If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian. Paul McCartney
One thing the Internet has done: brought us closer to animals. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and YouTube are filled with photos and videos of furry or feathered creatures that millions of us find adorable, touching, and funny. Last week, the world was mesmerized by the sight of a raccoon (yes, a raccoon!) scaling a building in Minneapolis. For a day we forgot that raccoons can be nasty, violent creatures that carry disease. That YouTube video made the mammal look sweet and vulnerable.
Chickens in warehouses
We don’t, of course, eat raccoons, but many other members of the animal kingdom often turn up on our plates. Few of us stop to think about how they got there. Mostly, we don’t care to know. We still want to enjoy that juicy McDonald’s burger or Colonel Sanders chicken. Why spoil our appetites by seeing what goes on behind the scenes?
Christopher Quinn’s Eating Animals, produced and narrated by Natalie Portman and based on the bestselling book by Jonathan Safran Foer, is not for the faint of heart. Even before the opening credits, we know we will be seeing horrific scenes inside slaughterhouses. What we don’t expect, however, is to learn that all that slaughtering is also responsible for poisoning our fields and waterways and is contributing anywhere between 14 and 50 percent to climate change. Because so many of these animals are being fed antibiotics – 80 percent of antibiotics manufactured by drug companies are used for factory farming – the public is now being threatened by superbugs.
Frank Reese with his turkeys
Eating Animals isn’t out to make all of us vegetarians, although some probably will take that route after seeing the film. What Quinn and others show is how having 99 percent of our meat produced by the factory-farming system, dominated by large corporations, is not only squeezing out the small farmers, once the life blood of our country, but also is resulting in meat that is less safe to consume. The heroes of this film are those small farmers, like Frank Reese of Kansas, who allows his chickens and turkeys to roam free and actually gets choked up when it’s time to send them to market. Contrast that with the fate of the farmer who sold out to Purdue Farms and now, to keep up, has his chickens crammed into warehouses where many of the birds end up sick and diseased.
North Carolina comes off as one state that seems determined to favor big agri-business over the public’s welfare. Flying over an area dominated by pig farms, we see huge pools of pink water, runoff containing blood and feces which leeches into the groundwater. Those trying to expose pollution or mistreatment of animals find themselves targeted by the powerful corporations. So-called Ag-Gag legislation has been passed by more than half of the state legislatures in the country, aimed to silence whistleblowers and make it difficult for journalists to cover what’s happening inside those slaughterhouses. One determined whistleblower profiled in the film battles and loses everything, even his wife.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t come off well in this documentary. A government agency that is charged with protecting the public’s health through food inspections and enforcing regulations already on the books has opted instead to protect factory-farming.
Foer’s book and Quinn’s film aren’t the first to uncover the horrors being visited on animals, people, and the environment by our nation’s system for producing meat. In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, exposed abuses in the meatpacking industry that actually led to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Today, no new legislation is on the horizon and the laws on the books are not being rigorously enforced.
Eating Animals attempts to end on an upbeat note, focusing on companies that are promoting plant-based burgers and other foods, but that progress is negated when we learn that Niman Ranch, famed for its humane treatment of animals, was purchased by poultry giant Purdue Farms.
Photos courtesy of Sundance Selects