Saturday, August 06, 2005
Processing Plants And Psychology
A proponent of meat-lite or vegetarian diets, I sometimes feel resented by meat-eating family members, friends, and acquaintances. Their resentment may be the result of a guilty conscience, a conviction that vegetarian diets are unhealthy, or some combination of the two. But because it takes a long while to explain my personal approach, and because quiet examples are better than loud ones, I don't expend a lot of breath defending my diet. In fact, I'm irritated by vegetarians who make a fuss about their choice, say hateful things about meat-eaters, or make a morality play out of every public meal. This Washington Post piece, though, describes an aspect of the meat industry that gets little attention, even from "fundamentalist" vegetarians and animal rights activists.
The work conditions faced by meat packing employees are deplorable. Better monitoring of work place practices and of the psychological needs of the employees is needed. The psychological stresses of meat industry employment are too often overlooked. Although I'm comfortable butchering my own meat (and feel that every meat-eater should be required to gut and prepare at least one of each species they plan to consume in the course of their lifetime), the assembly line approach of the meat industry can skew one's relationship with death. As the Washington Post article mentions, workers must use "caustic chemicals and high-powered hoses to remove blood, bone and gristle from moving machinery parts." The caustic chemicals are dangerous, of course, but what of the folks who spend all day living amongst the gore-covered machinery? For them, does death cease to be death?
The region of Virginia where I spent my youth supported many chicken farms and several large-scale "processing" plants belonging to Perdue, Holly Farms and Tyson. The stench emanating from these plants - the smell of excrement and rotting guts - drew apocalyptic flocks of gulls. Likewise, the minimum wage jobs drew a steady line of ashen-faced employees who, in order to cope in such a work environment, ceased to view chickens as life forms. The bird was reduced to mere product. Such a corrosion of moral and ethical reasoning signals, in my mind, a critical breakdown in our understanding of humanity's place in the world.
A reduced demand for meat would gradually vacate most of these jobs. Yes, that's "bad for the economy," but what's bad for the economy isn't always bad for our spirit.
Photo credit: The Baltimore Sun