came to see their chickens before picking them up, they brought their kids, they talked and caught up and brought snacks. Not so in the poultry industry.

Smith interviews Jim Perdue, Chairman of Perdue Farms, one of the biggest poultry growers on the shore. Perdue argues that to succeed in business you need efficiency- and “efficiency is often size. Things had to become bigger to keep costs lower.” And this does indeed keep prices down. But chickens on the Delmarva, in addition to providing cheap chicken, produce about 1.5 billion pounds of manure. A year. And there’s not a whole lot you can do with 1.5 billion pounds of chicken s***.

Instead, a lot of the nutrients are washed into the bay. At one site where manure tainted water was running off into the bay, E. coli counts were found to be 48,392 colonies. The standard for clean water is 126. Arsenic was found at 9 times the standard levels- not to mention the high doses of nitrogen and phosphorus, which cause the algae blooms that suck the oxygen from the bay and cause massive fish kills every year.

This was no surprise to me. After all, there was a reason I was only going to eat chicken from a farm where the chickens are raised on grass, and where the manure is just tramped down into the soil, where new grass grows up out of it. You can only do so many chickens this way, and chances are it is a far more expensive process. It is nowhere near efficient. Efficiency doesn’t even begin to account for expenses like pausing in cleaning a chicken to explain to a child why we saved out all the livers (for fishing) and what that green stuff was (accidentally slicing into a gall bladder). Not to mention that most of us had never butchered a chicken before, and kept pausing to compare techniques and debate over whether or not we’d gotten the lungs out (they are tricky little things).

The one problem I had with the film was its’ sideways attack on farmers. No, it’s not right that farmers allow so many nutrients to wash away from their chicken operations that the bay is barely functional. But the farmers are not the only culprit. The film spent a long time attacking the poultry industry- the CEOs who could very easily assist their farmers in upgrading their farms to manage wastewater and to prevent those nutrients from escaping into the bay- but who will not do so because of the cost. They certainly share a far greater portion of the blame than many of the farmers, who aren’t given a whole lot of options if they want to keep their land.

But there is one other place where the blame can squarely fall. After all, would Perdue produce millions and millions of chickens if no one was eating them?

What if the millions of people who eat chicken EVERY DAY demanded that chicken operations prevented those pollutants from running off into the water? What if millions of people actually visited the chickens they were eating, and then watched them being slaughtered, and took a turn at helping with the butchering?

Do you think we’d still have the system we do?

You can watch the full PBS special here: Poisoned Waters

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