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vegetarians on the kill floor

What did you have for dinner? Do you know where it came from? Ok, from the grocery store (or the fast food restaurant). What about before that? Do you know where it came from before that? Do you know what it cost to get from there to your plate?

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the Richard Linklater film Fast Food Nation, which was an eye opening experience. Now, I haven’t read the book yet by Eric Schlosser, but it’s on my shelf. The film, however, got me thinking. Let me state for the record that I don’t eat meat–except for fish (if that’s meat), but I can’t say that I know where all my food comes from either. And worse yet, I can’t tell you the true cost of what I eat. You see, that’s what the film really hits on–that there is a hidden cost to America’s collective love of beef–a human cost. Now, I expected that this film would strive to gross me out a little with regard to fast food and the meat packing industry, but honestly, I thought the only victims in the story were going to be bovine. Instead, the film left me with a more unsettling reality. The meat packing industry as depicted in Linklater’s film lays waste not only to cattle, but people as well. The film focuses much of its attention on the plight of illegal immigrant workers from Mexico who make a long and dangerous journey for the promise of something better, but instead find themselves pressured into the perils of working at a meatpacking plant under the domination of a cruel boss (backed by a heartless corporation), who wields his power in truly despicable ways.

While the film never preaches, it does leave the astute viewer feeling complicit to these crimes. Isn’t it after all the consumer that drives the market? Here’s a clip:


There’s a real disconnect between people nowadays and their food. Now, this isn’t really something the film addressed directly, but it reminded me of an essay I read by Wendell Berry entitled “The Pleasure of Eating.” He asserts that there is a politics to food, but consumers, he argues, are not actively engaged here. Rather, they tend to see themselves as “mere consumers–passive, uncritical, and dependent.” This is what the food industry wants. A distance between food production and food consumption, as if the consumption is not part of this agricultural process but something detached altogether. We have been persuaded by the food industry to prefer our food already prepared, Berry reminds us; it is convenient after all, and less messy. However, it also works to further distance us from the origins of this food. Any work to make our food ready to consume subtly reminds us that it isn’t just food, but that it came from somewhere. The food industry, if possible, would like to blot this memory out of existence. “The ideal industrial food consumer,” according to Berry, “would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach.” What an image! Berry exaggerates but makes a strong point. We consume our food thoughtlessly. Sure, it’s true that more people are thinking about what they eat, as people are growing increasingly health-conscious. But health-conscious is selfish. I’m not talking about an awareness of calories, carbs, fiber, or fat. I’m talking about the people affected as my prepacked processed food doodle gets from the earth to the corporation to my shopping cart and eventually to my microwave. Who is hurt along the way? Were any lives ruined? I never think about that. I am disconnected. I am a consumer.

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